Along with cozy sweaters and pumpkin patches, fall also brings Halloween, which, like many other holidays, can be triggering for individuals struggling with an eating disorder. Food that is considered by diet culture to be “bad,” like candy and cookies, are often a huge part of celebrations, and choosing a costume may be fraught with body image concerns and the pressure to look a certain way.
In this post, we’ll discuss why Halloween can be difficult for anyone actively coping with an eating disorder as well as those in recovery. We’ll also cover how to navigate those anxious feelings and how to find alternative ways to enjoy the holiday if you’re not feeling up to traditional activities.
Many people who battle restrictive-type eating disorders like anorexia have a mental list of “good” food and “bad” food or categories of foods that are “safe” or “unsafe” to eat. Candy, and sugar in general, is usually on the list of “bad” foods. In eating disorder treatment, we learn that all types of food can have a place in a person’s life. Candy on Halloween is one example of this. Candy is not the enemy, a poison, or a “bad” food. In reality, all food is good food and there is nothing wrong with consuming candy sometimes, particularly on Halloween.
Navigating treats on Halloween can also be difficult for those with binge eating disorder (BED). When celebrating Halloween, it’s common for people to go to the grocery store and buy a big bag of candy for trick-or-treaters. For those with BED, it could be triggering to have so much candy in their home. In this case, it may be better to avoid handing out candy; there are many other things that could be handed out in its place. Glowsticks, play dough, temporary tattoos, pencils, erasers, stickers, bubbles, bracelets, or stress balls/bouncy balls are all great alternatives to candy. There is also the option to turn off your porch light and not hand out treats. No one will think twice about it.
If you’re planning to participate in trick-or-treating but you’re not comfortable collecting candy, you can forgo that part of it. There are many organizations that give an alternative to trick-or-treating like the Teal Pumpkin Project, or the Switch Witch. If candy is received and not wanted, donating to different organizations is always an option. The key is to do what’s best for your health and recovery.
“What are you going as this year?”
When choosing a costume, simply do whatever feels comfortable for you. There can be pressure to dress a certain way or join in on group costumes, but if any part of the costume choice feels too revealing, too covered-up, too anything for you, don’t feel like you need to do what everyone else is doing. There are no obligations or right or wrong ways to wear a costume.
On the flip side, if you have a friend who is coping with an eating disorder or body image issues, be mindful of how that person might feel about dressing up. Suggest costumes with wiggle-room for modifications, such as long pants or sleeves, to help your friend feel more comfortable. If they’re not comfortable wearing a costume at all, be supportive and don’t put any pressure on them. If a person isn’t comfortable dressing a certain way, they don’t have to. That feeling should be respected every day of the year.
What about feelings that can arise when you see other people dressed up in costumes? It’s common knowledge that many people dress in revealing Halloween costumes. While there’s nothing wrong with that, those actively struggling with an eating disorder or in early stages of recovery may fall into a comparison spiral upon seeing others in costumes that show a lot of skin. In the same way you may want to avoid certain Instagram influencers while you’re in a sensitive stage of your eating disorder or recovery, you may want to avoid parties where you’d expect to see revealing costumes. Be aware of what makes you feel triggered or uncomfortable so you can plan your Halloween celebrations accordingly.
Halloween party tips
All of the challenges we’ve discussed may potentially come together at a Halloween party. If you choose to attend a party this year, here are some tips to help navigate those get-togethers:
Leave enough preparation time and know what to expect when it comes to food and costumes. Look at the guest list and see who will be there, schedule a time to leave, and make a food plan if that’s helpful for you.
It is okay to tell people to not discuss treatment or appearance either for yourself or someone you are supporting. Asking for that form of respect is a great method of practicing self-care.
Rely on Support Systems
Those who are aware of your eating disorder have the potential to be a great source of strength and support during holiday celebrations. These trusted people may be friends, family, a partner, or a sibling.
In some cases, the party scene may be too overwhelming for someone with an eating disorder. You may choose to pass on house parties and celebrate the holiday in a different way. Going to a pumpkin patch or an apple orchard is an option if that may be more comfortable if you’re coping with an eating disorder. Watching scary movies/television shows, playing scary video games, or having a bonfire and telling spooky stories will certainly make it feel like Halloween. Even making DIY decorations like paintings, pumpkin carving (or no-carve pumpkins), making candles, or arranging bouquets can be fun Halloween activities.
As with any holiday, you don’t need to celebrate Halloween if you’re not ready for it. Staying in and passing on the holiday may be best for some, while others may enjoy celebrating in their own way. Eventually, there may be a time when choosing a costume won’t be bothersome, a big bag of candy may no longer have any power, or indulging in a cookie may not come with any hesitation or regret. Recovery can be a long road, but someday your recovered mind and body will be thankful that you didn’t give up.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to Veritas Collaborative at 855-875-5812. Individualized and multidisciplinary care and support are offered for adolescents and families who are struggling with an eating disorder.