It can be hard to know what you should and shouldn’t say around someone who’s in recovery from an eating disorder. You would assume that everyone knows not to say “Oh you look like you’ve gained weight,” and yet I’m still surprised by the number of people in my life that think this is appropriate. It’s true that people often mean well with the things they say, but there’s such a massive misunderstanding around eating disorders that it’s hardly surprising confusion exists. Even those of us struggling with eating disorders find it difficult to understand!
Although the above phrase may be obvious there are hundreds of less obvious statements that may be potentially triggering. Here are my top ten statements to avoid when speaking to someone with an eating disorder.
10 Things you shouldn’t say to someone with an eating disorder.
“Just eat. It’s not that hard.”
Eating disorders are complicated illnesses. Ninety percent of the time they are solely about food. They’re more commonly a condition with what’s known as co-morbid conditions such as body dysmorphia, anxiety, perfectionism and so much more. So, what you deem as easy feels like climbing a mountain to me. It’s far more difficult to ignore the thoughts that keep us trapped within the disorder, and sadly there’s no barrier between the logical and disordered parts of our brains.
Long story short, eating disorders make no sense. None. At all. And we’re just as confused as you are, if not more! The worst part is the guilt. We feel guilty for not eating and we feel guilty for eating. Having extra guilt piled on by others makes things worse, not better, and telling us to ‘just eat because there are people in the world without food’ isn’t necessarily helpful. In fact, it’ll just make us avoid telling you anything in the future. It might even cause us to avoid you altogether.
Instead, try something like this:
I don’t know what’s going on but I want to know more. Can you explain to me how eating makes you feel?
“You’re so skinny! I wish I had your willpower.”
If you’re thinking of saying this or any version of this, just don’t. Please. There is nothing admirable about an eating disorder, and stating that there is only adds fuel to the fire. Although you may see control, it’s entirely the opposite. We are under the control of the eating disorder, not the other way around. It doesn’t take dedication, it’s not pretty nor should it be romanticised.
Eating disorders are spending days and nights crying about the mess we’re in. It’s being unable to go to social events for fear of having to eat. You compulsively move even when you’re exhausted just to burn those extra few calories. I’ve even avoided drinking just to lose weight.
It’s not dedication, it’s an obsession, and believe me when I say you don’t want this.
“Haven’t you been in recovery long enough? Why aren’t you better yet?”
Recovery isn’t linear. It’s a long and complicated process that can take years, possibly decades, to overcome. Even then, over fifty percent of those with an eating disorder will never recover fully. You might seem better, and you might recover to the point where you can cope but it’s never really gone. Recovery is struggling up mountains, through forests, and wading through troubled waters. Although it’s a journey that the sufferer has to walk alone, it’s always made easier with a hand to hold. Even if they never fully understand, feeling loved, supported, and heard never made any journey harder, only easier.
Instead, try something like this:
“I’m here for you, I support you and I hear you. I might not understand fully, but I’m going to be with you regardless. Take your time but whatever you do keep moving forward.”
Four. “You don’t look that thin.”
The fact that only people who are sickly thin can have a serious eating disorder is a dangerous misconception. Eating disorders are not solely weight disorders. The weight gain or loss is caused by the actual disorder, but the thoughts and actions behind it are the cause of something much, much deeper. Even someone who is sickly thin can feel ugly and big in their own skin. I’ve had countless people tell me this because of my genetically big hips despite being categorically underweight. It only serves the ill and disordered thoughts and helps add fuel to the fire. I already feel massive and ugly and ashamed, so telling me I don’t look that sick triggers the part of my brain that needs to lose weight to feel valid.
We know the record is getting old. Believe me, we wish we could change it, but stick with us. Support us when we tell you we feel like an alien in our own bodies. You might not be able to find the right words but saying nothing is better than “you’re not actually that thin.”
“Stop being so attention seeking.”
I hate this phrase. Not only is it dangerous but it puts a barrier between us and getting the help that we need. By telling us we’re attention-seeking we’re more likely to shy away from speaking up about our issues. We’re less likely to reach out for help because of the fear of being a burden, not being believed, or causing trouble. Telling anyone that they’re attention-seeking when they ask for help or when they’re clearly struggling is awfully invalidating.
Asking for help isn’t attention-seeking. Reaching out and admitting when you’re struggling isn’t a “look at me” moment. It’s a “help me, see me, hear me” moment and it takes a lot of strength to admit.
“Have you tried going on a diet?”
As much as I understand that there will never be a full-proof way for me to avoid talking about diets, I still detest hearing about them. Whether aimed at me or not, it’s so easy for someone in recovery to not become sucked in.
“Have you tried paleo? What about keto? Intermittent fasting works!“
Although it’s not an issue I deal with currently I’ve known people with binge eating disorder or bulimia who’ve simply been told to ‘stop eating and go on a diet.’ As if it’s the easiest thing in the world when you live with an eating disorder. In fact, as an ex-binge eater and part-time bulimic, I find that diets do more harm than good. It’s easy to go from one extreme to the other and in my opinion suggesting an unhealthy diet to an already unhealthy person is never the answer.
If you are aware of the other persons eating disorder, whether it’s Anorexia Nerovsa or Binge Eating Disorder, please be considerate when it comes to diet talk.
“Do you know how hard this is for ME?”
I’ve no doubt that it’s incredibly hard to watch someone go through an eating disorder. There are sleepless nights, endless worries, and constant vigilance. But this isn’t about you. And chances are that the sufferer already feels incredibly guilty about what they’re not only doing to themselves but others. By saying things like this all you’re doing is adding fuel to the fire. We have so much shame and guilt and anxiety already. We don’t need others to reinforce what the disorder is already telling us.
Do you know how many calories are in that?!
Who retired and made you the head of the food police? No seriously, don’t food police! Someone else’s food choice is their business, not yours, and it’s never a good idea to comment on what you don’t know. For someone in the midst of an eating disorder such as Anorexia Nervosa, it’s likely that whatever their eating is part of a strict food plan. That plan has many ‘fear foods’ in place, and commenting on such food will only cause further preoccupation and anxiety. Trust me when I say that we’re already hyper-aware of the food that we’re putting into our mouths, especially during the early stages of recovery. Commenting on food choices serves to validate fear that not only are they being watched, but every bite they eat is on trial.
“You just need more self-control, then you’ll stop binging.“
It’s not that simple. Nothing about an eating disorder whether it be binging or starving is simple. We can’t flip a switch and suddenly we’re cured. Although it may be easy for you not to eat, for someone with a binge eating disorder or bulimia, it can be so, so difficult. Binging can even be the result of tightly controlled eating and often occurs in Anorexia Nervosa, although on a much lesser scale. We we deprive our bodies of food for too long they eventually take back control.
For some food can be a comfort. They already feel shame and guilt, but the way in which they deal with that is to eat which then starts a cycle of shame – eat – purge (bulimia) – shame.
“I feel so fat/ Does this make me look fat / I’m so bad for eating that.”
Although difficult please try to avoid ‘fat talk.’ How you speak about your own body can make a person with anorexia or bulimia become even more focused on food, weight, and their own body. Even talking about how ‘bad’ you are for eating a piece of cake can reinforce the thought that certain foods are bad and should be avoided, while others are good. No food is bad or good, it’s how society portrays them that’s the issue. We’ll not want to eat the cake if we keep hearing how bad the cake is! When, in fact, the cake is delicious and to be enjoyed in moderation, just like many foods.
It’s hard not to make comments about ourselves when we’re feeling rubbish. But talking negatively about yourself and your body is not only dangerous to other adults, but it’s especially dangerous to young, impressionable children. To you, it’s a fleeting comment but to someone else, it could stick in their minds for the rest of the day or possibly their lives.