Weight Watchers and the Last Christmas Kolacky

In 2008, I joined Weight Watchers for the last time. Really this time, the last time. Whenever I re-joined Weight Watchers, I vowed that it would be the last time. In high school. In college. In graduate school. And now, 2008, was really, really the last time. Except that, like all the other times, I wasn’t quite sure if I believed it. I’d failed to reach my goal weight so many times before despite the hope embedded in each new blank weigh-in booklet. I would get soar from the rush of a clean slate, whipping into a frenzy of promises and vows and public accountability only to inevitably unravel and have to invite disappointed, sympathetic reactions when I admit that it hadn’t quite worked out. I didn’t want to have to make that confession again, so I didn’t tell anyone that I joined Weight Watchers for the last time in 2008.

By early December, my holiday defenses were solid. I was banking Points and earning Points through exercise and avoiding holiday parties. If I couldn’t avoid a holiday party like an office potluck, I’d drink water and chicken broth before arriving so I wouldn’t eat as much. I’d already prepared myself for the upcoming family visit for Christmas–the most sacred of family holidays.

I am 4th generation Chicago-Suburban. That is, the roots of my family’s immigration from Poland, England, and Ireland were planted on Chicago’s south side and have spread to its south suburban enclaves. My family’s Christmas traditions are, like most family’s, an indiosyncratic jumble of cultural touchpoints (Garrett’s popcorn) and inside jokes (Unc’s Christmas mobile). My family is known among our social circles for Christmas cookies–impossibly tiny, in a dozen varieties, made by the hundreds, and shared generously. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I don’t get too riled up about cookies with one exception: kolacky. I am bound by a deep, sentimental attachment to a simple butter cookie with dab of Solo fruit filling in the middle. Our circular kolackys defy tradition because my Polish-Chicagoan grandmother found the folded shaping method too fussy, and switched to a round cutout using a small cordial glass. Each year, I look forward to these jewel-toned delights each Christmas, and 2008 was no exception.

kolacky cookies
These look almost exactly like my family’s kolacky. (Photo Credit: The Spruce.)

Except that, in 2008, I felt that I couldn’t be trusted around kolackys (pronounced in my grandmother’s house as coal-LAHCH-keys). These were one of my “trigger foods,” a treat that I would take every chance to enjoy, and therefore an enemy. I had Weight Watchers tunnel vision. Every choice I made about what I ate was based on how it would affect my weight loss goals. Nothing else mattered. Nothing. Prior to going home for Christmas, I told my Weight Watchers group that my goal for the Holiday Slimdown Challenge was to eat only 5 kolackys–one each day of my visit–and I would walk for 30 minutes each day to burn off their calories. The group clapped politely, and our Leader reminded us that our excuse to eat foods that are bad for us around the holidays–it’s only once a year–is the same reason we can give ourselves to NOT eat them–it’s only once a year! You can say “no” one time!

I stuck to my plan. Every day, I walked for 45 minutes around the forest preserve trail (a little extra just in case) near my grandmother’s house, and stayed out of the room that housed the cookie tins. By Christmas Eve, I felt miserable. I must have said, “No, thank you, I’m not hungry” to my grandmother a thousand times since I arrived. I was angry and frustrated and jealous–why did I have to be the kind of person who agonizes over food? Why wasn’t I allowed to have ONE DAY where I didn’t worry about calories or what I was eating or constantly beat myself up for not having any willpower? In between these mental tantrums, kept telling myself that this is a minor sacrifice. When I finally get to my goal weight,  I thought, I’ll see that it was all worth it. Just stick to the plan.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, I ate 5 kolackys out of obligation to the promise I made to myself. I took no joy in this, feeling only the mild rage and illogical irritation that anyone with disordered eating patterns knows too well. I cursed the holidays for being unpredictable and disrupting my routine and keeping me off-track from my weight loss goals. My grandmother asked if I wanted another kolacky. I declined. “Are you sure? I know they’re your favorite. And I only make them once a year.” I know, I said, with an invisible nod to my Weight Watchers leader. See? That’s the trick. Once a year.

What I didn’t know then was that 2008 was the last year my grandmother would make kolackys for me. She died in May of the following year, five weeks before my wedding.

I was not a thin bride.

If I had known it would be our last Christmas together, would I have eaten more kolackys? I can’t say for sure. Probably, yes. But I’ll never really know. Here’s one thing that I do know with absolute certainty I would have done differently: I would have said, “Thank you.”

The other thing I understand now that I didn’t know then: eating is an act of self-care, and that care is compounded when we prepare, serve, and share food with others. Diet culture strips eating of this connection to our families and cultural communities, suggesting that food choice is a simple, individual, transactional energy exchange. This is an act of violence. It repeats: your desire for pleasure is wrong, your desire for love and connection is wrong, your needs are wrong. Under diet culture, you are considered a success when you can no longer recognize the difference between self-care and self-flagellation.

But what if, in 2008, I believed that I was already good? That my needs and wants and desires were good? That my body is a good body? If I believed that, I would have thanked my grandmother for her love and time and attention not just for my beloved kolackys, but also for the sauerkraut she made for others that neither of us ate. For the way the warmth from the kitchen on Christmas Eve fogged up the bay window in the living room. For the thousands of ways I learned from her how to love and to be loved.

I am fortunate that my aunt has taken up the mantle of The Christmas Cookies. There will be kolackys in 2017, as there has been every year that I have been alive. I don’t actively restrict how many I have, nor do I gorge myself on them in an act of symbolic consumption just in case this is truly the last Christmas kolacky. This is how I resist diet culture: I live my life with gratitude and care and connection, secure in the knowledge that I am already worthy of it all.


Thanks, But No Thanks: How to Deal with Food-Shaming Fitness Messaging

Thanksgiving is my favorite non-Christmas holiday. It beats out the 4th of July in a photo finish because of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and because it’s hard to eat mashed potatoes by the pool. (#challengeaccepted).

I get swept up in the sentimental, Americana folk art dreams of Thanksgiving that wrap me in warm gratitude for my family, friends, and starchy sides. I cling to visions of candlelit, red wine-infused gatherings where we all take turns sharing one thing we’re grateful for. Thanksgiving is my holiday, the only day of the year where I don an actual apron handed down from my beloved late grandmother to cook for my family.

I realize that my affinity for Thanksgiving, the most problematic fave, and its high-strung cousin Christmas may strike some as a bit, well, overblown. And certainly, when the actual day gets here it always ends up more like Bob’s Burgers than Norman Rockwell. The chaotic reality of the holiday season often clashes sharply with the idyllic harmony we wish to enjoy. And for me, there’s no greater destroyer of comfort and joy than in fitness marketing that shames people into exercising.

An ad from my home gym with my editing

Social media is rampant with advice on how to punish yourself for eating: No-Gain Campaigns, “You Ate It, Now Negate It” calorie burn conversion charts, leftover exchange programs, “Turkey Burn-Off” workouts, and cryptic-sounding holiday survival plans. These strategies for dealing with the enemy sound like they belong in a war room: avoid calorie bombs, shore up your defenses, say no to food-offering terrorists, and otherwise shred, torch, blast, fire, or destroy any trace of butter that crosses the DMZ of your tongue with intense physical activity.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining your fitness practice despite seasonal disruptions, taking a walk after a heavy meal or enticing your family into a playing flag football with you. Exercise is part of a holistically healthy lifestyle every day of the year, and whether or not you make adjustments on holidays is a personal decision. But when gyms and fitness professionals insist that exercise is only an absolution from indulgence, they’re doing you a huge disservice. Calorie burn is one of many reasons why you might want to exercise during the holiday season, and, if we’re being really honest, it’s a pretty unconvincing one. I’m much more likely to want to try a new exercise class if I get some free guest passes to share with my family visiting from out of town than because I feel bad about eating my favorite once-a-year treat.

So, what if your breakup with diet culture is still in the “It’s Complicated” phase and all this garbage messaging is making you question your commitment to that sweet You Do You lifestyle? Come in and know me better, friend, because shame has no place at my holiday table! Here are some tips to help you deal with shame-based memes and fitness marketing and enjoy your holidays as much as you want:

1. “Unfollow” is your REAL Facebook friend

A curated newsfeed is a supportive newsfeed. I report diet ads as spam and anyone who posts a shame-based meme or article gets a swift and unrelenting “Unfollow” from me. There are no second chances in my newsfeed. You can always keep a list of the people you want to follow again in March when the New Year’s Resolution fervor wears off.

2. Have a response ready

Dealing with personal politics can be tricky among friends, family, and co-workers. You may not appreciate being included on diet talk, but you also may not know what to say. If your gym or fitness professional posts shame-based marketing online or in a facility (on a poster, print ad, or digital sign), you can speak up and let them know you don’t appreciate that kind of messaging. There are several ways you can make your position clear on this issue depending on your relationship, communication style, and tolerance for feather-ruffling. Samples:

“Hey, So and So! Thanks for letting me know about the Black Friday fitness class you’re teaching. It sounds like a blast! Do you think we could reach other members by talking about more reasons to come to class than burning calories?”

“Burning calories is great and all, but I like to come to boot camp before a big holiday because shopping for presents and dealing with houseguests is so stressful! I just need a little Me Time.”

“I’m skipping the gym today because I want to spend time with my family.”

“I decided that I won’t exercise as punishment for eating anymore. Thanks for including me in your planking challenge, but I’ll pass.”

“I’m doing a new challenge this season. It’s called the ‘No Diet Talk’ Challenge. Every day, I spend at least 30 minutes a day keeping my eyes on my own plate and not talking to anyone about my food choices.”

“Food isn’t good or bad. It just is. What part is your kid playing in the school holiday spectacular?”

3. Tune out

Some people just can’t take a hint. You may have one or a few people in your life who insist on bringing you in to their shame-fest, or refuse to believe that anyone could truly not care about calories two or three days per year. In that case, it’s okay to just walk away or ignore the message. You don’t owe anyone an explanation or the emotional labor responding to questions you don’t want to answer. Silence can be very productive.

Wherever you are on the holiday restrict-indulge spectrum, you deserve self-care. You deserve access to a variety of health choices without the baggage of shame or coercion, and you have a responsibility to make space for others to do the same. Put this in practice during the holiday season by supporting yourself and those you care about by not sharing shame-based memes, speaking up against it when you’re able, and being generous with the phrase “You are enough.” Cheers!


Kate Browne is a writer, speaker, and self-care advocate. She is the founder of Taking Up Space, an online body positive fitness and self-care project. She is also the owner of Before and More, a creative strategy agency for health and wellness businesses and self-care professionals. For more information about Kate and all the cool and world-changing projects she’s involved in, visit katebrowne.net.

How to Navigate Body Image Issues During the Holidays

The uptick in New Year’s diet & fitness marketing, weird holiday food deprivation memes, and jokes about elastic-waist pants at holiday dinners has me feeling some kind of way. Settle in, this is going to be a doozy.

The weeks between Halloween and New Year’s are a bizarre, paradoxical time for diet and fitness. We temporarily suspend the restrictions of our everyday routines, but we can only do so by adding some self-flagellation. If we just upended everything entirely, we wouldn’t put strange performances on our talk about holiday dinners. Otherwise, “I am going to eat so many mashed potatoes!” would connote pure joy (as it does for me. mmm…). Instead, we put a twinge of fake regret on it so everyone knows we don’t do this all the time and we really know that eating all the mashed potatoes we want, even on a special day, is Very Bad Behavior.

Likewise, with exercise. “After the chaos of the holidays winds down, I’m getting back to the gym!” The performance subtext is, “I’m not making exercise a priority right now which is know is Very Bad Behavior, so I’m letting you know that I have a plan to get it together.”

There are legitimate, often beautiful and happy reasons for indulging a little more and sticking to routine a little less around the holidays. For me, it’s the disruption in my routine of traveling to see family, and eating many kolacky cookies made from my late grandmother’s recipe on Christmas Eve.

I once read some holiday diet advice (from a commercial diet program that rhymes with Freight Fratchers) that said sure, favorite holiday foods come around once a year. So what? Bring your own diet food to the party. The treats should be easier to avoid if you remember that you only have to deal with the temptation once a year. Imagine yourself walking away from the dessert table and it will become a reality. And, also, don’t skip your workout just to spend time with family you don’t see often–if they love you, they’ll understand that you need to take care of yourself. I believed this advice for a long time. Then my grandmother died, and I really wish I could have told her how much I liked what turned out to be her last batch of kolackys.

Okay, that took a turn for the morbid, but you get it, right? Most of the Holiday Sins we beat ourselves up about only happen once a year! Here’s my advice for having your moderation fruitcake and eating it too:

1) You are probably well-conditioned in the social ritual of diet and exercise confession. If you find yourself saying something like, “I am going to have to run, like, 10 miles after eating all those truffles,” STOP. Don’t do that. Eat the damn truffles. Enjoy them. Live a little. If you feel compelled to say something, thank Aunt Jean for making them. If someone says this to you, don’t nod in agreement. Try saying, “Everything in moderation!” with a genuine smile. And then maybe pop that truffle you were going to eat in your mouth for effect.

2) Get a little perspective. If you’re doing this moderation thing right, it’s only 5-10ish meals over the course of several weeks that might be sites of overindulgence. It’s going to be okay.

2b) If you find that your diet and exercise habits have gone completely out the window because of stress or the holidays trigger disordered behavior, see a therapist or a nutritionist. This is not a job for an amateur.

3) Practice flexibility. You may not have time for your full workout, but can you do a short circuit instead? Rummage through your family’s old VHS collection while you’re in town. Any Tae Bo or Sweatin’ to the Oldies in there?

4) You don’t have to eat all the things. Let’s say you’re going to go to a Friendsgiving celebration. You have gone to many Friendsgiving celebrations this month, but you know Jax is making their world-famous green bean casserole. You only get to eat this green bean casserole once a year. It’s a big deal. Have some. Have more than some, and skip the just okay pie. Or have nothing but green bean casserole (because Jax makes a ton of it so sharing isn’t an issue) and start living your Best Life. If you have a hard time moderating this way, refer to advice point 2b.

5) Own your indulgences and comforts. And if you can’t own it, maybe make a different choice. I love, absolutely love, Starbucks iced caramel brulee holiday lattes. They are expensive and too sweet for me but I have a strong sense memory of getting them on days when I wrote my PhD comps exclusively at Starbucks in November and December the last two years. If I just really liked them, I could own that, enjoy every crunchy piece of sugar on whipped cream, and go on with my life. But it’s become a bit of a compulsion, so I try to catch myself and decide if it’s worth it. (Protip: you can order whipped cream and caramel brulee topping with unsweet iced coffee for no.extra.charge *wink*) If the early-onset darkness makes you want to curl up on the couch instead of take your evening walk, that’s fine. Take a winter break from evening walks. But if you feel your self-esteem dip or you don’t feel right in your body or you miss talking to the friend you walk with, get out the lined pants and the goofy headlamp once in a while and hit the pavement.

I know people often have complicated, not always positive feelings about the holidays, and that’s why it makes me even more upset to hear so many people getting riled up about food and exercise. There’s so much more at stake emotionally than whether or not to have a second mini quiche at the office holiday party. Put your energy in places where it matters–connecting with people you care about, practicing moderation as self-care, or just enjoying a little time off from the everyday.