How can we be kind to our bodies this summer?
The summer holidays usually arrive with a whole lot of rituals and expectations, including food-laden parties, Holiday feasts, and extra attention to the way that we look. Then there’s the added pressure from a ramped-up diet industry telling us that our bodies aren’t good enough and that we need to make resolutions to change them in the New Year.
It can be tricky for anyone to navigate and is especially difficult for those of us experiencing body image concerns or an eating disorder.
Jennifer White, who suffered from an eating disorder for years, says Holiday gatherings were extremely stressful for her. “In the Australian culture, people feel comfortable to comment on how people look, what people wear, and what people eat.” she says. Even casual conversations about shape and size would invariably destroy her self-esteem and trigger disordered eating behaviours.
Clinical psychologist Chris Cheers wouldn’t find Jennifer’s reaction surprising. “People connect the way that their body looks with their ability to be liked or to form relationships,” he says. There seems to be this idea that you need to look a particular way to secure a partner or to be with friends.”
Butterfly National Helpline Supervisor Tania Nichols agrees, “There’s a lot of anxiety around potential judgement from others, and it’s all magnified for people who are experiencing disordered eating and eating disorders because most Holiday festivities happen around food.”
By being aware about body image concerns and eating disorders, friends, family and community can make a world of difference for the person with lived experience. In this podcast, we talk about how we can resist summer pressures and triggers, and provide authentic support. We can start by taking cues from the person we care about. It’s best to reach out and connect than to think you’re unqualified to support them at all, because most of the time, just listening helps.
Tania Nichols, Matt Zonca, Sam Ikin, Chris Cheers, Jennifer White
Jennifer White 00:07
The Australian culture, people feel really comfortable, rightly or wrongly, to comment on how people look what people wear, what people eat.
Tania Nichols 00:20
Anxiety around potential judgement from people what people are going to think, you know, other kind of be the inevitable comments around, you know, how do people look in comparison to how they looked last year? Are they bigger? Are they smaller?
Chris Cheers 00:35
I think it’s about first making sure you have a relationship with your family or your friends that is grounded in openness and honesty.
Matt Zonca 00:43
The best way I found was actually connect with people around that table who at least, I would feel comfortable with. It’s easier said than done. But it wasn’t impossible.
Sam Ikin 00:55
Look, I’m not gonna lie summer and the holiday season can be really tough for people with body image issues, and eating disorders. For the people who are living with these conditions, this is no surprise. But for those who are friends, family or carers, it might be a little bit more difficult to understand and if that’s you, this episode is especially for you. If you have a lived experience, you might want to share this with people who you think might want to hear it, or you think need to hear it. This is Butterfly: Let’s Talk. I’m Sam Ikin and please excuse the scratchy voice, I’ve just been off for a few weeks with the flu. Zero stars would not recommend. It’s such a lovely time of year for those of us who get into it. I like to put the Christmas tree up in November. That’s how into it I am. But I’m also really careful about the situations I put myself into. It’s a season that sees an increase in socialising and celebrating with others.
Jennifer White 01:50
There’s a huge diet culture that comes out around Christmas and summer. I’m Jen white, and I am a 42 year old woman who has experienced a whole lot in life. It was just over two years ago that I decided to have bariatric surgery. And throughout that journey, I actually through the support group that the hospital provider through the psychologist actually found that I had binge eating disorder and thought that that was just a normal way of eating when I was describing my eating habits to the psychologist preparing for pre surgery. And the she said to me exactly what you’ve just shared with me is is clinical diagnosis of binge eating disorder. Have you ever been diagnosed with that before? For me, it was a real “aha” moment. And and since that I have been on the road to recovery, which is fantastic and have come across the Butterfly Foundation as part of my recovery journey.
Sam Ikin 02:56
Every year, there’s something there’s always the family and friends who let’s face it, you probably only see around this time of year, every year, who are going to make comments about our bodies and tell us about the new diet that they’re on, or they just want to talk about the latest article they read about CrossFit and how we should all be trying it. There’s always someone who has to comment on the new, maybe unusually skimpy fashion someone’s wearing, they’re probably blissfully unaware that someone is feeling very insecure about their body, or actively experiencing an eating disorder.
Jennifer White 03:29
The 10 years before I started my recovery and would think about you know, the summer months I’d go oh my god, it’s gonna be hot all the summer beautiful clothes, like short skirts, shorts, you know, shoestring singlets, I was just like, get me out of here. I just want to hibernate in my house. I don’t want to see anyone. It was really overwhelming to be honest and you know, summer and then Christmas, like you said, Sam, everyone wants to get together and it’s really focused around food. And that again, was super overwhelming and I felt really anxious about going to events. So there were many times when I would just say “No, I’m busy.”
Tania Nichols 04:09
As it comes closer and closer, most of us in general start to feel the stress around organising things and getting together with people that we haven’t seen for ages. And of course that’s magnified for people who are experiencing disordered eating and eating disorders because all of these festivities, of course happen around food.
Sam Ikin 04:30
This is Tanya Nichols, the clinical supervisor for Butterfly’s National Helpline, and we’ll hear more from her in a minute. But first, what’s something that would have helped Jennifer get more involved in family festivities back when she was feeling so insecure about them?
Jennifer White 04:44
I wish that I was educated to know more about eating disorders and to know that, you know, the way that I was thinking and feeling and behaving was part of the eating disorder itself. But without that and and you know, I hope that this conversation brings to light that it’s okay to have the conversation. You know, people shouldn’t be embarrassed because there’s so many people that are undiagnosed with binge eating disorder today, that if we can normalise that and create the conversation, that people won’t feel so alone, because it really can be a lonely journey.
Tania Nichols 05:19
it’s kind of rare that people put on hold their concerns about body image that, you know, we all enjoy the food and the festivities. But I don’t know, there’s always comments around, oh, well, I’ll go on a diet after this, or I better get back on my plan after this. Lovely, you know, Christmas feast, or whatever it is, I’ve had.
Sam Ikin 05:42
People with a lived experience become really good at avoiding these situations where we’re expected to dress in a certain way, or we’re just not comfortable to sit around and feast with people that we don’t see very often. But during the silly season, it’s harder to steer clear of those kinds of events. This is where we need a little bit of extra compassion, and understanding. And on our part, maybe a little bit more planning.
Matt Zonca 06:04
It wasn’t so much the event what it was, was particular stresses when I was placed in a situation where I didn’t feel comfortable. My name is Matt. So my own experience of an eating disorder goes back to 1984. But I always say that the great question is where does an eating disorder start? Mine started with the passing on of a parent it was never quite resolved because like with the eating disorder I was, when it hit its height, it was when I was 14, it was 1984. You look at the men and boys perspective support there was it was like a almost like on the Ausie landscape, but I think that would have been across the world too, how can a man a boy, man, oh, boy get an eating disorder as much as anyone else there was this thing of? How’s that possible?
Jennifer White 06:56
I think that the Australian culture, people feel really comfortable, rightly or wrongly, to comment on how people look what people wear, what people eat. And I really feel like at functions that I have gone to in the past, whether it be family, friends, work, whatever, that it’s just something that people say without really having a second thought. But upon reflection, it can be it was really triggering for me. And it can I guess be triggering for others.
Matt Zonca 07:29
Often you find with eating disorders that when you’re in places, which don’t feel comfortable, and people are trying to be well meaning for example, a lot of times for example, looking back at ’84, around about the time, yes, people well meaning, but it was more that it felt like I was pushed into situations where I didn’t want to be and and it was also too like you’d get sat at a table full of people and they expecting you to eat certain portions or basically indulge as we all do during that time. It felt like a lot of the time people go and we’ll come on come on. Just we have something to eat. Or perhaps actually can you partake in this part of the celebration, and they’ve put an angle on it their own angle without fully understanding or even being in the moment and being understanding about the fact that really is something going on. Perhaps it’s it’s just best to watch, observe, be kind and actually listen, because the most important thing I would have liked to have been listened to at that time. Maybe it’s because of the background where basically, we came from a sort of working class background, the expectation was that you finish things. So you’ve got the singer, you need to finish everything on your plate. And here’s me, here’s me thinking, Well, no, don’t, I’ll bet you there becomes this, this running battle.
Jennifer White 08:46
I always felt like if I was out at a function, I would choose to eat less, rather than eat more. And then when I was in private after the function, I would I would eat other food if I was stressed or felt shame or guilt that was a real trigger for me to go into a binge eating episode. And you know when it is that it’s the summer months and you know, you kind of want to be looking and feeling your best that it’s totally counter intuitive because when I would be eating you know, it would be healthy foods that I’d be eating like fruits and salads, it would be you know, high salt, high fat content, food takeaway, easy stuff that you can kind of get on the run empty calories, and then that would totally work against me because that would then help to put on the kilos, which is something that I desperately wanted to take off. So it’s this spiral that you know, you kind of once it is that you’re aware of it it’s a real circuit breaker but when it is that you don’t know that it’s happening, it can feel really like a loss of control.
Sam Ikin 09:47
And it is a such a spiral, isn’t it? Like you just go into this spiral where you you don’t want to eat in front of people, so you make choices to grab things that you can when you’re on the run like in the car or whatever and they tend to be things that don’t make you feel great healthwise, and then you feel worse about it. For most industries, the Christmas/New Year period is huge. And unfortunately, that’s also true for the diet industry. This destructive culture’s messaging ramps up exponentially this time of year telling us to prepare to slim down, get our beach bodies ready tone up and pursue beauty ideals splashed across the media. And of course, the media picks it all up and runs with it.
Chris Cheers 10:28
I think the issue I see a lot is people connect the way their body looks with their ability to be liked, or to form relationships with people. And Chris Cheers. I’m a psychologist working here in Naam. I’m also an educator, so a lecturer in psychology and an author. People don’t think I look hot, people don’t think I look good enough. Which then becomes internalised as that sense of, I am not good enough or I don’t look good enough for no one will like me. I’m not lovable, those really challenging difficult internalised messages that that we can really start to develop and can be exacerbated over this summer period.
Sam Ikin 11:07
Is it as almost a worthiness kind of thing?
Chris Cheers 11:11
Will we start to I think, sort of notice our worth is what we look like, whether it be social media or dating apps, it’s it’s very focused on what people look like. We read that as Okay, well my worth or the starting point has to be what I look like, sure, I might be a kind person, I might be great communicater, and I’d be great listener, all those things people might know about themselves. But it still feels like first needs to come what I look like before people will engage with me or like me, or whatever the the thing is that we connect our work to in terms of our appearance.
Sam Ikin 11:46
Studies have shown that summer can increase the severity of eating disorders, researchers call it seasonal body image. It refers to changes in body image that occur throughout the seasons. A study of 823 sexual minority men found out that 70% experienced seasonal body image, summer being the peak season for body dissatisfaction.
Chris Cheers 12:08
This is it’s something that you know, impacts people of all genders. But I certainly see sometimes the impact on you know, gay men and queer men and male bodies is something that some sometimes isn’t as sort of talked about or as known. As a psychologist, I work a lot with the LGBTQ plus population, is an area work in, and also with adolescents and young people. So within that challenges with body image, I work with people with eating disorders, and also just people who are generally trying to cope with the pressures to look a certain way. The guy and queer men that I work with especially start to feel that pressure to look a particular way, which comes up with summer, which obviously is when Christmas happens here in Australia.
Sam Ikin 12:56
In a different study of 52,677 heterosexual adults, 31% of women avoided wearing a swimsuit in public due to weight concerns and anxiety about others judging their bodies. Even for people with lived experience who’ve been doing pretty well through the rest of the year, the pressures of summer and Christmas can bring the risk of renewed anxiety and relapse, statistically speaking.
Tania Nichols 13:21
Just being confronted with this whole barrage of experiences of you know, a whole array of food that I probably haven’t been exposed to for a long time. It with that amount altogether as well, how does that fit with how I’m feeling at the moment where I am with my recovery? Anxiety around potential judgement from people what people can think? Do I look, you know, are they gonna be the inevitable comments around, you know, how do people look in comparison to how they looked last year? Are they bigger? Are they smaller? You know, family members who might not be quite so familiar with what’s been happening for this person throughout the year in terms of their eating that might be trying to really, you know, encourage them to eat the latest dish that they’ve made and you know, the whole guilt of not eating Aunty so and so’s favourite favourite dish or whatever, all the feels around in the whole buffet and am I going to be the first up? What are people going to think? How much do I put on my plate? How are people going to, you know, judge me on the basis of what I’ve got?
Sam Ikin 14:30
I’m pretty sure that people hosting events or who go along to family gatherings really want to make the experience as positive as possible for everyone involved. And if they realised someone is uncomfortable, they do all they could to fix it, but how can you tell if you’re on the outside?
Tania Nichols 14:45
Oh, gosh, you know, everyone’s well, meaning. I think that’s the thing. You know, like no one means to upset anyone intentionally. But gosh, it’s such a trigger when someone comments on a person’s weight or otherwise, you know, either, as you were saying before all that shirts looking a bit skimpy or, conversely, you’re looking so well, which for someone you know, has been struggling with a restrictive eating disorder can be a real trigger.
Chris Cheers 15:20
I think it’s about first making sure you have a relationship with your family or your friends that is grounded in openness and honesty. You know, sometimes we can expect or hope perhaps that people will come to us when they need support, especially if they’re a friend or a family member. But rather than just having that hope, we really need to do things, you know, take actions to make sure that we are communicating to the people around us, that we are the kind of people that they can come to when things are hard. And we can do that by modelling being vulnerable ourselves. We can do that by showing that we go through hard things and this is, and this is a space where we can talk about that. But we can also do it just by putting the invitation out. I think the idea of invitation is really helpful when we’re talking about supporting people who are going through a tough time because we sometimes people can feel pressured. You know, if you’re going through a tough time and someone asks you how you’re going, it’s quite often you’re not going to feel ready to talk about it, you’re not going to feel maybe able to perhaps in that moment, talk about it. But and then it can feel like a pressure to do that. So I think just saying, you know, I’m here if you want to talk and then just leaving it at that, rather than trying to really pressure someone to talk before they’re ready.
Sam Ikin 16:35
Geez that’s some good advice. What are some of the behaviours that people might notice? Like, if we, if you wanted to describe what it looks like? How would you do that?
Chris Cheers 16:45
Any of these issues are so individual to every person, but what I would say is, what you’re looking for is a change in the person in terms of a change in their behaviour, a change in their, their eating behaviour, perhaps, or a change in their mood, a change in their emotions that seems to be related to body or to food. So looking for change is really important. And also looking for when people are perhaps not doing things that they used to enjoy, or things are starting to change where, you know, they might have used to love going out for dinner, or they might have used to love doing certain forms of exercise or love going down to the beach, or that now for seemingly no reason, things are starting to change, and they’re not participating in life as they used to. It’s almost harder because we have this idea that it should be joyous in the most wonderful time of the day. So it’s almost worse when it isn’t for you. This is why I’m so happy to be part of working with, you know, Butterfly Foundation this summer, to try and change some attitudes and some culture around this time. Christmas is this time when it’s summer so we start to get that idea of like having, you know, being summer body ready or having the, you know, the great summer body and these pressures can escalate on what our bodies should look like, and our parents should be. But at the same time, Christmas is also a time normally when we’re connecting with family, which can be obviously a joyous time for a lot of people. But for a lot of other people, it brings on pressures of you know, just those certain kinds of ways that family can get under your skin like no one else. And and especially when it comes to body or eating, you know, Christmas can be a pretty challenging space for people to have these pressures around them from from family, especially.
Sam Ikin 18:28
So you’re, you’re trying to sort of work out whether or not that’s what they want and then sort of you know, offer to lead the way whether or not that’s something particularly want to do or not, is that what you’re saying?
Tania Nichols 18:28
You know, if you are at an event and you notice that friend or loved one who has been struggling with their eating, is starting to withdraw a little bit, be a bit quiet, take themselves out of the conversation, and they might have slowed down or they might seem a bit hesitant around making food choices, just modelling not calling it out in front of people at the time but just sort of, you know, casually saying, you know, I’m still hungry, I’m gonna go back and get such and such. And when that said casually, that can sort of open the door up for someone to go yep, that’s normal. I’m gonna go and do that, too. You might be able to lead the way keep the conversation away from body image, body weight, shape and food at the table like do we really need to be talking about I think the one thing that comes up from that I notice is I think I’ve said it before are we better go on a diet tomorrow after all of this? You know, do we say that when we go to another event like a concert or something? I bet I have a rotten time for the next two weeks because I’ve had such a great time today. Like it’s a it’s a festivity, enjoy it for what it is. Hold the comments around what you should and shouldn’t be doing, and model that for other people and keep the conversation around other stuff and, and distraction. Say your partner or child or your loved one is experiencing an eating disorder and they have been going through treatment, it can be really, really helpful to talk about what events we’re going to go to, and what might be served. And you know, what they might prefer, you know, what would be most comfortable for them, what you know, what a normal serving might look like, and even to involve the treatment team in those discussions can be really helpful, and who they might feel most comfortable sitting with, at the all time because having someone who’s a little bit aware of the struggles that you’ve been going through, you might be able to sit close by and just be a point of support just by them being there.
Sam Ikin 20:59
The stress people tend to suffer around this time of year has been shown to predict eating disorder relapse. It can be devastating to someone’s recovery, and compounded because your support network might be out of town with therapists on leave, there are ways that you can prepare yourself so that these stressful situations will have less of an effect on you.
Matt Zonca 21:21
You’ve kind of got to sympathise with someone coming from that older generation who goes “What the hell is an eating disorder, I’ve never heard of it.” And that’s why with the younger souls around me, it’s also because I connected with more sensitive souls, it depends on actually, the group’s aware of your peers, whatever it is. So having that connection with your peers, where they can be a very good role model for you is an absolute plus, in these situations. If someone wasn’t going to listen to me, instead of putting up shutting up, it’s actually go well, I, I really would like to actually sit next to this, this person who I get along with. So it doesn’t mean that your auntie would go grunt at you or anything like that. But the best way I found was actually connect with people around that table who at least, I would feel comfortable with. It’s easier said than done. But it wasn’t impossible.
Chris Cheers 22:17
It’s normal for this to be a hard time. And it’s normal for this to bring up lots of complex emotions at Christmas time, I think I would say to them, not only to plan this time to think about what are the kinds of social occasions the kinds of social events, the kind of relationships that you want to give your time and energy to that are important to you, and plan around making sure those happen. But also thinking about the kinds of relationships or events that aren’t that important to you that maybe you can step out of, maybe you don’t have to be part of, to really try to notice, Christmas is an incredible type of expectation, you know, you’re almost expected what you meant to do, where you’re meant to be what you’re meant to eat, how you’re meant to feel, when you’re meant to feel it, there’s a huge amount of expectation. So I would say sort of try and give yourself permission to notice those expectations. But choose instead to go inward, and be guided by what’s important to you be guided by your body and what you need. And try and tune out of all those expectations, that that are very loud.
Jennifer White 23:28
You know, people don’t know if other people have an eating disorder or not. So I think it’s around just showing general support for people and being kind to others. And what I mean by that is commenting on how fantastic it is to see the person and you know, you know, “It’s great to see you, how have you been,” comments rather than “I love what you’re wearing?” or “How have you been you look like you under the weather,” or “You look really tired,” or anything around food or anything like that? If it is that people that really care about you notice a change in your actions or behaviours or, you know, it’s around maybe having a conversation, a private one on one conversation at a different time, not at a social event, and simply asking, “are you okay?” I don’t think we do that enough as a society. So and just to know that if someone says, “Well, actually, I’m not okay and I think I’ve got an eating disorder,” or I, “I have recently found out I haven’t eating disorder,” or “I do have an eating disorder,” to know that an eating disorder does not define a person it’s a disease and it’s a recoverable disease. So I would recommend everyone to actually go online and read and actually be prepared to how to have that conversation and don’t be afraid to have the conversation because it’s simply just inviting a conversation with someone that you love and that you care for. And and you know the the Christmas festive spirit, let’s really lean into it together.
Sam Ikin 25:03
This is where we have to wrap up this episode but to find out more about how you can help make it a summer of kindness, check out butterflies website butterfly.org.au and then go to the Summer of Kindness campaign page. If you need direct support, the best place to start is the Butterfly Helpline on 1800 33 46 74 that’s 1800 33 46 74 or 1800 ED HOPE or you can chat online butterfly.org.au. Our heartfelt thanks goes out to our guests Chris Cheers, Tanya Nichols, Jennifer White and Matt Zonca. Butterfly: Let’s Talk is produced by Ikin Media for Butterfly Foundation. Our executive producer is Camilla Becket, lived experience producer is Kate Mulray. Scripting and research is done by Bronwyn Lisson, and editing and sound designed by our master audio genius Brendan Lenehan. I’m Sam Ikin. Thank you so much for your company.