themighty logo

How You Might Be Triggering Loved Ones in Eating Disorder Recovery


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 741741.

If someone asks, I’ll tell them my eating disorder has about a million causes. Lots of small things, and a few big things, went wrong in the years before I was diagnosed. My coping mechanism became food because no matter what happened around me, I could control what went into my mouth and when.

People are becoming more aware of eating disorders, which I think is great. When we talk about eating disorder prevention, the goals center around allowing everyone to eat what feels right, avoiding body talk, focusing on more than just an individual’s body and more. These are great goals and I am a firm supporter of the body-positive movement.

Yet, I don’t think people outside of the eating disorder world realize just how much we talk about our bodies and our food. In my experience, triggering topics are brought up multiple times each day. If I feel brave enough to point out the triggering conversations, people often don’t even realize they were talking about bodies or food. As someone who struggles with eating and body image, it fascinates me that body talk can be so nonchalant. I guess that is the world we live in.

Before I go on, I would like to emphasize that this is my experience, and everyone has their own experience with eating disorders.

So, what do negative food and body talk actually look like?

Some topics are easier to identify: a weight (especially a number), a food labeled as “good” or “bad” and talking about a new diet. Some topics might be a bit more difficult for someone who isn’t met by the thoughts that I, or anyone else with an eating disorder, struggle with on a daily basis.

For example, people will compliment me on how I “look” healthier than I did a few years ago. I hear this from my peers a lot too. While well-intentioned, all I hear is that I “look” fatter. Instead? Try: “You seem to have more energy/confidence/shine/sparkle/happiness/spunk/laughter/smiles.” Feel free to replace that last word with anything that doesn’t have anything to do with my looks.

I’m so proud of you for going to the gym. Listening to you talk about it is hard though. First of all, gyms, in general, are now unsafe places. You are nonchalantly talking about hell right now. A lot of us worked out until fainting. Secondly, don’t tell me about how many calories you are burning, how much weight you’ve lost, or how weight loss is making you feel better. Do tell me that moving your body in a healthy way feels good and being at the gym makes you feel happy.

Another culprit is listening to you, my loved one, comment on someone else’s weight or general appearance. My brain is full of comparisons, and when you say that singer looks beautiful, I hear she is skinny and that is why she is pretty. Try: “Wow, she is a great singer, and a phenomenal dancer. She looks fierce on stage – she is so excited to be up there!” Or, if you do make a comment about how beautiful/ugly someone is, can you check in with me to make sure I didn’t turn that on myself?

Also, please don’t shame yourself in front of me for eating. “I shouldn’t have had that cupcake last night,” is another thing that is difficult to hear. Cupcakes are bad? Cupcakes are to be avoided? What do you mean? We’re trying hard to learn that all foods fit, even the occasional cupcake. Please don’t tell me sugar isn’t good for me, that carbs are making me tired, or fats are making me gain weight. In recovery, I’m trying hard to put trust in my dietitian. These thoughts are confusing.

Would you like to know a random item in your house that is triggering? That cup you have with the metal ball inside. It has some gym’s logo on it, and you probably drink protein drinks out of it. For many of us, it’s a reminder of darker days. I’m not going to ask you to get rid of it or stop drinking your protein drinks, but can you put it away? Or ask your loved one if it bothers them? Depending on the person, it could be incredibly triggering and you might have no idea.

Oh, and most importantly: listen to the person in your life who has an eating disorder. Everyone is different and has different triggers; these are ones I’ve seen in my life and with my friends. We’re all struggling. We’re incredibly thankful for the help you have given us thus far. We know you want to help. Here is how.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash