How To Stay Body Positive During The Holidays, When We're Told To Diet & Indulge At The Same Time

by Marie Southard Ospina

For some of us, late fall and early winter are often the best of times and the worst of times. If you're anything like me, staying body positive during the holidays becomes imperative as a result. It starts with Halloween, as supermarkets, billboards, subway ads, television advertisements, and a great aunt or two begin to epitomize contradiction. As I walk into the local ShopRite in my dad's neighborhood, for instance, I'm greeted by baskets full of every candy I can imagine. Nerds, Milk Duds, Hershey bars, Milky Way, and Twizzlers are all there, plus some I've never heard of but instantly want.

The very essence of Halloween is overindulgence. Trick-or-treaters of all ages compete to acquire the most sweet treats on the block, as adults sip autumnal cocktails packed with double cream and Baileys. Yet in that same supermarket, the tabloids and glossy magazines are arguably more aggressive than at any other time of year. How to lose 10 pounds in two weeks. Avoid holiday weight gain with these 400-calorie substitutes for Thanksgiving favorites. Drop the belly fat now, before Christmas dinner comes to bite you. How to hide your double chin while eating that roast dinner (OK, I may have made that one up).

Holiday season is indisputably intertwined with food. For many families, it's the prime time of year for reunions with loved ones. We come together with friends, family, or chosen family, and we consume. We tell stories at the dinner table, laughing over gravy-drenched turkey. One grandmother might spend weeks home baking cakes, brownies, and Tiramisus for the occasion, while a nephew brings his prized cheesy potatoes to the forefront. Food is the epicenter, as those same tabloids and glossy magazines tell us. Yet all at once, we are told not to allow our "gluttony" to show. We are conditioned to eat and eat more, but to not look as though we have. We're told to diet and calorie-count and waist-cinch. And once it's all over and the new year is reigned in, we're spoon fed our biggest aspiration for the year: We must resolve to lose weight.

It can be incredibly difficult to navigate this time of year if you're a person who's struggled with body image, if you're a person whose figure does not align with aspirational tropes of beauty, or if you're a person who's subjected to body policing by those around you.

For me, Christmas was always the worst part. I'd look forward to seeing my cousins, aunts, uncles, and the countless members of my mother's large, Colombian family. My mouth watered at the thought of arroz con pollo and tres leches cake. Even so, I could never enjoy the anticipation for long. I knew that once we were all crammed into a house far too small to accommodate us all, my belly would be on display. By 10 years old, my weight was already a prime subject of conversation. Was I exercising enough? Why was I letting the beauty of my face waste away? Didn't I realize I had potential?

Then someone would hand me a second or third portion of pie. Food was bonding. Food was love. Food was the thing that had brought us all together. We should be so thankful. We should, all at once, be so thin.

So how do you stay body positive during all of that? The mixed messaging hasn't changed since I was a kid. Hell, in some ways the advent of social media and endless interconnectivity online make all those contradictions instantly more accessible. How can you just enjoy yourself? How can you continue to love yourself when so many voices around you insist that you are unloveable if you gain weight, or eat too much, or don't resolve to drop five sizes come January? How can you appreciate your "holiday body" if and when you do gain weight?

The most valuable tool for me, personally, has been controlling my media intake. I may not be able to swap the billboards or the magazines, but I can curate my Instagram page and news feeds. I can avoid tags and headlines that I know will be full of diet talk. I can search only for affirming, uplifting hashtags instead. Whether that be #sizeacceptance, or #fatpositive, or #healthateverysize, or #goldenconfidence, I can inundate my life with beautiful people living beautiful lives at all sizes. I can blind myself with the radiance of other humans' self-love, until my own is never far from my grasp.

Setting those parameters IRL isn't impossible, either. Some families or friends are harder to crack, but many will at least budge an inch or two. Before coming together with the people you know are prone to body policing and criticizing, try having a conversation. Try telling them that you'd appreciate if your body, weight, or calorie intake were untouchable subjects. Explain, in earnest, that your body and what you do with it are of no concern to anyone who isn't living in your body. You may have to set those boundaries again — reminding them when they slip up (and they will). But anyone who genuinely cares for you should hopefully listen, in time. They may never understand. Many of my relatives certainly never will. Even so, most of them now know not to talk about my body. I consider that a win.

As for the holiday weight gain, writer and body image activist Melissa A. Fabello put things into perspective recently. "When the weather turns cold, we often find ourselves in a (false) predicament: On the one hand, we’re craving heavier, fattier, more calorie-dense foods," she wrote on Instagram. "On the other, we’re being told that holiday season weight gain is practically sinful."

"Stop and think about that for a second," she added. "Our environments are becoming cold af. Our bodies need insulation to literally save us from freezing to death. And yet, we’re denying our bodies’ natural, evolutionary needs in order to avoid a few pounds. WHAT!? You’re going to gain weight in the winter. Not because you lack willpower or self-control or because Thanksgiving leftovers are in the fridge. But because fat protects us from the elements. 🌨 And that’s actually an incredible thing that our body does for us!"

This is something worth thinking about. Gaining weight — regardless of how many cheesecakes you did or didn't shove into your face — may naturally happen at this time of year. There are evolutionary reasons for this, all rooted in survival. While it's true that some of your new pounds may come down to the cheesecake, and not some mammalian predisposition, the point stands: That fat will protect you from the elements. It'll encourage hibernation and rest, in anticipation for a new year likely filled with new challenges and adventures. It'll be soft and warm and cuddly. As all fat is, regardless of the weather.

Staying body positive during the holidays often comes down to unpacking and reframing our deeply rooted ideas about bodies and fat and beauty. Sometimes this kind of work — the mental, emotional kind — is the most difficult of all. Sometimes, that's what makes it a necessity. A life-changing necessity.

And so, the one message you need to listen to this holiday is simple: It's a time of year for love, for happiness, for hope, for reflection. None of that requires a smaller waist line. None of it ever will.