National Eating Disorders Association

Navigating the 4th of July: Finding the Emotional Freedom You Deserve

August McLaughlin

For many Americans, the Fourth of July brings thoughts of fireworks, family togetherness, sumptuous barbecue feasts and fresh lemonade. If you’re one of the millions of individuals who struggle with disordered eating or an eating disorder, however, celebrating may be the furthest thing from your mind.

“I used to love July 4th,” said Kelsey H., a 25-year-old with an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified in Los Angeles. “I want so badly to be able to enjoy time with my family, but all I can think about is food—my longing for and hate of it. If I indulge, I feel guilty. If I don’t, I’m depressed. And either way, I feel like everyone’s watching me.”

Having endured an eating disorder myself, I empathize with Kelsey. It’s never easy when our rational thoughts disagree with our emotions and—if you have an active eating disorder—the ever haunting voice of “E.D.” Like many people who’ve surpassed such an illness, I also know that a bit of strategizing can go a long way toward reducing holiday angst, making way for the peace and pleasure you deserve.

8 Ways to Add Sparkle to an Emotionally Challenging Holiday

Work the buddy system. Little feels as lonely as having an eating disorder flare-up amid a crowd. If you feel ready to face stressors, such as a food-filled event, psychologist Stephanie K. Glassman Ph.D. suggests bringing a trusted friend who knows about your challenges along. “Make an agreement together about how you will handle situations, and leave together if you feel too uncomfortable,” she said. Your need-to-exit signal could be as simple as a hand squeeze or a remark, such as, “What time is it?”

Don’t feel obligated to enter danger zones. If you don’t feel ready to face stressful situations, give yourself permission to opt out. Would you want a loved one to attend a function that caused him or her significant pain? Probably not. Your loved ones, whether they understand what you’re enduring or not, want what’s best for you. You don’t have to confide more details than you feel ready to. Politely opt out, perhaps with an offer to see the organizer at an alternate time and place you feel comfortable with.

Take healthy control. Once you decide to attend an event, advance planning can help tremendously. Rather than plot dietary restriction, Glassman suggests planning to eat three balanced meals and avoiding alcohol to keep your appetite, energy and emotions in check on holidays. Having a game plan can help prevent meal skippage and overeating, both of which can exacerbate stress and facilitate unhealthy behaviors.

Prepare foods you feel comfortable eating. If certain foods trigger anxiety or harmful behaviors, there’s no need to eat them at gatherings—but you need to have options. As an alternative, prepare a dish or two you can eat comfortably, for yourself and to share with others. To better manage daylong events, keep snacks you can eat with ease in your purse or pocket.

Shift your focus. I know. Telling someone with an eating disorder to avoid thinking about food is like telling an English-speaker to start thinking and dreaming in Spanish. But you know what? It’s possible. When I was struggling with anorexia, I found making asserted efforts to engage with others, taking genuine interest in their words and thoughts, hugely helpful. Ask others about their work lives, summer vacations or hobbies. Talk about music. Sports. Anything you find compelling that has nothing to do with physical appearance or food.

Walk away from negative influences. While recovering from bulimia, a friend of mine grappled with family functions because a particular relative made frequent remarks about her weight and how much she was or wasn’t eating. It’s easy to feel obligated to mingle with loved ones who lack sensitivity or perhaps aren’t aware of your challenges. If they truly love you, they’ll understand—or at least accept—your need for distance. If topics arise that trigger or worsen your discomfort, walk away. If you need to conjure an excuse (such as “I need to make a phone call”) so be it. Make your wellbeing a top priority.

Wear comfy clothes that fit. Summertime apparel can be a major source of anxiety for people with eating disorders—but it doesn’t have to be. Wear comfortable clothes that fit and ignore the size tags, or heck—remove them! You can’t measure your self-worth or judge it by a number. You can, however, wear your favorite color, choose fabrics that feel luscious against your skin and spend less time before mirrors and more time focusing on gratitude.

Write (or sing, paint, draw...) your heart out. Long before I pursued writing professionally, I found taking the pen to the page incredibly therapeutic. Free-writing our thoughts, without judgment or concern for typos or grammatical imperfections, allows us to explore our deepest feelings, giving us perspective and providing a sense of release. Other forms of creativity can be similarly beneficial. What matters is that we express ourselves somehow.

When I asked Kelsey what she would tell others who are struggling with eating disorders this summer, she thought for a long moment then sat up straight, almost smiling. “I’d say don’t ever give up,” she said. “Even though I’m nervous about the 4th, I know I’ll get through it, because I did last year. Little by little it gets easier.” (Amen, Kelsey!) It can get easier for you, too.