What Halloween is like for people with eating disorders

The candy and costumes on Halloween can trigger people struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder. (Photo: Getty Images)
The candy and costumes on Halloween can trigger people struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder. (Photo: Getty Images)

While people everywhere prepare for the fun and gore that is Halloween, many are dealing with the possibility of facing their fears when it comes to confronting celebrations centered around candy and costumes.

For people dealing with body image issues or suffering from an eating disorder in particular, Halloween can be a difficult time of year, according to a number of experts. With the attention paid to dressing up, the craze over candy and treats and the addition of peer pressure, Dr. Anna Tanner says "something which should be fun and worry free could actually precipitate a lot of eating disorder thoughts and behaviors."

The vice president of child and adolescent medicine for Veritas Collaborative and The Emily Program, two national leaders in eating disorder awareness, treatment and recovery, tells Yahoo Life that it's important to remember that there are many different types of eating disorders which may be characterized by different behaviors or restrictions. An event like Halloween can cause issues for them all.

Dr. Kimberly Dennis, an expert on the Clinical Advisory Council for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), tells Yahoo Life that struggles with food, the idea of fear foods and how they're perpetuated by diet culture are top of mind leading into the season.

"With Halloween, there's a big focus on candy. And the messages we get in our society about candy really can be toxic. Like, 'It's bad, bad food, not healthy, you're bad for eating it.' Even though it's embedded in this holiday," she says.

New York-based registered dietician Marissa Meshulam echoes that it's a labeling system seen throughout diet culture that lends itself to disordered eating.

"There is a lot of categorization of foods as 'good' and 'bad' in our society. Many individuals with an eating disorder will develop fear around those foods deemed as 'bad' and candy or Halloween treats may fit into those fear foods," she explains to Yahoo Life. "Individuals might work through an eating disorder with increased exposure to fear foods and eliminating the categorization of foods to remove the guilt or shame associated with certain items."

As those foods are integrated into social settings where they exist as a part of our culture, people are forced to engage with certain fear foods and conversations around them that may be upsetting.

"There is a lot of emphasis on overabundance of candy on Halloween, where words like 'guilt' and 'overdoing it' can sneak in," Meshulam points out. "That can make it hard for someone in recovery who might feel the need to limit these foods again."

Tanner notes that a certain preoccupation with candy might also be an indicator of disordered eating to someone's parents or peers who might not have noticed it before. "Maybe they would usually be all excited for their candy and now they're not eating it or throwing it away or making excuses not to have any," she says as an example. "That could be one thing that we might see."

But it's not just food and treats that can trigger reactions from people struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder, as Halloween costumes place a big emphasis on body image. "It can present a lot of challenges and worry about shape and weight and size," Tanner says. "For persons who are already worried about their shape and size, this might be just one more event where they're driven to have the perfect body, to continue to worry more about their shape and size in an effort to meet expectations for Halloween costumes."

An unwanted comment about somebody's body shape in a costume can also be the onset of eating disorder thoughts. "They put themselves out there, wanting to express themselves and then they might get really negative comments," she explains. "That could could create some worries."

According to Dennis, nobody is safe from that threat as there is an increased sexualization of younger girls and boys. "That can increase somebody's focus on body, which can increase their level of stress. That in conjunction with diet culture, which is just unfortunately pretty much the norm in America, lends itself very, very nicely to the development of disordered eating and dieting."

In contrast with many other holidays, like Thanksgiving, Halloween is also more focused on socializing with peer groups and leaves people more susceptible to peer pressure.

"A lot of people with eating disorders, or who struggle with body and food, have high amounts of social anxiety or generalized anxiety. So for events like this, even as simple as you know, 'Am I gonna get to go with a group of friends or the group of friends? Am I going to be in? If I'm going to be out, what do I need to do to make sure that I'm in?'" Dennis explains. "When there's not a whole lot of other things at your disposal, people can turn that inward towards, 'Well, I have to look the ideal way,' and in America, you know, thin is still the ideal."

Despite the group mentality that can come with Halloween, Meshulam recommends that people keep their individual needs in mind when picking out a costume. "Wear a costume that feels comfortable in your current body. Wearing clothes that make you feel comfortable is key to maintaining a good body image," she says. "If you are working on healing your relationship with your body, it might be a great year to focus on a costume that is not body centric and instead is something that you enjoy and won't have you thinking about your body 24-7."

She also suggests attending festivities with friends who "use supportive language and don't engage in diet culture talk." And in the case that someone does get triggered, Meshulam highlights the importance of an exit strategy: "A game plan to go home, call a friend, go for a walk, do a mini meditation," she says, "in case you find yourself overwhelmed by the situation."

Tanner adds that just like any other holiday or milestone moment in a person's recovery, there are a lot of ways that treatment centers and support groups can help throughout the process to ensure a patient's safety and comfort.

"There's a lot of work, there's a lot of preparation. There's a lot of work in the moment. There's a lot of work afterwards as well," she explains. But the most important thing, she says, if you or somebody you know is seemingly struggling with food and body issues around this time is that you help them to get professional help.

"There are never any simple solutions for eating disorders," she says, "but they are treatable."

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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