Why Weight Loss Compliments Are Dangerous for Eating Disorders

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“You look great, did you lose some weight?”

“You’re so thin! How do you do it?”

“You’ve really slimmed down.”

These are all statements that I’ve heard in regards to my appearance. But there was a catch — when I received these compliments, I was in the midst of my eating disorder (ED). While the people who made these comments were most likely well-intentioned, they actually positively reinforced my eating disorder behaviors.

This past semester, I took a social psychology course and we learned a great deal about positive reinforcement. When it came time for our final term paper, I decided to write about weight loss related comments serving as positive reinforcement for eating disorder behaviors. I knew that I had valuable lived experience surrounding this topic, but I also wanted to see what research was out there.

A study by Geraldine Budd titled, “Disordered Eating: Young Women’s Search for Control and Connection,” digs deeper into how weight loss related compliments positively reinforce dangerous behaviors in people struggling with eating disorders.

An excerpt from the study states, “Positive reinforcement was an important aspect in the eating behavior of the participants. One informant relocated with her family just prior to her senior year in high school… ‘I was playing varsity basketball, working 20 hours a week and keeping my grades up so I could get my scholarships. I was going crazy. I really didn’t have time to eat. Then, all my clothes started fitting looser, and like everyone was, ‘Oh, you look like you’re losing weight, you look very nice.’ You know, these people were noticing me for the first time, it was positive reinforcement, so it became kind of a game.”

In the case of this person, receiving a weight loss compliment served as fuel for her eating disorder. It gave her more motivation to continue engaging in the dangerous behaviors because not only was she feeling better about herself personally, but she was receiving external validation as well.

Another resource that does an excellent job supporting this idea is the SAGE Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods. An excerpt of the encyclopedia states, “If individuals with eating disorders perceive compliments as a form of positive reinforcement to risky behavior, then positive reinforcement is feeding the mental illness… external sources must be careful when complimenting… a person’s weight loss… even though many positive aspects of compliments exist, compliments may be detrimental to the receiver. By providing positive reinforcement to someone with an eating disorder, the sender is almost, in a sense, enabling the [eating disorder] behavior.”

Choosing to compliment weight loss is a very slippery slope. While the compliment may come from a sincere place of kindness, it can lead to validation, reassurance and encouragement for someone’s mental illness. This can possibly have serious implications in the progression of a person’s eating disorder, and the issue needs to be addressed in the hopes of reducing the number of people struggling.

By choosing to make compliments based on weight, I think people perpetuate the myth that thinness is an indicator of health and worth. If we were to discuss the implications of weight loss compliments in eating disorders as frequently and openly as we discuss and glorify weight loss in today’s society, I think these types of statements would be far less prevalent. Many people have positive intentions when making these types of compliments and have no idea that they could be feeding into someone’s mental illness, simply because our society idolizes thinness and is greatly misinformed about the topic of “health.” Our society has difficulty acknowledging that being thin doesn’t necessarily indicate being healthy, just like being overweight doesn’t necessarily indicate being unhealthy.

Weight loss related compliments are unnecessary and dangerous. Our bodies are only a small part of who we are and they shouldn’t be the focus of what receives compliments. Instead of commenting on someone’s weight, try complimenting their compassionate heart. Instead of commenting on someone’s shape, try complimenting their strong work ethic. Instead of commenting on someone’s body type, try complimenting their radiant smile. Instead of positively reinforcing potentially dangerous, disordered behaviors, choose to reinforce the idea that we are so much more than our bodies. We are worth more than our physical appearance, and it’s time that our actions reflect that.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via AnkiHoglund

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Why My Eating Disorder Recovery Is Not About What I Look Like

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

It’s not about what you look like.

It’s the fine line between elation and panic; the split second between when the spoon hits your mouth and when you swallow “mental poison.” It’s being five years and more weight since starvation, and yet 15 minutes ago, you laid on the kitchen floor slapping the tile until your palms went red. It’s the irony of recovery, the invisibility of pounds; weight that suddenly makes you “healthy” on the outside.

It’s not about what you look like.

It’s those two seconds just after you roll out of bed in the morning and feel the skin on your knees touch. It’s wanting to seek some quick fix because one more day in this body is your version of hell. It’s wishing you could reach through the skin on your limbs and tear out enough flesh to change the way it feels to take those first steps every day.

It’s remembering the first, second and third time your friend said, “I literally never think about food as the enemy,” and realizing some people don’t go through this every day. It’s hearing you have the most beautiful eyes three times in three hours and wishing you could focus long enough on a compliment to stop hatred from seeping into your skin. It’s loathing who you used to be and wishing you had her back in the same breath. It’s those self-deprecating jokes. It’s trying, over and over again, to explain that this has nothing to do with what you look like.

It’s not about what you look like.

It’s blacking out from breakfast to bedtime because when you spend the whole day entrenched in perceived worthlessness, you remember nothing but that. It’s trashing a perfectly good drink because it’s against the “rules.” It’s telling your therapist you’re good on Monday and that it’s World War III on Wednesday. It’s knowing how much you need your meds, but wanting to smash them into pieces for taking away your self-control.

It’s thinking back to when you couldn’t go five minutes without an obsessive thought; and realizing you can’t go five minutes today. It’s being in the “fun home” of your actual nightmares — with no one but yourself. It’s staring into mirrors that thwart every inch of your reflection. It’s telling yourself it’s OK to break the rules tonight because tomorrow you’ll get it together again. It’s realizing you ascribed to a certain diet for two years without even trying to. It’s being angry at everything because you’re so angry at yourself.

It’s not about what you look like.

It’s being embarrassed to say you’ve gained weight even though everyone claps and acts like you deserve a prize. It’s knowing that right next door, some other girl gained the same weight and no one clapped for her. It’s that first time you break a food rule because you’re having so much fun, and then remembering you don’t deserve to have fun.

It’s regret about last night the minute your alarm goes off in the morning; knowing you’ll have to move the pillows from between your legs now. It’s throwing out pair after pair of leggings because now you just feel naked in them. It’s thinking that women of all sizes are completely stunning, and knowing the same standards you hold for others don’t apply to yourself.

It’s not about what you look like.

It’s trying to explain to someone that you’re not “crazy” just because you can sit down and write three pages about this. It’s trying to give someone who’s never felt a single thing you feel some perspective. It’s clarifying that you know you’re not “fat,” but that you feel like your body is physically just “not right.” It’s hearing your own words out loud and thinking you might actually be “crazy.”

It’s knowing you can order the food you want now, but wishing it wasn’t still so hard. It’s hearing “you eat a lot” from a random dude while you’re on a binge that will keep you up at night in pain. It’s the “for a small person” half of the sentence that you want to shove back down his throat. It’s being ashamed when maybe you should be proud that you can “eat a lot” now, because people are so quick to tell you that you do. It’s feeling self-conscious when you order your own entrée, knowing you used to feel the same way when you ordered nothing.

It’s not about what you look like.

It’s sitting down at a restaurant and seeing only “allowed” and “not allowed” on the menu. It’s feeling your emotions crumble like the bread you’ve just begun to eat. It’s getting laughed at because you “eat weird.” It’s sheer excitement about a restaurant, until you find you’ve lost the courage to eat. It’s laying on the floor — hands over your face — wondering when life will no longer be the fine line between elation and panic.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via La_Corivo 

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How 'To the Bone’ Was Hard to Watch in the Best Way Possible

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Normally, I don’t write like this. Normally, I let thoughts stay in my mind, like waves hitting the surface of the beach. But I am feeling so much right now, and for some reason, I feel the courage to speak my mind. As of now, it is 4:49 a.m. and I stayed awake, determined to watch the new movie “To the Bone,” upon it’s release at 3 a.m. Now, as someone who has been diagnosed with an eating disorder, has relapsed multiple times and knows psych wards and eating disorder treatment better than I know myself; I know subconsciously that I originally intended to watch this movie to trigger myself. To my surprise, my own disordered plan back fired, and I now feel more inclined to continue in my recovery.

What a shocker, right? Let me explain. Seeing the main character [Ellen] emaciated and close to death was hard. Hearing her family cry and watching their pain was dreadful. Watching Ellen and her friends in treatment deal with their demons brought back horrid flashbacks. Honestly, the movie was gut-wrenching and a few times, I almost shut the movie off. This all didn’t happen within a span of an hour and 47 minutes because this movie was awful, but because the movie was real. “To the Bone” didn’t make eating disorders look desirable, glamorous or even slightly appealing. Instead, the movie showed the disorder for what it really is: scary, unpredictable and overall just plain heartbreaking.

Without giving away any spoilers (or at least not too many), the movie handles the topic better than it was excepted to. It showed the impact of the disorder rather than just superficial aspects of the disorder. It portrays the disorder so well, that I never want my family to see it, because it is anxiety-inducing for me to imagine them seeing even just a piece of what goes on in my head.

At the end of the day it reminds the audience that eating disorders are an illness and kind of like quick-sand. As soon as you step into eating disorder behaviors, you’re going to have to choose to fight like hell to get out. That is before it’s too late.

“To the Bone,” reminded me why I choose recovery, each and every day. This movie has the power to really show people the danger and the loss of control that goes hand-in-hand with eating disorders. Though the movie difficult to watch, I would urge people to power through that uncomfortable feeling. By doing so, you are already starting to debunk the misconceptions about eating disorders.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Screenshot via Netflix’s Youtube channel

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These Diet Trends Aren't Revolutionary, They Glorify Anorexic Behaviors

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Haley Quinn, The Mighty’s Mental Health staffmember, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

Publications love to report on the latest trendy diets. Those promoting recently reported fad diets include Breatharians — who claim to lead healthy “food-free lifestyles” using just the energy of the universe to survive — and Silicon Valley execs, who are experimenting with extended periods of fasting, insisting this behavior is a form of “biohacking” and not “dieting.”

But we’re missing the larger picture here — these diets continue to put restrictive eating on a pedestal. Such extreme diets masked by smiling faces, wealth, successful careers or the word “healthy” send the wrong messages to everyone — not just those in the throes of an eating disorder (ED) or eating disorder recovery.

San Francisco-based eating disorder specialist Shrein Bahrami commented on the Silicon Valley execs who rationalize their fasting by wearing glucose monitors, stating, “The hyper focus on tracking vital signs and food has become normalized, so it’s difficult to know when it’s become obsessive.” It can be common to attach an eating disorder such as anorexia to it’s outward physical markers, forgetting that at the core of most eating disorder (and one of the first markers of its onset) are obsessive thoughts around food and body image.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), 35 percent of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. And of those, 20 to 25 percent progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. These diets aren’t revolutionary, they just glorify anorexic behaviors.

In the case of the Breatharians, the amount of food they say they are consuming would put them at a near-total starvation level. Registered dietician Abby Langer commented on the groups claims, saying, “Food and water really aren’t optional.” And she’s right. Human beings can only exist around 10 to 14 days without food and water. With water but no food, it’s a bit longer, but not by much. 

But regardless, as humans, it’s OK if we eat for more than just survival. Promoting these diets draws our focus away from having a truly fulfilled life. Because life (last time I checked) isn’t about just surviving, “bio-hacking” our way to a certain body type or spending days of our precious time in a constant state of hunger, likely thinking about what we want to eat next, but can’t.

No wonder nearly one-half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting and taking laxatives to control their weight. The drive for thinness masked by extreme restrictive diet trends that are rationalized using the word “healthy” are not the messages publications need to be sending the masses.

We need to continue to change the conversation from glorifying restrictive eating and thinness in order to put a stop to the rising rate of eating disorders. Because even though a single behavior may not denote a full-blown eating disorder, drastic lifestyle changes that involve restrictive eating can still cause long-term physical and mental consequences for some.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Thinkstock photo via fivepointsix

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Dear Google, It's Time for You to Be an Eating Disorder Ally

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Dear Google,

We have to treat eating disorders seriously and you need to help.

For the past five years, people who search for “suicide” or how to die by suicide will get the same results — it will lead them to a results page with a box that contains a helpline depending on the country they are in.

But when searching for eating disorders, there are unfiltered results on how to develop them, step by step.

When this fact came to my attention, I wrote about it in Portuguese and tried to contact Google Brazil, but I believe this wasn’t a priority in the moment.

Since then, some things have changed.

Now, while using Google USA or Google Brazil, typing “anorexia” or “bulimia” now shows a chart on the left side of the screen with information on these eating disorders. It is a great step, but it is related to being a disorder — a search for “tuberculosis” features the same, which shows there has been no new awareness on the implications of Google’s results on the development of eating disorders.

(On Google UK and Google Spain, for example, there is still nothing.)

Unlike other mental illnesses, guidelines on how to live with, maintain and even die from anorexia are really common on the internet.

Some eating disorder “tip” blogs are very popular online. I remember entering some of those when I was around nine and I see nothing has changed after looking for them more than 10 years later. It’s heartbreaking to see.

Just to make sure you get my point: blogs that haven’t been updated for years are still featured on Google results’ first pages —blogs that teach about developing an eating disorder. These pages have a responsibility to the many people who find them and may develop eating disorder symptoms.

If this wasn’t enough, these pages also teach the mentality that generates and sustains these disorders.

Another reason for the new Google chart not being enough is that it only shows up on searches for the isolated terms (for example, “anorexia” or “bulimia”), but there are plenty of other searches that give different tips.

Different social networks have been dealing with this theme for a whileTumblr, Instagram, Pinterest… and each of them has found their particular way to help or at least not to encourage the development of eating disorders in their users.

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and yet eating disorder awareness is left out. There’s not a formula to make it right and there is a lot of work to be done, but each step is importantand this one is indispensable.

Google, let’s talk?

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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How I’m Coping With Body Image Pressure as a Bride

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When I saw myself in my wedding dress, I cried.

Too much consumption of TLC and romantic comedy’s led me to believe that one’s wedding dress fitting symbolized life transition, beauty and tears of joy about childhood dreams being actualized. In contrast, my wedding dress fitting was wrought with anxiety and panic, rather than joyful tears of celebration at a sentinel life event. I stood there in the store, waiting for the “aha” moment of the dress reveal, but as the seamstress and boutique owner buttoned up the dress, I was struck by how painfully tight the dress felt.

“Did you gain weight since you ordered the dress?” The store owner asked me in the most nonchalant, emotionless way as she checked the dress size.

Despite my best efforts, this question left my heart in a puddle on the ground. I immediately regretted not following my dietitian’s advice to call the store in advance and request no body comments be made during my fitting. I mumbled a response I can’t recall and the seamstress got to work pinning for alterations work. As the seamstress lowered her gaze to insert some more pins into the dress, tears welled up in my eyes.

I couldn’t help my immediate reaction. After being in recovery from an eating disorder and spending the last few years separating from my eating disorder identity, I assumed I wouldn’t be back here, in this place, feeling terror and shame over my body. I didn’t want my initial reaction of seeing myself in my wedding dress to involve fighting off the urge to hide in a corner to cry alone. And yet, here I was.

The berating self-shaming soon followed — you’re so vain and superficial. This should not be a big deal. As a feminist, advocate and activist, I attempted to will myself into a body positive spin on my feelings. I was eating well, I was in recovery, I had re-feeding weight, yes, but there was nothing wrong with my body. I accepted my body no matter what. I recited the common recovery mantras with gritted teeth, hoping all those chapters I read from “Intuitive Eating” during treatment would percolate into my brain and stop the tears.

But here I was, standing there with pins in a form-fitting dress that needed to be let out, staving off the guttural reaction to “ugly cry.”

I finished the appointment, texted a few friends with an SOS message and drove home, still shaking, tear stains burning my face. I came out of this panic state after a few hours and my fiancé held me as I cried in his arms.I wish I could say I ignored all disordered thoughts that creeped into my mind in the following days, but I didn’t.

However, that day I also made a decision. I would not let my dress dictate my eating. Despite my discomfort about the boutique owner’s words, my body can’t take another slip or relapse, and I won’t start out my married life in the midst of restriction related gastrointestinal issues. If that means I can’t fit into my dress and need to search for a thrift store dress at the Salvation Army the day before the wedding, I am willing to do that.

During my next dress fitting, I brought a supportive family member, mentally prepared and focused on the fit of the bustle and train, rather than my body filling out the dress. Even after all these years of eating disorder behaviors, treatment and relapse, it is a hard thing for me to remember I take up space. It’s even harder for me to believe I deserve to take up space.

Getting married can be a huge trigger for body image fears, regardless of whether someone has an eating disorder history. I scroll through my emails and see wedding ad pages targeted to me that emphasize unrealistic expectations of how a woman “should” look on her wedding day.

I have found it helpful to remember that a wedding is an event. It is a day that holds tremendous cultural pressure, but it is still a day. A wedding is a fraction of what it means to spend your days and years in a marriage. Since I value my relationship and self-worth, I am doing what it takes to stay in recovery as I prepare to get married.

As much as I love my wedding dress, I will not crash diet or jeopardize my recovery for a dress. No dress is worth that high of a price.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia Ltd

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