Thanksgiving can be a lightning rod. Many people have complicated family relationships, particularly with their family of origin. There are divorces, remarriages, estrangements, old wounds, and painful losses. Sometimes, we have a circle of friends who are our "real," albeit adopted, family.
Combine complicated family dynamics with issues surrounding eating, weight, and body image, and you get…Thanksgiving. We've all heard that there are two taboo topics of conversation: politics and religion. I recommend expanding that list.
Most of us have a complicated relationship with food. The majority of Americans are overweight or obese and most want to lose weight. Disordered eating and/or negative body image is also common. While eating disorders are more common in women, eating disorders affect women and men regardless of race, ethnicity, size, weight, or socio-economic status. You can't tell by looking at someone whether (s)he has an eating disorder. Many people suffer in silence and secrecy, so you may have a family member with an eating disorder and not know it.
To avoid potential conversation landmines this Thanksgiving, think POWER:
Here are 5 POWER Tips that go beyond politics and religion. Share them with your loved ones this Thanksgiving.
- DON'T comment on others' weight. Many families commonly make "appearance-oriented" comments, like "You look great! Have you lost weight??" Even such well-meaning, weight-related comments, however, can be interpreted negatively by some people and trigger anxiety and self-consciousness. Only in rare and extreme cases, such as when a young adult comes home from college for Thanksgiving having obviously lost an alarming amount of weight, is it urgent that a close family member intervene. In the vast majority of cases, however, the Thanksgiving dinner table is not the time to comment on someone's weight. Give your family's "Weight Police" the day off for Thanksgiving and consider, "It's such a pleasure to see you," instead…it's often what people really mean anyway.
- DON'T comment on your own weight. People of all sizes can publicly bemoan their weight (e.g., "I'm so fat and disgusting! I shouldn't even be eating this."). While this may simply reflect reassurance-seeking about one's weight, it can make others feel awkward and uncomfortable…particularly during a holiday feast ("Wow, if she thinks she's fat, what must she be thinking about me? Does she think I shouldn't be eating this?"). There's simply no effective public response to publicly shared, weight-based self-criticism (see #1), and it can trigger others' insecurities. Give your "inner-critic" the day off; if that's impossible, keep his vitriol to yourself.
- GUESTS: DO bring food you can eat if you follow a special diet (e.g., gluten-free, Paleo, kosher, vegan, etc.). Hosting a large holiday gathering is stressful. It's a lot of work, even without any guests with dietary restrictions. Rather than asking if you can bring something to Thanksgiving dinner, just tell your host, in advance, what you'd like to bring, and make enough for others to try some. Bring a serving dish and spoon (disposable ones if your host keeps a kosher kitchen). Expecting your host to prepare a special meal just for you….invites resentment (and potential unpopularity). Ensuring you don't inconvenience your host…shows respect and consideration.
- HOSTS: DO be sensitive to guests of all sizes. Just like you'd accommodate your younger guests with a booster seat, larger friends and family may appreciate comparable accommodations. For example, people of larger size are often more comfortable in chairs without arms. Thanksgiving dinner is often "cozy" with many guests crowded around a table in a tight space. "Big" people, whether or not they have obesity, often prefer sitting where they do not have to uncomfortably squeeze past many other guests in order to leave the table. Particularly if you're hosting a large group in a smaller space, consider using place cards to discreetly ensure the comfort, dignity, and respect of all your guests.
- DON'T proselytize, even if your fitness regimen is "The Way." Don't mistake polite attentiveness for fascination. People's workouts are often boring to everyone but themselves. Uncle Artie and Aunt Sheila may feel awkward or excluded because they have nothing to contribute to the sermon conversation. Know your audience: neither of them is ever going to try CrossFit or run Broad Street.
Here's the truth: even dear family members are generally not that interested in your fitness regimen….especially if they're already seeing the details of every "run" you auto-post on Facebook. (Agree or disagree? Sound off in the comments.)
So, what's left to talk about this Thanksgiving? Gratitude. To whom, and for what, are you grateful this Thanksgiving? Life is short and uncertain. DO give thanks, and if all else fails — play Adele.
Stacey C. Cahn, PhD is associate professor of clinical psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM). Dr. Cahn specializes in obesity, weight stigma, eating disorders, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Dr. Cahn is thankful for her kind and contentious editor, Kelly O'Shea and all the Philly.com readers. She would also like to acknowledge Jennifer Konidaris' helpful comments on this article.