Halloween, Candy, and Diet Culture

The Thursday before the Halloween weekend typically marks the beginning of the Halloween festivities. Simply put, the disbursement of Halloween candy, cookies, treats begins. This is such a mixed holiday- the focus is largely on candy and cookies and other treats that diet culture marks as “bad”. For someone with an eating disorder, this can create high levels of anxiety and the eating disorder voice really gets ramped up. But also, diet culture thoughts, voices, comments, and behaviors get ramped up- for everyone. If you haven’t already, you’ve probably heard comments and talk about not keeping candy at your house, eating all your kids candy, working off the candy you ate in the gym or on the pavement, etc, etc, etc.

This list goes on, right?

Well, I have a pretty straight forward challenge for this Halloween.

What if you decided not to participate in the fear of candy, cookies, and treats this Halloween?

I’m not talking about jumping head first into unconditional permission to eat all foods (as much as I’d LOVE that for you), I’m just talking about making one small shift in your acceptance of the message diet culture is sending. Because Halloween is about more than candy and costumes, even. Rather, it can be. My challenge is simple in instruction, difficult in nature:

This Halloween, my challenge is to refrain from participating in diet culture talk about how terrible candy is, how bad you’re being by eating it, how good your friend is from restricting AND refrain from costume comparison.

If you’re interested in this challenge, I’ll give a few quick points and then you can be on your merry way!

  1. Practice Compassion- My friend, this is the time to begin being kind to yourself- and to those around you. One way to combat diet culture, comparison, and ultimately shame is to practice compassion. When you start beating yourself up for eating or even wanting the candy/cookies/treats, stop and be nice to yourself. It’s okay to eat or want candy. It honestly has nothing to do with your value or worth if you eat and enjoy candy. Most fears around this time are binge eating candy (because we have such restrictive thoughts or behaviors around it). Sp let’s say you do just that- you binge eat candy/cookies/treats and then you feel physically and mentally rough afterwards- PRACTICE COMPASSION. Know that the reason you just binge ate has nothing to do with your worth or your value. Know that there is something driving binge eating behaviors and that something is NOT that you have no willpower, that you aren’t good, that you don’t care about yourself or your health. Be kind to yourself and be curious- be curious about your emotions and thoughts that lead to the behavior. And then maybe step outside. Breathe in the cool air, watch the kids shriek with excitement and look at the fun costumes.
  2. Challenge Comparison– Maybe this could be a part of practicing compassion for yourself, but please attempt to step out of the comparison game. Our culture is really good at comparing EVERYTHING…. seriously, we compare the obvious- like our bodies, exercise level, cars, houses, clothes, shoes- to beliefs- political, religious, academic, world view – to our families – husbands, wives, kids, parents, siblings, pets. And everything in between. So for this weekend, challenge yourself to put the comparison down. Especially when you see someone in a costume and you start to compare bodies. Remind yourself that we all have our own values and unique contributions to our own relationships and our communities and those contributions have nothing to do with the aesthetics of our bodies. When you find yourself comparing, simply stop and reframe your thoughts. Practice not judging yourself for having the thoughts. So if you have a thought like, “Look at how good X looks in that costume! She’s had 2 kids and looks way better than I do. Man, I wish I looked that good.” (You get the drift) A reframe would be, “I think she looks really good in her costume, but that doesn’t mean I don’t look good in mine!” OR “Wow, I am starting to compare myself- who can I reach out to right now? Who can help me get out of this comparison trap?” Make it your own, but use compassion and/or curiosity to challenge comparison.
  3. Challenge Judgment- The flip side of comparison is judgment. Judgment and comparison are rooted in our shame, but often judgment feels safer than comparison. Maybe it feels better if we’re honest. I’d much rather be hard on someone else than myself. (I said it, so you can admit it too!) So when you, or another person, starts judging someone else “She/He should NOT be wearing that”… step out of that. Because friend that isn’t helpful for anyone- YOU, the person who is judging, or the person who is being judged. If you are the one judging, try to find something nice about that person (whether its a friend or stranger). If you aren’t the one judging, feel free to change the subject, stand up to the “judge” or simply leave the conversation. If you are the one being judged, leave. Don’t stay around for that, go find people that appreciate you!
  4. Channel or Reach Out to Safe People– I think it’s imperative to find a safe person to get you through this holiday. I added the word SAFE because you want to make sure the person you reach out to isn’t going to jump in comparison/judgment/shame with you… you want it to be someone who is not actively engaged in diet culture. For some, that may be a therapist or Intuitive Eating/Health at Every Size dietitian, or it may be a friend, family member, or spouse. You may talk with the person either in the moment or before you begin your Halloween activities and discuss strategies for how to deal with thoughts and emotions that surface throughout the weekend. For some, it may be a blogger or author or podcast you love. Because we live in diet culture, often our loved ones, even helping professionals, are active participants in diet culture and reinforce food rules and food shame (often unintentionally and without realizing the harm). So maybe writing quotes from an author or blogger or podcast would be helpful. This way you have something objective to fall back on when that shame rises or that comparison voice starts in on you. Maybe you have a podcast ready to play when you need a moment. Have a safe person to lean into, in some way, during this season.
  5. Practice Compassion– I’m saying it again because it’s that important. No matter what happens this Halloween, practice compassion and being kind to yourself and others. So when you start comparing or judging or feeling the weight of diet culture and shame, practice being curious and compassionate with yourself. What would you say to a friend who is having your thoughts and emotions? Say those things to yourself. Do something kind for yourself (a walk outside, a bubble bath after the kids are down, read a good book, listen to your favorite song, listen to an uplifting non-diet podcast). Our world would be a different place with more kindness, so let’s start by being kind with ourselves.
Halloween isn’t an easy time living in diet culture, but we can begin to step out of the shame of Halloween and into the fun of Halloween.

Also, feel free to find what you enjoy about this holiday! Scary things are NOT my jam, but for some people, they love all the scary. Others like to bake fun holiday-inspired treats, others like to think of crazy or unique costumes, others like to hand out candy/treats to kids, others like to participate in local trunk or treats or fall festivals. Use this time to find and embrace what it is you really love about Halloween!

If you decide to accept the challenge, let’s storm social media with fun hashtags!!! #permissiontotrickortreat #eatthecandy #nocomparison #halloween&compassion


The Church and Eating Disorders

As I previously mentioned I was given the opportunity to speak to my church family at Glenwood Church of Christ about mental health and eating disorders. It was wonderful to begin the dialogue that needs to happen in our churches. It’s important for the church, individually and corporately, to learn about eating disorders and to learn how to respond and how to help those who are struggling. Because the issues of eating disorders affects everyone. EVERYONE, from young children to elderly men and women.

FIRST, it’s important to know that there are clinical eating disorders (such as anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, etc), but there is also disordered eating. Disordered eating identifies sub-clinical problematic thoughts, emotions, and behaviors around food (such as food rules, restriction, exercising as punishment, etc). Disordered eating often leads to a clinical eating disorder. Think of the person that says “Oh I can’t control myself around X” or only eats certain foods or must exercise to burn off food that they ate. So when I speak about eating disorders, I’m talking about a spectrum, from clinical eating disorders to disordered eating. Yes, there is a difference between the two and there’s great variance in each area, but in this post, I’ll refer to them both as “eating disorders”.

SECOND, let’s talk about what an eating disorder is and is not. When you read or hear eating disorder, typically a specific image is conjured up. Most often people think of someone who is severely emaciated from lack of nourishment and/or someone who purges through self-induced vomiting- this would be examples of clinical eating disorders. I also often get people that laugh and rub their stomach and say “oh, I have an eating disorder”- this literally makes my eye twitch because, no. The truth is we can’t look at someone’s body and know whether or not they have an eating disorder. People with ALL body types and weights can have an eating disorder. Most people with an eating disorder are normal weight or overweight. Eating disorders are not a black and white choice. Someone with an eating disorder cannot simply “eat a hamburger” and be free from their eating disorder. Eating disorders are not specific to race, gender, socioeconomic status, or age. Disordered eating is completely normalized in our society because of the diet culture we live in. So the person that makes the poor joke and rubs their belly is honestly telling me something (they just may not be meaning to!) because while they may not meet criteria for a clinical eating disorder, there are most likely some serious disordered eating patterns/thoughts happening.

What is diet culture? Diet culture is the world around us that says we must diet in order to be healthy enough, thin enough, happy enough. It’s the culture around us that says “You are not good enough unless you fit “X” ideal”. This culture used to be overtly weight loss focused and scream, “Thin! You have to be thin to be happy, to be worthy, to be good!” Now diet culture has shifted from overtly weight loss focused to subtly weight loss focused by telling us our health is at stake if we’re overweight. We’ve become fat phobic in the quest for physical health and obsessed with weight which leads to obsession with food. The problem is that weight isn’t a good predictor of health. There are many variables other than weight and nutrition that predict and determine whether or not we are healthy. So diet culture strikes again, but this time it uses the language of “lifestyle change” instead of “diet”. Because of this we often don’t realize we’re participating in diet culture- again. We’ve become totally engaged in this idea that nutrition is the most powerful determinant of health and therefore we must manipulate and control our food intake to maintain our physical health. This isn’t a bad thing, I’m all for physical health! I’m all for making choices that fuel our bodies well. But here’s what we forget: our mental, emotional, and spiritual health are factors as well. On many levels, the behaviors that we are told will help us lose weight in order to be healthy: food rules (aka restriction, starvation), compensatory behaviors (excessive exercise, over-exercise, obsessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, diet pills, laxatives), cheat days (more restriction typically followed by binges), and binge episodes are detrimental to all areas of health. That doesn’t step into the realm of the nature of obsessive thinking about food, body image, and exercise that accompanies such behaviors, nor does it touch the myriad of emotions that tend to rule when we’re in the diet culture trenches. Diet culture also says that food is either good or bad. Food choices, food restriction, exercise- they are not moral issues. They are not indicators of our moral worth or moral values. But diet culture has convinced us to believe that our morality is somehow tied to our food choices, our exercise regimen, and our body makeup.

When I gave a description of disordered eating or described diet culture, it may have stepped on your own toes or immediately made you think of someone close to you, right? That’s why this is such an important issue and truly affects us all! We can’t turn a blind eye. (Side note, studies show that dieting increases the risk of developing an eating disorder – I’m working on another post about this, coming soon!)

What should the church be doing to help people with eating disorders in our congregations and in this community?

  1. We have to talk OPENLY about our own mental health issues and about eating disorders because this combats shame. Shame drives the belief that we are flawed and everyone around us is whole and happy and perfect. Shame is what tells us to keep quiet because if they knew- they’d walk away, they’d see the hypocrisy, they’d know I’m an imposter, I’m flawed, I’m bad. And shame thrives in secrecy. When we talk candidly about mental health issues of our own or just name mental issues, we normalize the experience- and this begins the process of breaking down the shame barrier. For the church this means individually we need to share with the safe people in our congregations our struggles. Ask for prayers for your own struggles, struggles of a loved one (with their permission), or generalized prayer requests for those who are struggling. For the corporate church it means discussing mental health issues from the pulpit, in sermons, in classes, in devotionals, in Bible studies, in prayer. We are called to be the light of the world, so let us be the light. Let us shed light into some of the darkest places on earth. Because mental illness, eating disorders, will truly take you into the darkest places on earth.
  2. We have to STOP participating in diet culture by thin praising and fat shaming. Thin praising is when you see someone who has lost weight and we say “you look so good”. Thin praising is when we talk about how good so-and-so looks to our friends and family. Thin praising is when we tell ourselves that so-and-so must be happier or feel more confident or have a better marriage or even that God loves them more because they are thin or have recently lost weight. Thin praising is telling others they are “being good” by their food restriction, food choices, or exercise regimen. Fat shaming is buying into the belief that fat means we are bad, that someone else is bad, that someone else must be unhappy, lazy, or complacent about their health. Fat shaming is believing and reinforcing that fat means we’re unhealthy. Fat shaming can be spoken comments about people gaining weight- either to their face or behind their back. Fat shaming is fat jokes. Fat shaming is prejudice against fat people that they must be less worthy or cared for by God. These are the opposite sides of the same token and the church and its individual members must stop participating. Because here’s the thing- you have NO IDEA how that person lost weight or gained weight or what that exercise or food choice or food restriction means to that person. They give you an answer but eating disorders (remember I’m talking about the spectrum) are insidious and sneaky and shame driven. So people with eating disorders often don’t see their eating disorder, won’t admit that they have an eating disorder, or feel like they can’t tell you the truth. People with sub-clinical disordered eating issues don’t know or believe they have an eating/food problem. Therefore, as the church and ambassadors of God’s love, we must stop unintentionally reinforcing thin praising, fat shaming, and food rules.

John 10:10 has become my anthem for this blog because it speaks to the prison described by so many of my clients, a prison I have felt and lived in for years, a prison that the Lord did NOT design us for, a prison that Satan uses against us and a prison that Jesus Christ has set us free from.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

John 10:10

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Diet culture steals. Diet culture kills. Diet culture destroys. Jesus came to give life and give it to the FULL. Brothers and sisters, let us mirror His Love and help ourselves, our family members, our friends, our community, our churches find the life that He promises- FREE from the shackles of eating disorders and diet culture. Let us show kindness and tenderness by being open to engaging in a world outside of diet culture. By supporting our brothers and sisters by focusing on things other than our bodies, food, and health. By encouraging each other to focus on our true worth, which resides in the Lord’s love and care for each of us through salvation, regardless of what happens, what things we have, what our health is or is not while we’re here.

How Does the Church hurt those with Mental Health Issues?

This week I had the opportunity to talk at Glenwood Church of Christ, my home church, in Tyler, Tx, about mental health needs in our community. In addition to another local therapist and local chaplain, we were asked questions and given the opportunity to discuss the issues we see in our work. We were also given the chance to share how we think the church could help those that suffer from mental illness. Specifically, what does the church do that hurts and how can the church help? What a wonderful, much needed conversation! I wanted to share some points from the discussion and continue the dialogue.

What does the church do that hurts?

1. Lack of Education- This point did not come from me, but I think its worth repeating because it is spot on! The church has good intentions when it comes to responding to mental health struggles and mental illness (eating disorders included). BUT often there is a lack of education for individual church members and/or the corporate church body so the church as whole does not recognize mental health issues because they don’t know what they are and they look like. Most of us have some type of stereotype idea that comes up when we think of mental illness in general or one specific disorder. That’s not a knock on the church or anyone, we just don’t know what we don’t know and media often becomes our textbook. So sometimes church members or leaders actually reinforce stigmas around mental health issues without ever meaning to do so. The way the church can help is to learn about mental health in general and mental illness. Most churches have access to individual therapists or organizations that would LOVE to provide this education. Mental health professionals love to share what they know- they want to educate on what are common mental health issues, how to recognize these issues, and how to respond appropriately. It’s important to have good boundaries when dealing with someone in a mental health crisis or in the midst of mental illness. We often struggle with those boundaries, so getting proper education is crucial in establishing healthy boundaries. If you are a church member or leader, I would encourage you to reach out to church members that are trained mental health professionals and/or find an organization in your community that would be willing to provide education. This doesn’t have to be a church wide education, but most organizations would love to meet with church staff, leaders, and other interested members to provide this education and begin this conversation. Most mental health professionals, regardless of their spiritual and religious beliefs, see the benefit in mental health and mental illness education for the church. As a mental health professional, I can confidently say that we get excited when there is interest in mental health! So reach out! A good starting place would be to contact your local Samaritan Counseling Center, affiliated with the Samaritan Institute. You can find your local Samaritan Center at http://www.samaritaninstitute.org/find-a-location/.

2. Silence- Often the lack of education on mental health issues leads to silence in one of two ways. One way is that the church doesn’t discuss mental health issues because the church isn’t aware of the mental health struggles and mental illness of its members and the community. So mental health struggles often aren’t asked about as prayer requests or aren’t discussed in sermons or classes because leaders genuinely don’t see the dire need- they don’t know what mental health issues are and how prevalent they are. Another way the lack of education leads to silence is that the church may begin to understand that there is a mental health issue at hand, but out of fear or uncertainty, the church or members remain silent because they don’t know how to respond. They are fearful of saying the wrong thing. If you know someone is in treatment or struggling, ask them. Not publicly, but individually. Don’t be afraid to share your genuine concern and ask them how they are doing. Silence from the church can often be interpreted as silence from God and that can be interpreted as abandonment by God (not my words, quote from Keith Wright). My encouragement is to not be afraid to share your own uncertainty or fear- simply saying, “I’m not sure how to ask or what to say, but I want you to know I care and I’d love to talk with you if you feel comfortable.” Give the person the space to talk about it, if they choose. If they choose to talk about what’s going, listen. Don’t listen to give great advice or try to fix their emotion or situation. We often listen to respond, we listen to give advice, we listen to share our own issues/pain/struggle. Sometimes we stay silent because we don’t know how to respond or what to say. A simple reflection of your own empathy for their hurt is all that’s needed: “my heart hurts for you right now. I wish I could make it better in some way.” We all want to be heard- really, truly heard- and that can only come when someone else is willing to simply listen to your heart. We don’t have to fix things for each other. We don’t have to have the answer to ease someone’s suffering. We just have to be willing to open ourselves up enough to sit in the pain and suffering with someone else to hear their heart. So be the person that is willing to listen to someone’s heart and then pray with them or for them. But, pray, friend. Also, don’t be afraid to encourage someone to seek appropriate therapy or treatment. It’s okay to say “hey, I’m not qualified to really help you with this, so let’s find someone who is” and ask your church leaders for local resources, call your local Samaritan Center, check out Psychology Today, or ask people you know who have struggled with the same hardships for referrals.

3. Not Allowing Pain– Although well meaning, the church often responds to mental health issues and mental illness by wanting to encourage and uplift. This is not an inherently negative response, but it doesn’t allow for the person to experience their pain and suffering. It also can send the message that they aren’t a “good enough” Christian (we’ll get into this later). Whether that person’s pain is due to a life-long or short-term mental illness or due to a life situation, they are struggling and in the depths of the valley. We want to pull people out of that valley, but it comes across as not allowing for the pain that we feel as humans. It comes across as belittling, demeaning, or condescending. Christ felt pain- and isn’t that an understatement- not only in the Garden of Gethsemane, but throughout His entire life. (Hello, he was literally born in a barn.) So if Christ felt deep pain and mental anguish, why can’t we? Why don’t we allow ourselves to experience the same emotions? The answer is that we can and we need to allow for others to feel pain also. The American Prosperity Gospel says that we have to be happy and if you aren’t happy and blessed with earthly blessings then you must have pissed God off or you’re doing something wrong. Jesus literally is and was perfect and His life is in DIRECT conflict with that idea. His life was wrought with pain and suffering and death…. and joy and love and grace and mercy and peace and life. His example says that we do not have to have one or the other, so it is okay to feel the depth of our pain and suffering and it is okay to allow others to do so. Pain and suffering does not take away the joy and love that can be found in life. It’s so difficult to sit with someone you care about and see them hurt. Our natural, loving response is to want to fix it. But that’s not our job. So yes, use Scripture to uplift and encourage, but don’t let that be your first response or only response.

Let your response be to listen, to cry with someone, to yell with someone, to be a safe place, to pray with someone, to pray for someone, to praise God, to seek God, to reflect God.

Because we can BE living examples of Scripture in the depths of mental health struggles and mental illness.

Varying reports say in 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 adults have some sort of mental health diagnosis, which says that there are people struggling sitting right next to us in the pew or seat. This number doesn’t even touch those struggling with emotional distress at the sub-clinical level, meaning the normal variances of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual distress that arises with day to day life and major life transitions (i.e. job loss, moves, death of loved one, sickness, etc). What this means is that the church, individually and corporately, has to learn to how to identify and respond to mental health issues and mental illness. It’s non-negotiable and touches everyone.  Now, this doesn’t mean every member or church leader has to know statistics and diagnostic criteria and treatment best practices- it just means the church needs to be willing to learn about mental health and mental illness, needs to be willing to have conversations with those who are hurting, and needs to be willing to appropriately help those who are struggling.

In effort not to have one, super-long post, I decided to write my eating disorder specific responses in this post.