IMAGES AND WORDS BY MARINA SCOTT
CN: eating disorders,
domestic abuse, slurs
Don’t get me wrong – I love my family. It’s just that, if I’m honest, I find adjusting to new spaces (or revisiting old ones) difficult. Though changing from one physical environment to another is odd, especially for someone whose mental health has had a stark effect on their bodily appearance, the dislocation isn’t primarily physical. Habits and the people we’re surrounded by for most of us change starkly when we leave uni for the vacation. Being uprooted from a secure support network – within an atmosphere where people seem to be roughly or acutely on our wavelength – is hard enough, yet feelings of discomfort are only amplified when the place we return to is not necessarily one we associate with a stable period of mental health. Add the strains that come with Christmas itself – or Hanukkah, or any other festival where we’re supposed to be unified in celebration – into this jumble and it truly all gets a bit much to process.
Much like the conventions associated with seeing family at more generalised times of year, these festivities are supposed to overflow with joy, love, and comfort. However, for many of us it’s just not that simple. Family life is often strained, and not everyone enjoys a seamlessly smooth relationship with their next of kin (read: older generations with political views that you despise, the horrors of domestic abuse, ignorance surrounding mental health and how to helpfully approach it, ableist or homophobic slurs being used without anyone seeming to bat an eyelid etc).
“Feelings of discomfort are only amplified when the place we return to is not necessarily one we associate with a stable period of mental health”
The Christmas period can be particularly jarring precisely because of the fact that we’re meant to be so endlessly celebratory and gleeful. If we’re unhappy when everyone expects the opposite of us, it only serves to highlight and further negative feelings, as well as fostering new ones of inadequacy and disappointment owing to the that we’re unable to be the bundle of joy and energy that “the Christmas spirit” (whatever that is) supposedly imbues us with.
Without meaning to slate Christian beliefs at the heart of the festival in the slightest, the way our culture goes about celebrating Christmas is just quite… strange. Looking at the way Christmas functions on a systemic level exposes what seems to be a corporate field-day (underlying the altruistic motivations of atomised friends and family). When the Christmas songs start blaring in November (November!), I feel a sense of creeping dread. The whole ritual of Christmas seems so materialistically focused and tarnished by the interests of profit (operating as the ultimate branding tool for a good six weeks of the year) that it almost becomes difficult to reconcile the celebration with the values from which it stems.
Further, the contradictory messages purported by the media become particularly ridiculous over the Christmas period. We’re supposed and indeed expected to indulge in rich and decadent foods: it’s ceremonious to stuff yourself at Christmas lunch. However, it’s hardly as if the social judgements and constructed norms surrounding our bodies are suspended over the period – think of the last time you saw a woman in a Christmas advert who was bigger that a size 8. (The answer is rarely, potentially even never.)
“Looking at the way Christmas functions on a systemic level exposes what seems to be a corporate field-day”
Our bodies and eating habits are arguably put centre-stage during food-centric holidays more than ever. Others (often family members) feel it’s acceptable to comment on these, not necessarily out of malice but more through mere ignorance. The Christmas period – for this among other reasons, not least the aforementioned encouraged binge eating – can become nightmarish for those battling eating disorders, and can have catastrophic results for those in recovery from these.
This isn’t supposed to be exclusively an exclamation of “Bah Humbug!” that shuffles away angrily into the ether to no effectual end. I actually quite enjoy some aspects of Christmas, but just think that we need to ditch the rose-tinted narrative that puts in on a such a pedestal, discourage stellar expectations, and talk candidly about the difficulties that it may pose. Christmas can be hard. It can be exhausting. My personal strategies for managing include having at least one close friend at hand to text when it gets overwhelming and a lot of drawing, which this year has largely centred on satirising the ironies of the holiday period. If we recognise that Christmas is not an easy celebration for everyone, educate ourselves in how our own and others’ mental health is impacted by the peculiarities of the festive period, and cut ourselves some slack for not being able to be the happy-go-lucky Christmas caricatures painted in our minds by the relentless ads, then the holidays can be not just survivable, but positive.