Shame and sugar-free cookies: On navigating the holidays after a life of disordered eating

“Don’t choose famine when you have the opportunity to feast"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published December 15, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Red wine at the Christmas dinner table (Getty Images/Xsandra)
Red wine at the Christmas dinner table (Getty Images/Xsandra)

As a child, I spent hours poring over the pages of "D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths," using my finger to trace over vivid illustrations of scenes that brought me both delight and dismay. There was the story of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, who fiercely defended women and wildlife with her bow. There were tales of heroes' risky voyages along the River Styx, the waterway that connected the human world with the underworld, and of their attempt to thwart Hades, the god of the dead.

The story that interested me the most, however, was that of Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility and mirth. Dionysus was the son of Zeus, the result of one of his seemingly innumerable affairs with mere mortals, which ended poorly. Zeus' "jealous wife" Hera convinced Semele (Dionysus' mother) to ask to see him in all his godly splendor. Zeus tried to dissuade Semele of this request, saying that he would appear in a light brighter than a thousand earthly sons, but she didn't listen.

After his mother's death, Dionysus was raised by Maenads, the nymphs of the valley, and had tigers and leopards for playmates. He eventually grew to be handsome (in that unearthly way that I suppose only gods are handsome) and traveled the world teaching men and women how to make wine.

When Dionysus was eventually given a throne on Olympus alongside his resurrected and now-immortal mother, "the music was filled with the music of flutes and tambourines; never had there been such din and merriment on Olympus."

Compared to some of the more conniving and vengeful gods, Dionysus was pleasantly simple. When he approached mortals, he'd make them some variation of this promise: I bring you pleasure — all you have to do is take it.

I bring you pleasure — all you have to do is take it.

It was an appealing proposition because even as a child, I understood that in my modern life — one ruled by fearing the wrath of a very specific God rather than that of a series of storybook gods — people want to tell you that pleasure comes with strings

This is something I'm reminded of as I open my work email every winter. It's the time of year when my inbox becomes increasingly punctuated with words like "guilt" and "shame." Not over anything I've said or done, but rather in reference to what I'm planning to eat.

As soon as October hits, the emails start, touting "healthy" substitutes for Halloween candy, such as boxes of raisins or non-caramelized apples. When Halloween passes, it's time to make a game plan for Thanksgiving, which may include — as one email put it — swapping mashed cauliflower for "your grandmother's fat-laden mashed potatoes" and bringing your own sugar-free pumpkin pie to gatherings if "you're worried about temptation."

Working in food, these emails come all year, but the connections made between shame and consumption are far more acute — and thus more bleak — during the holiday season. Film and TV reinforce that this is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year, and you're kind of a Scrooge if you don't partake. Simultaneously, there's an undercurrent of messages that shame individuals for eating and drinking with glee. Of course, evidence of this dichotomy isn't only restricted to my inbox.

Diet culture works overtime during the winter months, which has resulted in a slate of holiday recipes based on deletions, substitutions and swaps. While some of these are for folks who have dietary restrictions and distinct health needs, others are simply marketed to the masses under the ambiguous guise of "health," when they're often really talking about thinness.

About a week ago, a dear friend of mine — who also happens to be a dietician — sent me a screenshot of a list she saw online for "healthy holiday foods." The first item was cruciferous vegetables, and the last item was water. It said that if you wanted to be "a little naughty," you could have some fruit and nuts . . . or a sugar-free cookie.

Her only comment? "This is some bulls**t."

Indeed, the idea of sitting at the holiday table with a plate of broccoli, a few apple slices and some pecans in pursuit of thinness is some bulls**t, but remember, diet culture is built on the notion that pleasure comes with strings (and you should never confront someone about what is on their plate).

For a very long time, the god of pleasure who had so appealed to me as a young child was replaced with a crueler god, The Pursuit of Thinness. Under its omnipresent, watchful eye, I could indulge in joy, but only if I deprived myself first.

As a 90s kid, I definitely remember eating two bowls of Special K or drinking two Slimfast shakes in lieu of breakfast and lunch in order to compensate for holiday dinners. Eventually, I just stopped eating in the hours — and then days, as I got older — leading up to a party. I carried a pocket-sized book, which I rescued from the bottom of my mother's junk drawer. It was filled with the calorie and fat counts for hundreds of popular foods. Meanwhile, my father's copy of "Eat This, Not That" became a Bible of sorts.

For a very long time, the god of pleasure who had so appealed to me as a young child was replaced with a crueler god, The Pursuit of Thinness. Under its omnipresent, watchful eye, I could indulge in joy, but only if I deprived myself first.

Over the years, my relationship with food and festivity has evened out. Through working in food, I've been able to rediscover the joy inherent to it, waiting to be discovered as you bite into a nectar-filled peach or a pillowy layer of ricotta spread between lasagna noodles. Moderation has its place in its life, but the disdain I used to show for my body and its hunger does not.

While some view calling one's behavior "Dionysian" as an insult, conflating sensuality with lecherousness or debauchery, this holiday season, I mean it to say, "Don't choose famine when you have the opportunity to feast."

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Diet Culture Dieting Dionysus Disordered Eating Essay Food Holidays