From the steady stream of diet advertisements on TV, to the calorie counts on menus at restaurants, our weight-obsessed world is a challenging climate for those who are in recovery from an eating disorder.
While it is impossible to eliminate diet culture from one’s life, there are steps that individuals who are struggling can take to distance themselves from negative media messages. However, certain comments from friends or family members can be highly triggering to those that are suffering.
When a loved one is battling with an eating disorder, it can be hard to know what to say. As a therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland, specializing in helping those struggling with eating disorders, I’ve seen the negative impact that these statements can have on people in recovery.
In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness week, the following are five statements that you shouldn’t say to someone with an eating disorder.
1. You look so healthy.
Saying “you look so healthy” is often a well-intentioned effort to tell the person that you are supportive of their recovery. However, often their eating disorder voice will twist any appearance-related comments into a negative sentiment about their body.
It is generally a good rule of thumb to avoid making any comments about the person’s weight, body, or appearance. Someone with an eating disorder is usually entrenched in negative thoughts about their weight and body.
Therefore, it can be helpful to pay them a compliment that has nothing to do with their outward appearance. A more helpful statement might be, “You look much happier,” or “You seem to be more at peace with yourself.”
2. You look way too thin.
On the flip side, telling a person with an eating disorder that they look “too thin” can also be triggering. At their core, eating disorders are not really about a person’s weight. Often a person who is suffering is engaging in eating disorder behaviors, in an effort to feel more in control of their lives, cope with past trauma, or to numb difficult emotions. Further, it is a common misconception that you have to be emaciated in order to have an eating disorder. A person can be struggling with an eating disorder at any weight.
Telling someone that they look too thin may be exactly what their eating disorder voice wants to hear. It’s important to understand that often there is no weight that their eating disorder voice will deem to be “too thin.”
A more helpful statement could be one where you point out your concern over the person’s behaviors and how it is impacting their life, rather than focusing on their weight.
“An eating disorder is a mental illness, and therefore it is impossible to determine someone’s level of suffering based upon their physical appearance.”
3. You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.
Telling the person that they “don’t look like they have an eating disorder” only serves to fuel their disordered thinking. Their eating disorder voice will tell them that they are “not sick enough” to seek help. Denial is an integral component to eating disorders and this statement insinuates that the person does not “look sick enough” to have an eating disorder.
An eating disorder is a mental illness, and therefore it is impossible to determine someone’s level of suffering based upon their physical appearance.
Everyone who is struggling with an eating disorder deserves to seek treatment, regardless of his or her weight. Eating disorders come in one size: miserable.
4. I need to lose some weight.
Engaging with your loved one in a discussion about your latest diet program is counterproductive and can also be highly triggering. Discussing how you are on a low-carb diet with someone who has an eating disorder is akin to talking about your drinking binge with a person who is recovering from alcoholism.
Instead, try to engage in discussions with the person about things that are unrelated to food, weight, and exercise. The person likely already spends a huge amount of time thinking about these topics and could probably use a mental break.
5. Why can’t you just eat that?
Asking someone to “just eat” insinuates that they are choosing to have an eating disorder. If treatment for an eating disorder was as simple as telling the person to just “suck it up and eat,” we would have no need for residential centers, therapists, or nutritionists. Telling someone with an eating disorder to “just eat,” is like saying to someone with a broken leg to “just walk.”
Eating disorders are not a choice. No one would choose to watch in terror as their hair falls out, to lose their friends because they cannot go out to eat, to exercise despite physical pain, or to binge eat until they feel like they are going to explode. If you find yourself wanting to make this kind of statement, I would encourage you to educate yourself on eating disorders and the devastating impact that they can have on people’s lives.
Try to express to the person that you understand they are not choosing to feel and behave this way. However, they can choose to work towards recovery, and you are here to support them every step of the way.
Rather than shaming them, encourage the person to seek professional help from a therapist, psychiatrist, or dietitian — preferably one who specializes in eating disorders and health at every size.
The Bottom Line
If we can begin to eradicate some of the triggering and unhelpful comments that are made to those with eating disorders, we can fight back against the misconceptions and stigma that surround these life-threatening illnesses.
With access to appropriate treatment and support, individuals with eating disorders can go on to lead productive and meaningful lives. Full recovery is possible!
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer specializes in helping adolescents and adults struggling with eating disorders, body image issues, anxiety, and depression. Jennifer offers eating disorder therapy to individuals in Maryland and D.C. and eating disorder recovery coaching via phone/Skype.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.