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9 Things Not to Say to Someone With an Eating Disorder

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For the last six years of my life, I’ve spent more time thinking about food than nearly anything else. For five of those six years, I was in the throes of an eating disorder. Only in the last year have I started to edge back into a remotely healthy diet. In that time, I’ve had lots of people say lots of truly terrible things to me, things that sent my brain spinning merrily back into the labyrinth of restriction.

Most of those people thought they were helping.

So as a service to everyone who knows, meets or interacts with someone with an eating disorder, here’s a guide to what not to say. Even if you’re intentions are good, your first instinct might not be the best when it comes to what to say to someone who discloses their eating disorder to you.

1. “You don’t look sick.”

There are all kinds of eating disorders. Anorexia is one of them, and yes, it does include a weight criterion. However, it’s the only one that does. The vast majority of people with eating disorders are not underweight. So while you might think you’re paying a compliment, or trying to keep them from blowing a problem out of proportion, you’re really just sending the message: Your problem isn’t real.

2. “Maybe if you just exercise more you won’t want to restrict.”

One thing to remember is that people with eating disorders have a wide variety of symptoms. One you won’t see in the media as often is excessive exercise. You could inadvertently be pushing someone into an unhealthy behavior. Beyond that, eating disorders aren’t caused by a logical desire to lose weight. They’re complicated mental illnesses, and “healthy” ways of losing weight just won’t serve the same functions.

3. “Shouldn’t you try eating healthier instead?”

Similarly to exercising, eating healthier foods and losing weight slowly is really not the goal of an eating disorder. The goal is control, self-harm, perfectionism or emotional management. Some folks even have something called orthorexia, meaning healthy eating is a damaging practice.

4. “You look so healthy.”

This one is tough, because for lots of people it seems like it’s circumventing the problem of commenting on someone’s weight. Especially as your friend/loved one starts to move towards recovery, it’s really tempting to comment on how much more alive they look. I can promise you, that most eating disordered brains know this is code for, “You’ve gained weight.” A better choice is to focus on compliments or comments that don’t address weight at all, such as “You seem really happy lately,” or “I’m glad to see you doing your favorite things again.”

5. “Don’t you know you’re hurting yourself?”

Again, this might seem like the kind of question that comes from a place of caring. You want your friend or acquaintance to know  you care about them and you don’t want them to hurt or deprive themselves. The problem is it comes off as condescending. If you’re in the midst of an eating disorder, you’re quite aware you’re damaging your body. I remember stopping to sit down halfway up a flight of stairs because I was too winded. I remember the whole world going blurry and dizzy on a regular basis. I remember sleeping constantly because my body just couldn’t get up and do anymore. My story is not even close to the worst either. Others are hospitalized, pass out, get osteoporosis, break bones or damage their digestive systems. We know we’re hurting ourselves and hearing about it inspires feelings of guilt, confusion and sometimes even a desire to continue hurting yourself.

6. “I was so bad last night, I ate a cupcake. Guess I have to hit the gym.”

Eating is not a moral activity. There are no foods that will make you a bad person or a good person. Skinny people are not better than fat people. Statements like these connect morals to weight or eating, and making those connections makes it that much harder for someone who struggles with food to find a place where they can be comfortable and happy with their diet.

7. “There are so many calories in that!”

In general, it’s good manners to not comment on the calories in anyone else’s food. What other people eat isn’t your business. But one of the biggest problems with encouraging talk about calories is that it can become a habit. When you talk calories around people who already have a strained relationship with food, you can send their brains back to thoughts they would rather leave behind. For some folks, calorie talk is enough to trigger a relapse. Those numbers have an addictive quality for many people with eating disorders and even hearing about them once or twice can start up the counting again.

From this girl in recovery, just leave the calorie chats behind. Count your own calories if that’s your jam, but your food choices are personal and bringing up calories when you don’t know someone else’s relationship with food can be unkind.

8. “You would be prettier if you gained some weight.”

This may seem odd to some people, but eating disorders have little to nothing to do with whether or not other people find the individual’s body attractive. For me personally, I was interested in my own conception of the perfect body and I didn’t care what other people thought. If you want to help someone with an eating disorder build up strong self-esteem, talk to them about something other than their body. Compliments about things they do, the way they think or the kind of person they are — you’re far more likely to leave a lasting impact.

9. “I just want to lose some weight.”

Generally putting your body down or talking about losing weight is a good way to promote a culture of dieting and body dissatisfaction. It can be much better to avoid body talk at all, especially if someone around you experiences body image issues. Talking about losing weight and hearing others talk about losing weight can activate the competitive part of many people with eating disorders, as well as communicate to them that it’s normal to want to lose weight.

These might seem like a lot of rules, but if you want a guiding principle for what you should say to people who struggle with food remember this: they’re overall pretty normal people who want to talk about things other than food. Treat them like that. Ask them what they prefer. The people who have made me cry in relief are the ones who kept treating me like me, and then were straightforward with me when they had a question or concern.

More than anything, keep showing up. It’s easy to isolate yourself when you’re not eating. Because food is so social, restriction is lonely. Say, “Hi,” ask your friend to hang out in non-food related ways and listen if they ask to talk. It makes a world of difference.

Originally published: August 11, 2015
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