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HAES® Matters: American Thanksgiving

Knowing that American Thanksgiving can generate a mix of reaction, be it about the politics and history of the day or the current focus on consumerism (Black Friday shopping), consumption (of food or material “stuff”) or being thankful and expressing thanks, ASDAH’s blog committee wanted to hear from some of our HAES Experts on this subject. We asked them:

The American holiday of Thanksgiving tends to impact individuals professionally, personally and politically in myriad ways. In your capacity as a HAES Expert, be it as a practitioner, advocate, activist, etc., how do you weave the HAES approach into your understanding and observance of Thanksgiving?  


Fall Ferguson

Perhaps the most important thing about the American Thanksgiving holiday that therapists, nutritionists, community health workers, and other health professionals can do is to acknowledge and validate people’s feelings of dread and depression. Nearly everything that gets celebrated as great and wonderful about this holiday is problematic for someone. The HAES principles call upon us to acknowledge that health and wellbeing are multi-dimensional, to meet our clients where they are, and to honor the intersectional nature of people’s experiences. So, yes, many of us will have clients who are triggered by the excessive eating part of the holiday, but there is actually much more to this holiday, including:

  • Cultural Quagmire: The cultural mythology around American Thanksgiving tends to render the inherent racism and the destructive impact of the European settlers invisible. Some Native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving as a national day of mourning.
  • Food Insecurity: Some people can’t afford to feast on Thanksgiving or any day. The cultural obsession with excess food consumption on this holiday is difficult for those who worry about having enough food every day. According to Feeding America, 49.1 million Americans – nearly 20% of us! – were living in “food insecure households” in 2013.
  • Family Focus: The emphasis on family togetherness is problematic for those who don’t have family, who live at a distance from their families, or who are estranged from their families. For some, the decision to embrace a HAES approach and abstain from weight cycling causes rifts with family members who cannot accept that their family member may never be thin. The sticky sentimentality of Thanksgiving can be a painful reminder of loneliness.
  • Consumerism: In the U.S., this holiday weekend has evolved into a frenzy of advertising and consumer spending, with big sales designed to make people spend large amounts of money on consumer goods that many of us can’t afford.
  • Four Day Weekend: We make a big deal out of the fact that it’s a long weekend. However, many people in retail and service jobs must work throughout the weekend. Others don’t have work at all; the USA currently has an official unemployment rate of 6% but some experts say the real rate is over 12% when we include those who have given up and those who are underemployed.
  • Eating to Excess: Many people with a history of weight cycling or other disordered eating associate the idea and/or the experience of “overeating” with feelings of shame and blame.
  • Diet Talk: For many, the tendency of friends and family to talk about “being bad” around what they eat on the holiday can be triggering. The triggering effect can be exponential when combined with the inevitable talk of weight loss diets recently abandoned or about to be started.
  • Vigilance by “Concerned” Family Members: Many fat people are watched intently by loved ones at family gatherings for how much and how often they eat. Eating behaviors accepted as “normal” on a feast day in a thinner person are monitored and judged in a fatter person. Conversely, those with a known history of eating disorders may be monitored by family members for associated behaviors (not eating, purging, binging, etc.).

These are just some of the ways in which our clients and the communities we work with can be triggered or upset by American Thanksgiving. Many people will have both positive and negative associations with the holiday, and this can and should be normalized. The HAES approach reminds us to honor the multi-dimensionality of health and well-being, to encourage positive and affirming social connection as a key component of health, and to meet each person’s experiences with respect and compassion. There is no one way to experience any holiday, and sharing that perspective with our clients may be the most important thing we can do at holiday time.

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Rev. Dr. E-K. Daufin

It’s getting expensive this year: the purchasing of non-work books, cleaning tools, a list of movies playing locally that are so “delicious,” I won’t mind going alone.   I find myself buying stuff to fill my time, not my stomach before Thanksgiving. A primordial nesting instinct, perhaps? Or perhaps distractions from the holiday blues that hit me heavy each year, so far from Halloween to New Year’s and then back to work.

When I was a child, I loved Thanksgiving because I would be allowed to eat whatever I wanted … with only hidden dirty looks from my mother. And I could leave the room and go sit with the men after supper when the women folk started talking about the starvation dieting they’d be going on to make up for their feasting. At the age of 5, my Jewish doctor, who had survived the Jewish Holocaust and was plump himself, was replaced by a very thin Indonesian pediatrician at the clinic my father’s insurance covered. The new doctor looked at me with disgust and considered me grossly fat. My mother left vindicated that I needed to diet, rather than frustrated as she was when the previous doctor had treated me with affection, thought I was robust and perfect, even giving me a lollipop for being such a good girl.

“I knew you were too fat,” she said as we walked down the dull gray cement stairs. Dun – Dun – Dun! Cue the trepidation music. Gone were the days of my beloved peanut and jelly sandwich and regular milk at lunch. Hello, half a sandwich with disgusting low-cal mayo and chalk-water skim-milk. Howdy, lower calorie, much-less-tasty-version-of-whatever-the-rest-of-the-family-was-having-at-dinner, sans dessert.

But on Thanksgiving, usually my mother’s parents and my father’s mother would come up from Baltimore the night before and head back south come Sunday morning. In between would be pre-dawn adventures to the corner grocery store with my grandfather: eating too crisp bacon he fried up and let me crunch down before my mother could wake to restrict me to a single hardboiled egg without salt. His wife (my mother’s mother) worked for a rich White lady who wintered in Florida and always sent gifts of a big box of huge, sweet grapefruits or oranges, a far cry from the tiny, dry and bitter little Brooklyn citrus we could buy locally at twice the price.

I got to set the table and fold the napkins in fancy shapes, then dress up (no one else would, but where else was a six year-old going to wear an evening dress hand-me-down someone had brought from their employer’s cast-offs?). My parents and brother were normally verbally abusive to me. My brother was physically and sexually abusive to me. But everyone was on their best behavior when guests came over to eat on Thanksgiving. Everyone was to play their “we’re the perfect family” fictional role. Often impressed with my “bless the table” prayers, I was the little angel who would sing and regale adult family friends with jokes afterward, providing the after-dinner show too.

I loved to eat the toasted marshmallows off the sweet potato and pineapple casserole. Having never been camping, I didn’t know they came any other way. I also liked to eat the toasted cheddar cheese off the macaroni and cheese (and butter!) casserole and white meat turkey is still a favorite. Hot yeast rolls with more butter melting into them with a chunk of wavy, wobbly, gelatinous cranberry “sauce” straight out of the can …mmm. Desserts didn’t mean much because I never liked the overly sweet, gooey pecan or the bland pumpkin pies traditionally available.

In college, I lived in the unheated Baltimore basement “apartment” my grandfather jimmy-rigged beneath both grandparents’ living quarters in the first house anyone in my direct line would own since we were owned. Long story short, we were the guests and without non-family for whom to hold up a functional family façade, my mother and grandmother didn’t mind telling me how fat I was at the dinner table and what I shouldn’t be eating. My brother didn’t mind berating me for existing. My father chastised us for eating too much butter saying, “You’ll get spepi!” No, not sepsis…spepi. Don’t ask. I don’t know and neither does Google. Daddy disappeared when dinner was done. The TV was on; the light of the holidays in my heart was out. Holidays went from dull to hellish and I stopped going.

In graduate school in Ohio, I usually got an invitation to someone’s home; someone with real plates who graciously took my Cool Whip container “Tupperware” and whatever I made in it and didn’t laugh when I asked to take it home for more reuse. There was lots of studying to do. Thanksgiving Thursday through Sunday passed too quickly. Otherwise, during that time of my life, in the attempt to lose weight, I went for months without eating, drinking only water and canned diet meal-replacement shakes. I never lost more than 3 lbs of water weight and it was about that time that it began to dawn on me that dieting didn’t work. It scared me that as much as I starved myself most of the time, I was actually gaining weight. My body was a miraculous monster and I didn’t know what to do about it, but I had bigger problems.

The first Thanksgiving in my first job after graduate course work, I spent what was a lot of money for me on a measly instructor’s salary with academic loans to pay back, on an enormous amount of food for students who said they were coming to eat at my house. That was before I understood the New Orleans motto of “laissez les bons temps rouler,” meaning that NO ONE could be counted on to show up to someone’s house at a certain time…or at all. People went wherever the best party beckoned and despite the fantastic food I had recreated from my childhood and two days straight cooking, only two people stopped in for a few moments, full from previous meals elsewhere. I gave up on hosting my own Thanksgiving meal.

Feeding the homeless makes me only more depressed because I have my own demons waiting for me who don’t seem to care that others are worse off than I am most years of my life, sometime, somewhere, every moment of my life. Once I was out of grad school, others wrongly assumed that I have my own friends and family to feast with. Friends I did have who said they would have welcomed me were too far away to get there and back to work on the most traveled days of the year. Weather, pet-sitters and airlines are generally too expensive to pay to return tense and exhausted just to face a tense and exhausting job with students who managed to throw a paper my way the week before, demanding they be generously graded by Monday, whether they returned to class or not. Fleeting arts and interests groups gave me a great potluck Thanksgiving Day some years, but the groups dissipated by the next year and eventually, despite my best efforts, it was just me, my dog and later a cat joined the mix.

So I won’t be sweating what I eat nor having others hassle me about it either. I’ll be reading some good books, sleeping way too late, happy I’m not stuck in traffic or stranded at an airport but unhappy I’ll be sitting alone at the movies and hoping Chappy’s Deli still sells their “Thanksgiving” sandwich where they put in a smidgen of each of the ingredients of a full Thanksgiving meal and I can taste a little bit of most of those festive foods I fondly remember.

Linda Bacon

Lindo Bacon

The concept of giving thanks is a valuable one. When I slow down and reflect on the bounty of my life, and couple that with the awareness that not everyone has such abundance, it’s hard not to feel grateful for what I have. Whether we’re mindful of the food we eat, or the safe place we have to live, or people in our lives who love us, this awareness opens our capacity to both appreciate one’s own privilege and to wish such comfort for all people. This wish can then lead to action, to advocate for increased equality for those who weren’t dealt as much advantage as you were. This path, starting with mindfulness – being aware and accepting of the present moment – leading to gratitude, and resulting in action awaits us all, and I appreciate the opportunity of ritualizing and sharing it with others through the Thanksgiving holiday.

This call for action is especially strong when we stop to consider the historical context of Thanksgiving involving our country’s shameful mistreatment and genocide of indigenous people. As we mourn the loss of so many lives and cultural richness, this reflection can motivate us to consider our obligations to those who continue to suffer persecution and discrimination in the world and to act to make this a kinder and more just world.

Dana Schuster Pic

Dana Schuster

Over the years, I have gotten better at embedding the HAES model’s underlying concepts of non-judgment and individual self-care into our family Thanksgiving gatherings. Fortunately, I seem to be part of an extended family where the marginal-to-non-functional relationships stay mostly in the background, and where those with resources have been willing to share with those whose resources were more limited. Even so, in the past there were often way too many “favorite casseroles” with their accompanying need for oven space and scrubbing-out post dinner, which elevated everyone’s stress level, as well as far too many laments of “I shouldn’t eat so much or I’ll get fat!” As one of my family’s main “chefs” and often the host of the Thanksgiving dinner, exhaustion and frustration and overwhelm – all of which are NOT part of the HAES model IMHO – have tended to accompany the fabulous smell of a turkey roasting in my oven.

So, here are a few HAES supportive strategies that have made a difference to me that you might consider:

SIMPLIFY. It is not essential that every single favorite dish of every single family member from every past celebration be included in every Thanksgiving dinner. When I first suggested changing this tradition years ago, I received considerable push-back. It wasn’t long however, before it became clear that family members were quite relieved and grateful to not feel obligated to contribute to the meal. And what a difference it made for oven space and clean-up!

LET GO OF PERFECTION. Norman Rockwell will not actually attend your (or my) gathering. If you are the host, the house does not have to be decked-out in lovely fall decorations, nor does the table have to be magazine photo ready. Children do not have to be angelic or attired in matching outfits. Dinner does not have to be served at the exact time you suggested it might be. Whatever “perfect scenario” you think great-Grandma Sally expects one to create is neither important nor likely to help the family get along. YOU are enough as you are, and being relatively calm and self-assured (pretend as though you’re not there yet) will make a true difference in everyone’s experience.

INVITE A NON-FAMILY FRIEND TO DINNER. When I first thought of this I had no idea what one different person, relatively unfamiliar to extended family members, could do to break up the old negative routines families often fall into when we get together. Having one (or more) of my good HAES friends be part of Thanksgiving not only helped me have more fun and gave me someone who wouldn’t treat me like a “child” or inundate me with eating advice to engage with, it led to everyone else channeling their best behavior. Who knew?!

ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT AND THEN BE READY WITH YOUR ”ESCAPE PLAN”. I ask that everyone refrain from negative talk about their own or others’ body size/shape or eating behaviors. I ask that we all do our best to listen to one another and maintain a sense of humor if conversations get difficult. I ask that we try not to put our own expectations about how someone should enjoy the Thanksgiving time together on anyone else. This means that if someone wants to converse or not converse, or sleep in the big chair after dinner, or go for a walk — it’s all good. And just in case it gets to a point where one’s “asks” are being ignored, promise yourself ahead of time that you will excuse yourself without apology or asking for permission and find a quiet part of the house for a few minutes. Or offer to get something from the kitchen and be slow about it. Or take the dog outside. Or spend a little longer in the bathroom than absolutely required. Escape options can make all the difference.

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