10 Things You Shouldn't Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder
10 things you shouldn’t say to someone with an eating disorder
Having been in recovery for over ten years, I have been on the receiving end of countless comments. Usually the other person is trying to give an encouraging compliment, but if you’ve never been inside the head of someone with an eating disorder, even the most well-meaning comments can backfire and be triggering.
Recovery is a full-time job, taking an enormous amount of mental, emotional and physical energy each day, at every meal, every minute. While on the outside an eating disorder can seem to be associated with food and weight, it is about so much more. An eating disorder is a mental illness which often revolves around fear of change, fear of authentically relating with others and fear of losing control.
Recovery is unique to everyone, however, there are some general comments that one should avoid around someone who is battling with anorexia, orthorexia, binge eating, bulimia and the like, in order to best support their path to recovery:
“Wow, you’ve put on weight! You’re looking great!”
First rule. Don’t comment on weight. Period. Statements like “you’re looking so great/healthy/radiant/better”, which are oftentimes well intended, are usually just twisted into insults like “you’re looking so fat.”
“You’ve lost weight. Are you ok?”
Again, this is another weight comment and should be avoided. When I was battling hard with my anorexia and orthorexia, this was a compliment. It validated my efforts at losing weight. I felt powerful, unstoppable and acknowledged. It would result in me having some form of a relapse. Best to avoid.
“Doesn’t that have too many calories?”
People in recovery are relearning how to intuitively eat. It is considered a victory and positive step in one’s recovery when they are able to reach for something they genuinely feel like eating. If they eat something that you consider “unhealthy”, this is considered a projection. When there already is so much shame around food, rather celebrate this moment than demonize and make the other person feel guilty for their food choices.
“Just eat it.”
While the goal is to be able to eat anything at any time without fear, it can usually take many attempts at eating in public, or in a group, and certain foods, before the person feels at ease. Everyone is on their own timeline so rather than forcing the situation or food on the person in recovery, give them space and gentle encouragement. When I was in a clinic, we would go on “challenge outings” and eat “challenge foods”. When done in a structured and understanding environment with professional support, progress will be made. Be patient.
“Oh, but you’re not thin enough to have an eating disorder.”
While one may lose weight, or gain weight, eating disorders can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, race, class and size. Eating disorders are characterized by the use of food to cope, not one’s body size. It’s about control. It’s about fear of living a full life. It’s about trying conform. It’s about numbing out from emotions and connection with others. It’s about pain and shame. Someone may not look like they have an eating disorder but mentally could be severely struggling with body image and obsessive food thoughts. It’s what happens on the inside that matters.
“All you have to do is eat more.”
Ok no. This is a very single minded approach. This is like telling an alcoholic to give up drinking overnight. Eating disorder recovery is so much more than that. While recovery includes a new approach to food, it also takes on the form of professional therapy, a change in exercise, a revaluation of how one relates to others and so much more. I had to travel, move cities, attend women’s circles, go off the pill and change my life path to help me get back on track. Recovery is a massive body of work that touches on all aspects of one’s life.
“Sheeesh, if only I had the same discipline as you.”
When I received a comment like this, it only added more fuel to my steadfast, restrictive and rigid control over food and exercise. It made me feel utterly invincible and better than anyone else. I felt like a superhero. An eating disorder is an illness and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. I wouldn’t want anyone to struggle with obsessive thoughts screaming in your head, the exhausting rituals, the anxiety dreams of food and the shaky climb into bed and nervous and starving wake up. It ain’t glamorous. This perceived “discipline” is actually someone who is totally out of control.
“You’re really skinny….”
This statement only used to fuel my identification of being the thin girl. I didn’t know who I was without it. I couldn’t imagine a life not being thin. The size of my body was the only thing I was. Rather focus on the qualities that make up the person. There is so much more that meets they eye and usually people who are sick and deep in their eating disorder have forgotten just how amazing they are!
“Are you better now?”
I didn’t break my arm. I can’t take some magic pill or wrap my brain in a cast. Recovery from any eating disorder - anorexia, orthorexic, binge eating, bulimia etc - is non-linear. It’s like the peeling of a cry-inducing onion. In my recovery, which has been ongoing since 2009, I have taken steps forward and steps back. I have gone off the path entirely too. Eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality than any mental illness. There is no quick fix and for some people there is no fix at all.
“Why worry about your weight. You have the perfect life.”
I grew up in a supportive and stable home, with many friends and tons of hobbies to fill my time. Yet I have an eating disorder. But I didn’t choose it, and I certainly didn’t choose it to get attention either. This mental illness can result from a number of things, including genetics, past traumatic events, exposure to media, remarks from peers and family, and the environment. With the “right” combination of factors, the “perfect storm” for an individual, is created. A comment like this only leaves the person with an eating disorder to feel more guilt and shame, the two biggest emotions they are trying to face and overcome.
Eating disorders do not discriminate.