Halloween can be a difficult time for individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder because it may induce concerns over body image and greater feelings of a lack of control around food.1 In the United States, the holiday is typically associated with dressing up in costumes, trick or treating, scary movies, and decorations. However, for many individuals, the increased prevalence and excess consumption of sweets and snacks, including candy, can be problematic and even harmful. These traditions may be especially difficult for those diagnosed with an eating disorder, including anorexia, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating, and their recovery process.

Eating disorder symptomology tends to be exacerbated during Halloween through the presence of candy and snacks. The overwhelming presence of food during Halloween may induce greater feelings of guilt when an individual consumes sweets that they typically stay away from, or when they overindulge in foods like Halloween candy.2 As we approach Halloween, Dr. Timothy Walsh, a psychiatrist at the York Psychiatric Institute, says, “For people with eating disorders, guilt feelings become so distorted they lose all perspective.”1 Feeling guilt can cause an individual to engage in harmful eating behaviors, such as purging and restricting food intake, and exerting greater control over their body.2 Like the feelings of guilt around food intake, Halloween costumes, and perceptions of body image can negatively affect the recovery process for individuals with eating disorders.

Halloween costumes may invoke concerns related to body image, over-sexualization, and gender roles which can exacerbate anxiety and stress and affect eating behaviors. Research has found that the over-sexualization of women in advertisements increased feelings of anxiety and hostility among women.3 These concerns can lead to stress and negative emotions that can amplify feelings of the loss of control over eating disorder symptoms such as purging, restricting food intake, or binge eating an excess amount of food. In addition, the fall season evokes concerns related to seasonal affective disorder, which can worsen binge eating behaviors.4 Although research has demonstrated that Halloween can negatively impact individuals through the amplification of eating disorder behaviors, it is important to consider strategies to mitigate these potential harms and to enjoy Halloween.  

 Tips to Manage Eating Disorders During Halloween 

If you are a family member or friend of someone who is diagnosed with an eating disorder or exhibits disordered eating behaviors:  

  • It is recommended that you keep an eye on a person’s eating behavior, and do not confront them about their behavior since that can induce feelings of shame and guilt.5  
  • Try to keep yourself available as a resource in times of stress. If you need to speak to a person about their behavior, talk to them in settings that do not involve food or being in front of others.5 

If you find yourself struggling during this time:  

  • Know that you are not alone. 
  • You can wear whatever costume makes you feel comfortable and celebrate how you want!  
  • If you have established eating disorder mitigation strategies, keep affirming them and do not be afraid to reach out for help and resources when you need to.5  
  • Seek out professional help, including mental health treatment with someone you trust, to support your recovery process.  

Here is a shortlist of nationally available resources: 

Have a Happy Halloween!  

Resources

1.Dannibale, K. (2014). The Effect of the Holidays on Eating Disorders. New Errands: The Undergraduate Journal of American Studies, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.18113/P8ne2159255

2.Baker, R. C., & Kirschenbaum, D. S. (1998). Weight control during the holidays: Highly consistent self-monitoring as a potentially useful coping mechanism. Health Psychology, 17(4), 367–370. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6133.17.4.367

3.Lennon, S. J., Zheng, Z., & Fatnassi, A. (2016). Women’s revealing Halloween costumes: Other-objectification and sexualization. Fashion and Textiles, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40691-016-0073-x

4.Donofry, S. D., Roecklein, K. A., Rohan, K. J., Wildes, J. E., & Kamarck, M. L. (2014). Prevalence and correlates of binge eating in seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatry Research, 217(1-2), 47–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2014.03.012

5.Ralph, T. (Host) & Buck, Chad. (2010, November 5). Food, Family, Holidays and Eating Disorders. [Audio podcast episode]. In Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness. Vanderbilt University Institutional Repository http://hdl.handle.net/1803/4922

By Julian Robles

Julian is a senior at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in Biology and Religious Studies, and he starts working as a research assistant in the Living F.R.E.E. Lab in May.

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