Remind yourself that you are enough! Your worth and value are not based on your body size. Seek out body positive resources via books and social media that help you let go of body shame and support you in accepting, appreciating, and respecting your body.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Judith Matz, LCSW, therapist, speaker, and co-author of The Diet Survivor’s Handbook and Beyond a Shadow of a Diet, and author of the children’s book Amanda’s Big Dream. Judith is committed to helping people understand how diet culture and weight stigma impact physical and mental health and to supporting people in learning how to heal so they can feel at peace with food, their bodies, and themselves. For this series, Judith will take a look at how people can deal with weight-related concerns during stressful holiday gatherings.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?
As a therapist in private practice, I’ve seen how much people internalize body shame about their weight. As a result, they get caught in the diet-binge cycle, typically blaming themselves when the weight returns. Yet research shows that the vast majority of people who go on a diet (and that includes any program or plan with the intentional pursuit of weight loss) will gain it back: one-third to two-thirds end up higher than their pre-diet weight.
I received post-graduate training in the field of eating disorders, and during that time I worked with a medically supervised weight loss program. I witnessed how much time, energy, and money people spent on trying to lose weight. Unfortunately, just about everyone gained the weight back. I observed that the small percentage of people who did manage to maintain their weight loss engaged in unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors typical of eating disorders.
In the early 1990’s, I came across a book that talked about how the deprivation of dieting actually causes overeating. That matched both my professional and personal experiences. I had dieted during high school through graduate school, and during that time I began overeating and bingeing for the first time. I gained weight. Then, during a summer where I took a vacation from my “real life” I also decided to take a vacation from dieting. The result? My eating and weight returned to what was normal for me.
Since that time, I’ve devoted my career to helping people of all sizes develop a nourishing and satisfying relationship with food. Unfortunately, people still have to constantly deal with toxic messages that come from our diet culture including family, friends, colleagues, mental health/health professionals and the media. Part of my role as a therapist is to challenge diet culture and weight stigma so that everyone can feel more at home in their bodies.
With the holiday season upon us, many people are visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy.
One of the biggest factors to consider is respect for boundaries. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” family. Spending time with relatives can put you back in touch with a younger part of yourself, which can make it feel especially challenging at times as you revisit dynamics from earlier in your life. If there was a lot of focus on weight from your family growing up, this time of year can be fraught with anxiety as you anticipate the comments people might make about your weight and/or your food choices.
In a difficult family, you may have to set boundaries over and over that let people know that you don’t want them to comment on your body or food choices. That’s hard enough. But in an unhealthy family, relatives override your request, making it extremely uncomfortable for you and heightening the shame you may already feel about your body and/or triggering disordered eating.
Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. In families where celebrating separately is not an option, what advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?
If you’re working with a mental health professional, it’s a good idea to anticipate what to expect during the holiday season as you get together with family. Since each person’s situation and relationships are unique, what works best for you is likely to be different from someone else.
In terms of eating and weight concerns, think about the typical dynamics that are likely to emerge. For the family members that are supportive of you, express gratitude to them for having your back. For the family members that trigger you, consider whether you can be less reactive. A possible way to change unhealthy patterns is to respond to negative comments differently. For example, instead of responding to a comment like “you shouldn’t be eating that” by saying “I know,” you might respond, “I know you think you’re being helpful to me. However, I’ve learned that I need to be in charge of my own eating, so I’m not going to discuss my choices with you.”
We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?
Toxic family members leave you feeling terrible no matter what you do or say. In that case, it’s best not to engage with them about anything of importance to you, including your own views and needs about food and weight. Do your best to minimize your contact with that person during the holiday event, and try to keep conversation to superficial topics. However, you may ultimately find that you need to disconnect completely from a toxic relative in order to protect yourself.
Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?
One of my clients, Erica, has been working with me to end her Binge Eating Disorder. Her mother is very concerned about her health risks because she’s higher weight and wants her to go on a diet. Erica explained to her mom that dieting will put her at risk of bingeing again, but her mother continues to pressure her during their phone conversations. Erica wants to go home for the holidays but dreads the comments she’s likely to face, even though she knows her mother means well.
In preparation for the visit, I suggested that Erica ask her mom to read a couple of journal articles addressing myths about weight and health that have been helpful in her own recovery. Erica reached out and her mother agreed to read them before she arrives for the holidays. Erica has set a boundary with her mom — they can sit down and have an in person conversation. Erica plans to explain more about the positive strategies she is using to end her out of control eating and take care of her physical health. However, she has also made it clear that outside of that conversation, her mother is not to bring up her weight or eating during the time they spend together. We’ll see how it goes!
Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?
- Practice self-compassion. Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can when it comes to making peace with food and your body. Remember that you’re not alone — lots of people struggle with comments from family members about weight during the holiday season.
- Give yourself permission. You have the right to savor your food as you choose to eat what will satisfy you. You also have the right to say “No, thank you” when you don’t want to eat anymore food. No one else can know what and how much you need. (If you’re currently dieting, be aware that the deprivation of food restrictions is often a set up for overeating in a way that can feel out of control at holiday meals. Consider learning how to break that pattern.)
- Anticipate triggering situations. If it’s likely that the topics of dieting and weight will come up at the table, consider trying to change the subject. Prepare some topics of interest in advance. If that doesn’t work, you may also choose to leave the situation if it feels too uncomfortable or unhealthy for you.
- Use your support system. Make sure you have a way to stay connected with other people in your life. Ask ahead of time if they will be available. Maybe you need to vent. Maybe you need to problem solve. Texts, emails and/or phone conversations can be a life line.
- Remind yourself that you are enough! Your worth and value are not based on your body size. Seek out body positive resources via books and social media that help you let go of body shame and support you in accepting, appreciating, and respecting your body.
What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?
Ask your family member what would feel supportive. Perhaps taking a walk would give them a break from difficult family dynamics. Active listening is one of the most powerful steps you can take. You don’t have to “fix” the problem, and there probably aren’t any simple answers. Instead, do your best to convey that you hear them and that they matter.
As an ally, make sure that you’re aware of your own attitudes toward dieting, food, and weight. After all, we’ve all absorbed diet culture messages that suggest thinness is the path to happiness, success, sexiness, and health. For example, if you’re complimenting someone else’s weight loss, you’re contributing to your loved one’s body shame — even if it’s unintentional. You can learn more about your own weight bias here.
What is your favorite mental health quote? Why do you find it so impactful?
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
We tend to think about mental health on the individual level, but we often forget that societal forces also play a major role in well-being. Being part of a marginalized group impacts mental health, and at the same time, adequate resources for treatment may not be available. When it comes to body size and shape, exposure to weight stigma, in and of itself, affects both physical and mental health including anxiety, shame, and depression. Maya Angelou’s quote asks us to keep learning and raising our awareness so that we can best support people of all identities.
If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?
Embrace the concept that weight is a characteristic, not a behavior. That means supporting people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being without focusing on a number on the scale. Examples of behaviors (depending on accessibility) would include physical activity, good sleep patterns, managing stress through mindfulness or meditation practices, choosing from a wide variety of foods, and honoring cues for hunger and fullness. I would love to see the movement toward body positivity become the norm. In particular the Health At Every Size framework uses a weight inclusive model to support people of all sizes in taking the best care of themselves that they can. I invite you to learn more!
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
Sign up for my free quarterly Diet Survivor’s Group here
Visit the Diet Survivors Group on Facebook
Thank you this was so inspiring!