dealing with diet culture, body image and food anxiety during the holidays
Q & A with Jayne Mattingly, MA, CEO of Recovery Love and Care
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i don’t know about you, but i’m feeling anxious about the holidays
So, so, so excited to share this extremely timely Q & A with you. I spoke to the incredible Jayne Mattingly about how to ease anxieties around food and body image during the holidays, how to steer family conversations away from your weight or diets, and even what to wear to feel your best this holiday season.
Jayne is the owner of Recovery Love and Care, an eating disorder recovery coaching practice. She also trains people to become recovery coaches themselves. You can read more about Jayne and Recovery Love and Care on her website or on Instagram.
For those of you in ED recovery, what do you do to stay on track with your recovery during the holiday season? Share it with me!
Q & A with Jayne Mattingly, MA, CEO of Recovery Love and Care
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JG: So the first question is, can you tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do?
JM: I am a Master's level Clinical Mental Health Counseling recovery coach. I got my Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. I worked as a therapist, and having been through my own [eating disorder] recovery, I just noticed a big gap within treatments. And then because of my illness, and where I was, I just was like, I'm going to stick with this other route of coaching. So, I started the virtual practice back in 2015-2016, and then I built it into a group practice. And then on top of that, I built upon the need for recovery coaches who want to be trained and how my program was different than other people’s, so I created the RLC coaching curriculum. I’m definitely an entrepreneur at heart.
JG: The holidays are coming up. Whether you have an eating disorder, or you're in recovery, or neither of those things, the holidays can be kind of loaded around food, body image and diet culture. Why do you think that that is?
JM: Oh, God. Well, first off, Thanksgiving is such a disordered holiday in itself. I mean, we're told to get together with family that we haven't seen for months and months and months, and to act like we're the happiest ever and to act like we're incredibly grateful. But to also lie about the holiday and say that this is all about coming together and being grateful, but really it was a massacre where we just took people's land and gave them infections and smallpox and we don't talk about it. It's just a lie. And then we talk about how grateful we are and then at the same time, we starve ourselves the whole day, go for a turkey trot, and then stuff ourselves with food. I know a family that used to weigh themselves after the meal, whoever gained the most won money.
JG: No. Oh my god. Wow.
JM: Yeah, I remember she was from an Irish Catholic family in Chicago, so many siblings, and she was like, ‘I love our holiday tradition. We all weigh in before and then after we eat, weigh in again, and whoever gains the most, wins.’
JG: Oh, man. Wow.
JM: And so it's like, here we are starving, saying ‘I'm so grateful.’ And then this scarcity mindset of saying we have to be so grateful for everything that's here, your mom and your grandma slaved away in the kitchen all day, and they made incredibly delicious ‘forbidden’ food that you can only have on this day. So you better be really grateful about it, and eat a bunch, but we're going to talk about how guilty we're going to feel tomorrow. I hate it, and and I love it at the same time, because, you know, I'm American. And then the drinking, like if you're from the Midwest, there’s the blackout Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It's just so disordered. It's so overly abundant, but based in scarcity. And then I think the holidays are filled with an incredible amount of pressure. People go into debt trying to just buy everything for their family, meet people's Christmas wishes, it's so sad. There's so much stress around the holidays. And I think there's a lot of trauma because it's the time where we notice that our loved ones aren't there anymore, things are changing, we're not little kids anymore, we see the flaws in our parents. There's alcohol involved, so it gets really sloppy. And then everyone just wants to talk about surface level stuff, and that tends to usually be diet culture, because that's like, a watering hole [subject]. It's kind of what everyone kind of can talk about. It's interesting, [my husband] Sean, being from a family that's not that close and wasn't into the holidays, joined this family full of women that's incredibly close and incredibly into the holidays. And he is like, ‘it's so funny, you and your whole family, you, your sisters and your mom and your cousins say how much you love Christmas and it's the best time of the year and you're obsessed with Christmas, and you all turn into crazy people.’ He's like, ‘you all end up crying, you all end up with these crazy expectations.’ And it's true. It’s like this tradition of coming together, being extravagant, making sure we get all the traditions correct, right and perfect. And it becomes these unmanageable expectations. And then we just take it out on our bodies, I think is what usually happens.
JG: Yeah. I know at my family functions and friend functions during the holidays, diet culture or talk about bodies often comes up. One thing that I really struggle with in recovery is that [in the thick of my eating disorder] people who hadn’t seen me for a long time would tell me I looked good. And then [post recovery], they wouldn’t say anything at all. And that silence was really loud because it was like, every other holiday when I saw you [and I was sick], you thought I looked good. And now I don't look good? It messed with my mind. So what would be your advice to somebody whose family or friends brings up their appearances, brings up dieting, or makes comments about food and bodies?
JM: I think it depends. But if we were to generalize it, set yourself up for success. So remember we cannot change other people, and it sucks that we can't do that, and it really sucks when it's people we love. And yeah, we can work on changing the culture, but when you're vulnerable, it’s not the time. Like it's not the time to be a social justice warrior when your grandma is picking apart your weight. It's just not the time. Right? So what we do is we set ourself up for success. And usually I tell people to travel with a self care kit. And I really mean it, something that pulls them away. Julia and I talk about this a lot. In our recovery, our family started being like, ‘why are you going upstairs?’ during the holidays and stuff. I was like ‘because I’m just going to go read a book, I need some space.’ You can also plan to take a yin yoga class or take a walk with the dog while the family is having happy hour. Pulling yourself out, having planned moments, so that you can take yourself out of the craziness. Because I think we get sucked in. And then what happens is we mind-read and we project. Their silence is so loud, and that's really, really valid. And we don't know why. We can assume why, but we don't know why. They might be scared because they might know you're in recovery, and they don't know what to say. And they're just trying to actually be respectful.
JM: But also, if they do say something, and they know you have an eating disorder, they might think that's the right thing to say. Like, there's a select generation and cohort of people that think being in eating disorder recovery, being healed from an eating disorder, means you're on a diet. They'll be like, ‘Oh, well, Jayne eats so healthy’ or ‘Jayne knows there's no calories in that.’ And they know my job is in healing and recovery of eating disorders. But I think that they think eating disorder recovery is being a skinny person. Because that's kind of what it used to be when our parents were growing up, people with eating disorders went to hospitals, and once they got to a specific weight, they were told to stop. And you were forever kind of on a diet.
JG: It’s so interesting to think about. There is a bit of a generational gap [in understanding eating disorders and views on diets] and the holidays definitely highlight that.
JM: Yeah, because you’re with all of the generations. Then there is this other piece, I think we all feel really invisible during the holidays. And when we do, we go to our watering hole [conversation topics], we go to the thing where we all feel safe. And that's diet culture. And it's toxic and sad. But why is women’s watering hole [topic] diet culture, but men's is sports and football?
JG: Do you have any other subjects or questions people can ask their family to kind of redirect or change the conversation if diet culture comes up? Are there any go-to subjects that you think would be good to pivot to?
JM: Usually, I always say pivot to a subject that brings everyone joy. So usually, that's TV, movies and music. ‘What shows are you watching?’ ‘Oh, I'm loving this new music by Taylor Swift, Grandma let me tell you about it.’ Those are safe zones. Politics, religion, bodies, food, we don't need to be talking about that at family parties. I think sometimes then, too, because we feel invisible, because we feel overwhelmed, sometimes then we overshare at these gatherings, we pour ourselves an extra glass of eggnog and we overshare, we end up crying, we end up self-sabotaging. And oversharing is usually a sign that we feel unsafe, and that we feel we have to explain ourselves. So usually, I have a mantra because I'm an over-sharer when I get anxious. Like, Sean's family is always like, ‘Why the hell is she talking?’ And I’m like, ‘let me tell you about my trauma.’ And so now, I tell myself, ‘I am safe. I don't have to explain myself. Everything is good.’ And honestly, when Sean's family comes in, or at a high-anxiety, highly triggering event, I don't drink. I usually have specific topics out that I'll talk about, we'll play a game, games are always really fun, holiday games, things like that.
JG: If somebody insists on bringing up diet culture stuff to you, what do you recommend people say in return?
JM: I would either say pivot and ask them to talk about themselves, or use it as a learning experience and say, ‘Oh, I no longer subscribe to that, I'm really working on my wellness and I'm learning that's really not helpful for my mental health.’ Or something like ‘That's a really boring subject, let's talk about something else.’
JG: I don't know if I would ever have the balls to say that.
JM: I know. I have said it to someone I really don't like, and that's about it. I don't think I could ever bring it up to a family member, you know?
JG: Yeah. But I think it might be powerful enough to just think it and then say something else.
JM: I mean, I've said that about my illness before when people start asking me invasive questions at a family party, and they're like, ‘Oh, my God, so what are your symptoms? How are you feeling?’ And I'm like ‘This is boring. You don't want to hear about my medical history.’
JG: It's true, though, right? Why are we talking about medical issues and things like that at a family party? That’s not the time or place.
JM: Not the time or place. It's also not the time or place to ask someone what they're going to do with their life, or what their future plans are, or if they're going to get married or have kids.
JG: Re-fucking-tweet. I agree with everything you said. I can think back to a few Christmases ago and somebody had said something that got under my skin, and then maybe 20 minutes later, I was crying hysterically in the kitchen to my aunt. But there is just so much tension and heightened pressure and emotions. And then you throw in anxiety around your body and food into that mix. It boils up to the surface at some point. With Thanksgiving coming up, it’s a food-focused holiday. And as you said, there is often a lot of ‘forbidden’ foods. What would your advice be to someone who is stressed about that meal? Or stressed about restricting or binging or purging or whatever their behavior or thoughts might be? What would be your advice for dealing with that, when you are kind of being forced to sit down at the table and confront it all?
JM: Okay, well, the first being that no one is forcing you, so you do not have to partake. If it's going to be too much, don't partake. If, truly, the trigger is going to set you over the edge, don't partake. If you think you can handle it, but it might end in some self-sabotage, then start normalizing meal. Start having sweet potatoes and stuffing this week in your dinner, in lunch and in breakfast. Add the forbidden foods into your meals so that you aren't so overwhelmed by all these items. Because it's just food, and our bodies can handle a shit ton of food. One night, one day, one week, does not change our body. And reminding ourselves of that. But taking it slow. We don't have to partake in the binging culture of it. We can over eat and we're allowed to, we can go back for seconds. But I think normalizing the food is like probably the best thing you can do.
JG: Right. Those foods are all over the grocery store right now. There's nothing stopping you from having stuffing or whatever.
JM: You can have pumpkin pie for breakfast! Pumpkin pie is a perfectly fine breakfast. Like, you need to add protein to it. I mean, if I had pumpkin pie with no protein in the morning, I'd be shaky within an hour. So I’d probably have a slice of pumpkin pie with some sausage and fruit on the side. That's a great breakfast.
JG: That sounds so good. Something that I struggle with, and I imagine a lot of other people do, too, is the clothing I’m wearing to holiday events. Because there's this pressure to look good. But also, we're eating a lot of food and so you want to be comfortable. What's your advice to people about what should they wear to feel their best and feel safe and feel comfortable?
JM: Exactly that. Something that makes them feel comfortable and safe. Make a Pinterest board. Paper bag pants are the way to go. If I'm going to leave the house, it's paper bag pants. They are high waisted, kind of A-line, and they can bunch at the ankle. Really flattering. They go with all body types, all curves. And then wear a cropped sweater. Easy. Or even better, more of like a tighter cropped shirt that goes right to the paper bag pant and then a super long cardigan.
JG: Yeah. Or, I love a good oversized sweater with tights.
JM: Exactly. Whatever makes you feel comfy and confident and safe.
JG: You mentioned a book, but what else would be in your self care kit? If you do find yourself struggling, what do you recommend people do in that moment?
JM: I say think of things that ignite all five senses. So usually, I'll bring some essential oils or something like that to just kind of distract me. I will sometimes even bring something to rub, like a rock, a crystal or a fidget spinner. Sometimes people have anxiety rings. I usually bring my full skincare routine and I’ll do my skincare. Nail polish is another big one that you can do. Play-dough. Coloring books. I got into knitting last year, that was a big thing for me because you can just totally zone out and knit while people talk about annoying things. Podcasts, journaling, books. And you can always say you have a meeting, and go upstairs.
JG: Do you have any other tips or words of wisdom for people that we didn't talk about? Anything else that you think would be helpful for people to know?
JM: I mean, I think one really sensitive thing is when we're doing really well in our recovery, that first time you're doing really well and you're no longer in a valley, that's the most fragile time of recovery and reminding yourself of that. A holiday can come up real fucking quick and set you back. And that's normal and okay, but we can set ourselves up for success. So it doesn't have to end in tragedy. We're deserving of a good time.
Here are some more resources to help you get through the holidays:
my self-care kit
Above, Jayne spoke about creating a self-care kit to help you stay grounded during the holiday season. Here are some things I’m putting in my own kit:
A walk with my dog while listening to the Confident Collective podcast
A long shower with an aromatherapy shower steamer
A phone call to my best friend
A post-it note listing the reasons I want recovery in my purse
Planning an exciting breakfast to eat on Thanksgiving morning (hello, bacon egg and cheese!)