Maintaining Body Positivity Throughout the Holiday Season and Beyond

In 2020, Michelle Obama sat down with Oprah Winfrey and was asked the meaningful question: “What do you appreciate most now about your body today?”

Instead of singling out a specific aspect of her body, the former First Lady took the opportunity to lay out her approach to body positivity, saying: “It’s mine, all mine. And it’s a healthy body that works every day, and I try hard not to judge it.” She went on to say that she always takes care to appreciate her body and spends time getting to know it, as it has changed throughout her life. This approach to body positivity is something that we can all learn from, especially as the holiday season approaches.

For many people, maintaining body positivity during a break in their routine can be challenging. Seeing family and friends brings up a variety of emotions, ranging from excitement and delight, to anxiety and stress. Regardless of the emotions we experience, the words they say and the habits that they model for us can easily contribute to a negative body image.

What is Negative Body Image? 

Negative body image occurs when we’re overly focused on our physical appearance and have a negative perception or feeling about how we look, our size, or how our body works. 

Having a negative body image is associated with a wide variety of mental and physical health conditions, such as mood disorders, disordered eating, low self-esteem, and self-harm. If we are unable to reverse our thinking and adopt more body positivity, these feelings can overwhelm us, leading to ongoing pain and stress.

There isn’t one single factor that can contribute to a negative body image. Dissatisfaction with our bodies tends to peak in adolescence and early adulthood, at 35% to 81% in girls and from 16% to 55% in boys. In addition to socio-economic factors, gender, and family relationships, there are several other external factors that can influence our body image.   

Social Media

The rise of social media has had a largely negative impact on eating disorders and how many of us view our bodies. As we scroll through social media, regardless of the platform we choose, we are continually exposed to people presenting the very best version of their bodies through flattering camera angles, filters, diets, and so much more. Being exposed to these bodies that are both unrealistic and idealistic can lead us to believe that we should look a certain way. It’s even more difficult for children and young adults to sort through what is “reality” and what is fantasy, so it’s important to make sure you have healthy discussions with them about what they are seeing on their own social media feeds.

Eating Disorders

The relationship between body image and eating disorders is complex. Having a negative body image is a frequent gateway to disordered eating, but just because you think negatively about your body doesn’t mean that you’ll develop an eating disorder. However, many doctors and researchers believe that improving body image can help mitigate our risk for an eating disorder, to the extent that they often focus prevention efforts in this area. 

Some ideas on how to do this include engaging with people who have a more positive body image, practicing positive self-talk, and engaging with therapy. 

Tips to Help Yourself Maintain Body Positivity Through the Holidays

There are so many factors that can influence how we feel about our bodies. However, the holidays bring about their own unique set of challenges. Here are a few steps you can take to set up a more body-positive environment for yourself this holiday season.   

Avoid food and body talk. Everyone has different thoughts and feelings with regards to food and eating habits, and it’s easy to be influenced by the opinions of others. The next time food talk or body talk comes up in conversation, the easiest and safest thing to do is avoid engaging entirely. Things that we’ve been told are complimentary (“Have you lost weight? You look amazing!”) could be potentially triggering to someone struggling with disordered eating or negative body image. Instead of making comments about someone’s appearance or their food intake, discuss something more neutral like their interests or hobbies.  

Challenge notions about ‘earning’ food. During the holidays, many people justify overeating by saying that they’ll just eat less later on, or exercise more to work off the calories. While exercise and eating are both normal parts of any healthy lifestyle, this notion that we can ‘earn’ food can be problematic. Instead of trading off exercise or abstention for food, follow the promptings of your body, and exercise or eat whenever it feels right for you. Fixating on ‘trading off’ exercise for food can lead to unhealthy patterns of disordered eating, especially for those who have previously struggled with it. 

Focus on improving your overall diet. Focusing on food’s nutritional value, rather than its calorie count, can help people feel more confident and body-positive. That doesn’t mean abstaining from your favorite holiday treats entirely, but it does mean that you should try to eat in a healthier way overall. You can find lots of healthy recipes from sources like Sprouted Kitchen and 101 Cookbooks.

 Surround yourself with body positivity. While social media has the potential to have a negative effect on a person’s body image, using it thoughtfully to engage with body-positive resources can help mitigate this negativity. Surrounding ourselves with inspirational content focused on improving body positivity can help us feel more confident. Here are some great examples: 

Resources for Clinicians

Since body image is such a multi-faceted issue, it can be hard for clinicians to know how to help clients who are struggling with it. Unfortunately, many clinicians have received limited formal training in areas like eating disorders, a condition that affects 10% to 15% of American women. Fortunately, there are resources out there to help.

Wishing you joy, peace and good health this holiday season.

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