Blair Waldorf, played by Leighton Meester, is a character from the popular television show “Gossip Girl.”
In one episode, Blair attends a Thanksgiving meal hosted by her mother. Her relationship with her mother is a complex one, and in true “Gossip Girl”-level dramatic fashion, Blair tries to confront her mother during the meal.
Instead, her mother shuts down the conversation and instructs her to choose a pie from the cart for dessert. In response, Blair picks one up and takes it to the kitchen. Overcome by painful emotion, she frantically digs into the pie with her fork and eats until nothing remains.
The fork drops with a clatter, and she turns to a glass cabinet, where she stares blankly at her reflection as if dissociated from the events that just unfolded. She calls her friend, Serena, who comes rushing to her aid, and finds her sitting on the bathroom floor. Blair tearfully looks up at Serena and says:
“I didn’t mean for it to happen.”
Although it’s a fictional scene, it is a stark reminder that millions of women struggle with painful eating disorders during the holiday season. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), over 20 million women are affected by eating disorders in the U.S.
Kayla Brandon, who has since recovered from anorexia, recalled the terrible anxiety she would experience during the holidays when concerned family and friends would try to help in ways that were actually more harmful than helpful to her.
Family members would pressure Brandon by pushing her to take more food.
In an interview with Dearly, she said:
“While it might seem completely normal for your great Aunt Peggy to push her famous stuffing recipe on every person at the table, it might be triggering for someone with an eating disorder, causing them to feel anxious, uncomfortable, and even induce a minor panic attack. To someone whose world revolves around food — in many cases, actively avoiding it — being put in a situation where food is constantly being pushed in front of them will likely cause a great deal of fear.”
In an interview with Dearly, Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D., Founding Director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, confirmed this is a common experience among women with the disorder— especially at Thanksgiving.
“Remember that this holiday revolves around food and no matter what kind of an eating disorder the person has, food provokes anxiety. Have empathy for this — think of what makes you afraid and then imagine a whole day that revolved around it. If you are afraid of speaking in public — imagine a holiday when all you do — all day — is speak in public! Everyone else seems to be enjoying it, but you are practically paralyzed with anxiety. That is how difficult holidays can be for someone with an eating disorder.”
Like Brandon, Lindsey Hall, a blogger who documents life with an eating disorder on her blog, “I Haven’t Shaved In 6 Weeks,” went through a similar experience.
Hall told Dearly:
“The buffets at Thanksgiving are the worst sometimes. I can’t stand standing next to people trying to decide how much marshmallow salad to put on my plate.”
Looking back, Brandon and Hall expressed what family and friends could do differently to show support during the holidays. Brandon warned that there are often underlying reasons for eating disorders, and ultimately, the best thing people can do is show kindness and compassion.
“I understand their concern is masked in questions and judgmental comments, but it would be better expressed as empathy instead… Most of the time, the issue isn’t food at all, it’s something much deeper.”
Dr. Bulik agreed, telling Dearly:
“The most important thing is to let the person know that you care deeply about them. Never approach them with an ‘aha!’ or with evidence that you discovered. Rather approach them from a place of concern and love. Let them know that you are worried and want to do whatever you can to help.
The most important first step is to get someone in for an evaluation by someone with experience in eating disorders. Don’t hesitate. Don’t brush it off and hope that it will be a passing fad. Eating disorders rob far too many individuals of productive and fulfilling lives, and they can be and are far too often lethal. Treat it with as much seriousness as you would any medical illness.”
Hall said people need to be aware of certain topics of conversation during holiday gatherings since they can be triggering to individuals with the disease:
“Try to be cognizant of the conversations you’re having with people around you… Do you notice the conversation slipping into fitness regimens? Barre class schedules? Are you hearing the ‘I shouldn’t have this… but just a tiny piece’ comment?’…they reinforce the cultural stereotype that we’re not allowed to eat without feeling guilty about it, which can be triggering for anyone — let alone someone with an eating disorder.”
Dr. Bulik gave a similar warning:
“People might make seemingly benign comments that can be devastating for someone with an eating disorder. Help out in those situations! If someone tries to force an extra helping on your loved one’s plate, or comments on how little they are eating, help them out by changing the topic to something more neutral. Be the support and the ‘wingman’ that your loved one needs… Having someone in the family they can turn to if it gets too overwhelming is wonderful, if it is possible.”
Hall also suggested:
“Redirecting the conversation can be helpful. You can’t control what people are going to say, but you can set an example by redirecting to more positive subjects. At the end of the day, it’s not up to you to change your family or your friends, it’s up to you to change how you respond the environment in front of you. That is your right. That is your choice.”
Thanksgiving will always hold significance for Hall since it was on Thanksgiving that she decided to get help. As she told Dearly:
“I made the choice to go to treatment over the Thanksgiving break. This holiday will always hold pretty valuable significance to me in terms of it changing my life. I’ll never forget sitting on the floor with my parents — two boxes of cereal sitting on the coffee table — and my dad making the statement ‘it’s time to get help.’ He’d been secretly watching my food intake that week, and when I’d binged those boxes of cereal and tossed them away — he dug both out of the trash.”
When Hall returned to the family home for visits, her father would hide the cereal boxes in his closet upon her request, one of the many ways her family has shown her support during her recovery. As Hall said:
“I have someone in my family prepare my plate for me. I tell them what I prefer and let them do the rest. It’s just easier and keeps me more present. Otherwise, the little tick can flare up and it distracts me from being able to spend quality time with my family. I try to navigate the bumps before they become ‘bumpy’.”
Brandon shared the following message to any individuals dealing with an eating disorder:
“I just want any boy, girl, man, or woman out there to know they are not alone, and it does get better. Like any relationship, your relationship with yourself and the foods you consume is an evolving process if you’ve suffered from an eating disorder. Take baby steps, celebrate little victories, and remain confident that your worth doesn’t equate to a number on a scale.”
Dr. Bulik said it is important to keep things in perspective.
“Perhaps the most important thing is to remember always what the holiday is about — it is about giving thanks. Be thankful that your relative with an eating disorder is alive and with you, and keep that front and center always.”
The right kind of support from family and friends can mean all the difference to a loved one undergoing the stress of an eating disorder during the holidays.