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8 Comments People With Eating Disorders Don't Need to Hear

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I have personal experience of eating disorders, and have fought anorexia and bulimia since the age of 10. I have been hospitalized many times and I almost lost my life. I have also supported and continue to support several friends with eating disorders. I have lost three people to eating disorders.

Eating disorders are notoriously difficult to talk about and to treat. They can have a devastating effect on both the individual with the illness and all those who care for them. Maybe you’re someone with anorexia, bulimia or another disorder, and you feel like the people close to you keep saying all the wrong things. Maybe you’re a family member or friend of a person with an eating disorder and you’re struggling to know what to say.

Eating disorders can appear to change a person. A seriously distorted body image and/or a lack of nutrition affects the way people think and how they see themselves. People with eating disorders may appear emotionally (as well as physically) fragile. They may be extremely sensitive, particularly around issues relating to food, size and body weight. They are in many ways being controlled by the eating disorder which distorts thinking and may want to push the person away from anyone who cares about them.

Family and friends usually do want to help, but eating disorders do not make sense to them. Why on earth would someone not eat? Why would someone want to look so skinny and ill? Why is their body image so distorted? Don’t these people get hungry? Why is my loved one hurting themselves and everyone around them like this? Why is my loved one starving themselves to death?

Often people seem to not know what to say to someone with an eating disorder. So they either say nothing or completely the wrong thing, unintentionally causing distress to the person with the eating disorder. So let’s start with what not to say.

1. “But you don’t look ‘anorexic’ — it can’t be that bad.”

Nooo! Weight loss is just one aspect of anorexia. People who have bulimia or binge eating disorder may be at “normal” weight for their body type, or even overweight. Weight can fluctuate massively and quickly. Also, many people with an eating disorder hide under baggy clothes and layers. You probably don’t know what they weigh — and it’s not about weight anyway.

2. “It’s your own fault.”

It might appear that way, but the person is mentally unwell. The eating disorder is controlling their thoughts and behavior. They don’t want this to be happening to them either.

3. “Let me tell you about my diet…”

Yes, you may be on a diet, but now is not the time to mention it. Yes, some celebrity may look fantastic in her bikini, but don’t even go there — please. I’m looking for examples of how to have a good relationship with food. Healthy eating is OK, but please don’t label foods as “bad” or talk about losing weight in front of the person with the eating disorder. Unintentionally, this may cause further distorted thinking and damage.

4. “Oh, you look better since you’ve gained weight!”

I appreciate this is a difficult one. This is what you want to see and possibly want to say, but when you say this, a person with an eating disorder might hear, “I look like I’ve gained weight? Well I’m fat. I need to lose even more.” Also, it’s worth noting in both eating disorders and other mental health disorders, it can be unhelpful to simply comment on how the person “looks” as this can invalidate how unwell the person feels.

5. “Wow, you lost weight and you look amazing!”

You don’t know how they have lost the weight. Even if the person is recovered, it’s still a risk. Body image distortion and eating disorders tend to remain kicking around in the background even when recovered. Also, once again, the person is being judged on weight. This is not good. The words, “You look amazing,” are fine, but saying “You are amazing,” is even better.

6. “People around the world are starving, and you are doing this on purpose?”

Yes, there are people starving due to lack of food and that is tragic. But your loved one is starving due to severe mental illness. This is also tragic and not comparable. This sort of thing just makes people feel guilty.

7. “I don’t care anymore,” or “I can’t deal with you anymore.”

Now, I know it can be challenging loving someone with an eating disorder. I really do. But please, don’t walk away from your loved one. Remember they are unwell. They are not doing this on purpose. They need your love more than ever.

8. Nothing.

Don’t be tempted to say nothing. This will not fix it. Your loved one is seriously ill and that cannot be ignored. It’s absolutely fine to talk about other things too, but don’t try and pretend like it isn’t happening.

Say something. Say you are worried, Say you want to help. Ask what you can do and be prepared to listen. Do your research. Talk to the professionals. Don’t give up on them. With the right help and care, people can get better. They deserve to get better. You deserve your loved one back.

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.

Originally published: August 2, 2016
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