There is No Earning a Holiday Meal

Exercise is not punishment, and eating is not a punishable offense

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On the Peloton leaderboard, you’ll find all sorts of usernames — boring stuff like mine, which is just my AIM name from 1999, but also a lot of “GirlDad99” and “CincyLawyer” and “TiredToddlerTwinMom.” There’s a whole essay to be written the tendency, when faced with a character limit, to reduce identity to your relationship to the young children in your life (there’s also a whole lot of Grams/Granny/GMa tags). But the usernames that really bug me might also feel like the most banal: Pelo4Wine, RunforCarbs, Bike4Pizza. You get the vibe.

Even just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have seen the problem with these sorts of leadernames. So much messaging, including “healthy” exercise and dieting messaging, conceives of food and exercise in terms of “calories in, calories out.” I worked out so that I could feel less guilt about eating what I wanted to eat; these names are just the frank distillation of that understanding.

You might still feel that way. It’s very understandable: this understanding of food, of health, of the purpose of exercise, a pernicious mix of “CALORIES = SINFUL” and “EXERCISE = PENITENCE” facilitated by the ever-growing availability of calorie counts, both on actual food items and on actual exercise machines. The purpose of these calorie counts has been….well-intentioned? Because theoretically if we give people more information about how many calories they’re consuming so that they’ll then….moderate consumption? But this is a line of thinking also assumes that people have no agency over their bodies, like their appetites are some wild force to be battled at all times — while also ignoring all the ways in which our current system limits, incentivizes, valorizes and stigmatizes food choices in so many complicated and compounding ways.

And yet! This thinking about calories in/calories out is at the heart of Weight Watchers and so many other “moderate” weight loss strategies; it has been so normalized as to feel like just the way things are, and just the way things should be.

Calorie counts have not made us healthier. You might theoretically think they do, but like dieting itself, it does very little to actually transform our bodies in any lasting way. Instead, conception of certain foods as “bad” or “cheats” or otherwise sinful — and only morally accepted to consume when mitigated by exercise — has mostly just fucked up our relationship to those foods, while also fucking up our relationship to our own bodies and to exercise. (If you need a good Weight Watchers Come to Jesus, here you go. If you need one for Noom, here you go).

Maybe you’ve understood all of this for awhile. Maybe, like me, you’ve been radicalized by a combination of Maintenance Phase and Virginia Sole-Smith or whoever your favorite HAES thinker might be.

Maybe you’re just so, so tired of participating in the uncompensated labor of hating your body and participating in a culture that encourages others to hate theirs. You might be particularly furious with the ways that diet culture intersects with other parts of your identity, your gender, your culture, your role as a parent or rode model. Maybe you’re pissed at how much energy diet culture demands of us for our entire lives, and don’t want to wake up, like a lot of our grandparents, thinking about “maintaining our figures” at age 80. Maybe you want to reclaim your fucking time.

However you arrived here, this process includes how we think about holiday meals and celebrations. and that includes thinking about ways to shut down body talk that frames eating in this way — as a sin that needs to be confessed — or that conceives of body size as a topic of conversation, just generally.

I loved Virginia’s piece on this subject from earlier this week, which includes her characteristic empathy:

I am all for setting boundaries and I’ll give some version of this advice every year, forever, probably. Nobody needs to settle for abuse. But so many of these relationships exist in a gray area. It’s the aunt who taught you to swear and to shop, but also lives on SlimFast. It’s the grandpa who put you through college but will also never pick up a dirty dish in his life. It’s the cousin who plays so well with your kids but also never shuts up about Paleo. 

And it’s the mothers and grandmothers who have worked so hard to make this meal, and so many other meals. They have lived through decades of diet culture and they are now watching younger generations march towards fat acceptance and a more free relationship with food. Maybe, they are wondering why these options were never on the table for them. 

Maybe you, too, are mourning all of the time you’ve spent conceiving of food and exercise this way — I know I certainly am. But this year, this week, and this gathering can be the start — or the continuation — of a new tradition: for yourself, most of all, but also for the people in your life who are the age you wish you’d started receiving dramatically different messaging about food and bodies. Think about it: just how much would your life have changed if you dedicated so much less time to regimenting or loathing your body all these years?

Which isn’t to say that you can’t still go to yoga, do a group Peloton ride, or meet up for a hike on Thanksgiving morning. But it has no bearing on what you can or should eat — or the joy you should claim from it.

As the graphic above puts it, exercise is not punishment, and eating is not a punishable offense. To add to that: your body does not have a moral value. It is valuable and worth reveling in because it is your home. It is wonderfully and lovingly made, a true and utter marvel, no matter what it looks like now or has looked like in the past. Bodies can be stubborn and unpredictable, fickle and deceptive….but they can also also exquisite, charming, bizarre, and hilarious. And, most, importantly: they are ours, and ours alone.

You can’t control what others will try to read into and onto your body. What you can control is how you feel about it — and how that feeling will broadcast to others.

I always know when I’m in the presence of someone who feels at home in their body. It’s not love, exactly, especially not in the corporatized “body positivity” way — it’s just a real intimacy and understanding. And it almost always has nothing, truly nothing, to do with that body’s relation to societal ideals. Instead, that homeness radiates off them: like confidence, like strength, like worth, like care. It is so contagious. It is a gift. As disability advocate Nina Tames puts it,

I like the softness of my body. I look like someone who drowns everything in cream and could suffocate you with my thighs. Both things are true.

The curve of my spine. The lump on my lower back. My dimpled thighs and a belly the flomps gently onto them. Oh what a bobby-dazzler.

But we’re not sposed to be ok with our disabled parts or bellies that jiggle when you wiggle. We’re sposed to constantly try to change ourselves and if we can’t change to fit into those elusive western beauty standards then we should defo cover up.

What a load of nonsense.

Scars, lumps, bumps, limb differences, purple shaded legs, curves in all the wrong places, flomfing bellies and meaty killer thighs. All bloody glorious.

Disabled bodies are pure poetry full stop.

Know how I know? Because for most of my life I was deeply ashamed of my disabled parts. Thought they were a flaw. Something that made me less than. Until I had a kid with my exact same disability and let me tell you friends his disabledness was so beautiful on him. I adore his soft lump as much as I do his sprinkling of freckles across his cheeky face.

That’s when I realised I’d been lied to forever. Me not liking my disabledness wasn’t my truth. I wasn’t born thinking that way. It was lies I was told along the way that settled into my bones as fact.

So for the last eight years I’ve been learning and unlearning. Aiming for neutrality when love felt a bit too challenging but definitely vowing to leave my body alone. Not pick on it. Not echo the words of the shitty kids that told me my body was gross.

And now I’ve reached a point where every kind word to my body feels like a big fuck you to a society that tries to tell me my body isn’t bloody poetry.

All bodies are good bodies my loves. Including yours ❤️.

I fucking love that. What an incredible gift to her child! To really and truly believe that about herself, and to, in turn, believe the same of them.

So what needs to happen in your life — in the way you talk to yourself, in the way people in your life talk to you — to give yourself that gift of understanding your body as a good body? Maybe it means finding a new primary care provider, or asking someone in your life to be your advocate against toxic HR bullshit or in-laws. Maybe it’s dedicating the same intent and compassion that you’ve directed to changing the way you talk to your kids about their bodies to how you talk to yourself about your own body. And maybe it means catching the feeling you get when you start conceiving of exercise as permission, or a food as “bad,” sitting with it a bit, straight up recognizing it as diet culture, and telling it that you see it for what it is. This sounds ridiculous, but I have found labeling these shitty thoughts incredibly helpful.

Whatever your choice, it can start or continue this week: in the texts you send to family ahead of time, by reaching out to friends to check in on you over the days to come, or even just by reading gentle comments here and in supportive spaces from strangers who’re on this weird, hard road too. It doesn’t matter where we are, or how much progress we’ve made. What matters is that we’ve made the turn.


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