How to help someone with an eating disorder
I went to a support group the other night for people struggling with any kind of eating disorder and in any part of their recovery (ie. just starting, 1 year in, a couple months in etc.) One of the topics that came up was the lack of support or understanding from loved ones. My perspective? It isn’t their fault. In fact, there is just not enough education or information available for loved ones to understand how to support. It is obviously different for each person but here I am going write some things of helping/supporting your loved one through an eating disorder.
NOTE: These are all sayings that I have had said to me and I am just talking off of my own experience
1.“You look so healthy” “You look great”
For someone that is struggling with an eating disorder (talking for myself in specifically anorexia) healthy = fat. Healthy means that I am overweight, or that I have failed my eating disorder, or that I am ugly and unlovable (for people who have studied CBT, yes I can see the distortions too) Distorted or not, these types of comments are not helpful. They can send someone struggling with an eating disorder into what I call “analysis mode.” Analysis mode is where the person struggling is trying to figure out the small underlying layers of what the person may mean (even if it is completely unreasonable). For example if someone said to me, “You look great!” I may interpret it as, “They knew I was struggling with an eating disorder and I have gained weight since I last saw them and so therefore they think that I am fat.” Ok, obvious irrational distortions there but that is what is going on in many people’s mind. It is also a comment on bodies and that is a big no-no… leading me to my next point.
- “She should not be wearing that” “I look so fat today” “That skirt looks so good on you now that you’re weight restored!”
This is a hard one but please no comments on bodies (yourself, the person struggling with an eating disorder, strangers, actresses, magazine photos etc.)
Ok so after reading that sentence who thought, “Wow, well that’ll be walking on egg shells.” CHALLENGING PERFECTIONISM HERE, we’re all human and nobody has ever been perfect at anything (Thomas Edison didn’t make the light bulb on his first try, did he?) I understand A LOT of people struggle with body image and some comments may slip out surrounding your own body image or insecurities. I understand it is totally normal to talk about celebrity weight gain or new plastic surgery or bikini bodies or whatever. I understand it is very easy to say, “Oh she shouldn’t be wearing that.” These are all very normal, understandable, human things BUT it is not only NOT helping the person struggling with an eating disorder it can also put certain thoughts into their head such as “Well that is how I see myself yet my (fill in loved one here) thinks she is ugly and shouldn’t be wearing that, she must not love me” It can also reinforce the thought that EVERYONE is looking at, judging, talking about etc. the person that is struggling with an eating disorder. I know I am very at fault here. I have made too many comments to count and I wish I could blame them all on my eating disorder voice. It is a very difficult thing to do but each time you refrain from commenting on body image of yourself, someone else, the person struggling with an eating disorder it is setting a good example and reinforcing positive thoughts!
- “Just eat!” or “So you’re finally eating again, you must be better!”
Eating disorders, while they manifest themselves in the form surrounding food and eating are not strictly disorders of food. They go so much deeper than that. They are a mental AND physical disorder. A lot of the time depression, drug addiction, self-harm etc. comes along with them too. Just because someone in recovery is eating does not mean they are better. If you tell me to “just eat” I am not all of the sudden going to do my biggest fear and pick up a fork and eat whatever you want me to, I am sorry you don’t have magic powers. As I said earlier (quote from friend) Eating is simple, NOT easy. Eating disorders are not like a broken bone. Once the cast comes off the wound isn’t automatically healed. There are months and years that have to be put into treatment doing the work, pushing yourself to limits sometimes more painful than what the eating disorder did to you. That is why I cannot “just eat” because my entire being does not want me to.
- “Are you sure you had anorexia? You don’t look like it!”
UMMMM… NO! First of all, what does “it” look like? What am I supposed to look like to fit your criteria so that you will believe I had an eating disorder? I am so sorry but anorexia (and bulimia, BED, and EDNOS) does not have a body type. They affect people of all races, sizes, ages, genders etc. Eating disorders are not selective and the victim of one does not have to fit your tiny little box that was created by the misinformed people of society. This reinforces the idea also that the person struggling with an eating disorder does not need help or they are not “sick enough” This is only feeding into their eating disorder letting them know that they have not accomplished their goal.
- “But you’re not fat!”
Thank you so much but this is not helping. I am physically not able to see what I look like. It is called body dysmorphic disorder for a reason. The way I see myself is not the way other people see me. I see myself through the eyes of the eating disorder, which is cruel and irrational. This is also making the assumption that eating disorders are only related to how you see yourself. There are days where I can recognize what my body really does look like but it is still not good enough for my eating disorder, which is a very manipulative and unkind voice.
- “I’m going on a diet where I’m not going to eat (fill in food groups here)”
I understand that the diet industry is a $60 billion industry. I understand that dieting is apart of today’s culture, America’s culture. This only feeds the eating disorder voice even more. At almost every single lunch since getting out of treatment, there has been some kind of diet talk, some kind of I want to lose weight talk, or some kind of “I ate fruit for breakfast so I can have a donut now” justification talk. It occupies almost every single meal and every single conversation. The eating disorder voice starts jumping with excitement, “Well if they are allowed to cut out bread and not have to go to treatment, why can’t we?” or “Look at their strength to say no, we can say no too!” I just feel as if this is a way to help everyone, eating disorder or not. There are so many other things to talk about than dieting. There are so many more amazing and interesting things happening in the world today!
- Glorifying eating disorders
This is probably my biggest pet peeve. As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder for 4+ years and has seen many of my friends be chewed up and spit out by this awful thing, it is NOT something to glorify. There is nothing good about eating disorders, so please do not tell me that I look really great because I lost some weight. Do not ask me my “secret” because it was years of isolation, depression, suicidal thoughts, self harm, fighting my own self, self-hate, and little to no reward. There is not one eating disorder that is better than another. Please do not say to me, “Well at least you have anorexia and not bulimia or binge eating” This is in no way acceptable because it says to the person struggling with anorexia that they “chose” the better disorder and that people struggling with bulimia or binge eating are somehow “less” or “less deserving of treatment” Do not tell me how great you look after you had the stomach flu and have not been able to eat. Please do not tell me how you just don’t feel like eating anything because maybe it will help you lose weight. These words and phrases are just not necessary and do not need to be apart of any sort of conversation.
I know the majority (or all) of these are very difficult and asking a lot. I don’t want to come across as harsh or as if I am condemning all loved ones. I know that I have said many of these before (probably for different reasons than loved ones do). It is easy to talk about diets. Living in our society today it is expected that girls are stick thin and look like the Victoria’s Secret models that are pasted across every billboard. I know many people who do not have eating disorders but struggle with body image, which can come about in conversation because it is something that many people can relate to. But being in a house or being around someone that is struggling with an eating disorder, it is best to try and refrain from these 7 things. Remember it is totally ok to make mistakes and slip up. You might hear people who have eating disorders glorifying eating disorders or body shaming themselves or commenting on other people or saying they don’t look as if they have an eating disorder or talking about their diet etc. etc. the list goes on. That is their eating disorder voice talking. It is enough for me to have my ED voice talking in my own head, I really don’t need it coming out of others mouths too.