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.
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.