Now Listen Here

The winter holidays are upon us, which means lots of different things to different people. Putting together the Yule Log. Firing up the menorah. Avoiding society until after 1 January, reeling in horror at the explosion of consumerism and religion. Midnight Mass.

For me, though, the winter holidays always mean one thing: A growing tide of articles guilting people about food, which crests in the few days before Christmas, and then subsides again, only to bubble up again in late October of the following year. It starts with a vague headline in the New York Times Health section, and it only goes downhill from there, getting bolder and bolder and bolder until I fear navigating to any website because I’m afraid of what I will see.

You know the sort of thing I’m talking about. “How to enjoy the holidays, without gaining weight!” “Low calorie potluck ideas” “10 rules to keep your waistline trim this holiday season!” “Eat like the stars/French and fit into your New Year’s gown!” “How to avoid the danger zones at holiday potlucks!”

These articles are aimed almost entirely at women, and they are based on a number of assumptions which irritate the pants right off me. They’re all part of this industrial complex which spends rather a lot of time telling women what to do and how to do it, and reminding them that if they don’t, they will be disgusting and unlovable and possibly fat. They’re also all aimed at reminding women that they don’t know their own bodies or their own minds, that they require guidance because they are clearly too stupid to know how to care for themselves. (And, of course, forcing your body to  become thin when it does not want to be is “caring for yourself,” because being fat is a sign that you don’t take care of yourself, right?)

They’re all based on a lot of simplistic logic about how weight gain actually works, and they’re all based on the core assumption that weight gain automatically happens over the holidays. Because, don’t you  know, everyone spends the holidays eating and not exercising, and everyone knows that makes you fat. Many diet plans create a great deal of stress around the holidays, frightening adherents to keep them “focused” and ensuring that holiday parties ring with the cries of “is there full fat sour cream in the dip?” and “oh no, I couldn’t possibly have another cookie.”

These articles all suggest that women have a responsibility to maintain a specific weight (or lose weight if they aren’t thin enough), and that self-denial is somehow virtuous. You should, these articles maintain, fuss about everything which crosses your lips, at all times. A traditional period of relaxation should become one of intense stress because, of course, you shouldn’t be “slipping” and eating “bad” foods, no matter how much you want to.

And, of course, most people do “slip,” because they are among friends and family and these things look tasty and they want to be companionable. And then they beat themselves up over it, berating themselves for their lack of willpower and self control and feeling guilty. Attending a simple party starts to feel like a minefield as you balance these conflicting messages, and other women aren’t much help, because they’re all reading the same articles and calling themselves “naughty” for taking a square of fudge.

This has really got to stop.

Here’s the thing: The food which you eat is nutritious. There’s no such thing as “bad” food. All food contains nutrition, all food has value. Yes, I know, people have been telling you for your entire life that food falls into different categories, usually fluctuating, depending on which feared nutritional component of the moment is dominating the media (fats, carbs, etc).

And you’re an adult. You get to decide what you want to eat, and when, and how much of it. All those dieting articles are filled with lots of peculiar rules which aren’t designed to assist with weight loss or maintenance, but really to create guilt and unease. To, in fact, make you afraid of food. And of social situations in which food is present. The idea is not to provide people with balanced nutritional advice, but to shame people for wanting food. For enjoying companionship. Because, clearly, this is the best way to lose weight, to shame yourself.

Think about this: If shaming really worked, why isn’t everyone at a socially acceptable weight? It’s because shaming doesn’t work. Shaming makes it worse. Being told that there are good and bad foods is what drives women into the pantry in the middle of the night to devour food alone and in silence. It’s what drives women to binge and purge. It’s what drives women to police the food choices of others; it’s especially infuriating to be restricting yourself and to watch someone else enjoy food.

Shaming is not effective.

So give yourself a little bit of self-respect this holiday season. Ignore the tide of articles filled with conflicting device which all revolves around the idea that you aren’t quite thin enough and that you should just try a little harder to be “beautiful.” Make it clear to other people that you are not going to tolerate shaming and diet talk at gatherings you attend. Don’t count calories. Don’t think about ingredients, unless you have food allergies, religious/ethical concerns, or other reasons for ingredients to actually be an issue.

Just relax, and enjoy the fellowship of food eaten with people you enjoy spending time with. Your body is smart. It can figure out its own scene. It knows what to do,  if you let it. Trust me.

Ultimately, what it boils down to, in the words of Ouyang Dan, is: Eat what you love, love what you eat.

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