Oftentimes, those who live with an eating disorder can be subject to unsolicited, insensitive comments from well-meaning people around them. Though it can be difficult to think of the “right things” to say in such a sensitive situation, it is vital to keep in mind that eating disorders can be incredibly complex and that approaching this topic with understanding and compassion can be essential for recovery.
“You look great! You don’t need to lose weight!”
Avoiding all comments on another person’s body is the best course of action. Telling a person with an eating disorder that they have a “great body,” that they are “not fat,” or that they “don’t need to lose weight” is unlikely to change their perception of their body. Eating disorders are highly complex mental illnesses that have far more to do with compulsive thoughts and behaviors than the real appearance of the individual. Someone with an eating disorder might be dangerously thin but still struggle with urges to restrict or purge food due to complex mental and emotional difficulties. In addition, commenting about how someone currently doesn’t need to lose weight reinforces the idea that people of a larger size do in fact need to lose weight.
“You’re so skinny! You have more willpower than I do!”
By complementing someone on their thinness, you are inadvertently reinforcing the unhealthy (and often dangerous) behaviors that stem from their eating disorder. The comment could come across as an endorsement for their negative body image, rather than an encouraging remark. In turn, this could encourage the individual to become even more fixated on their own body shape and perpetuate the negative cycle of their disorder.
“Can’t you try just eating like a normal person?”
The phrase “eat like a normal person” implies that some sort of normal or ideal benchmark exists for eating and food consumption. Unfortunately, this idea is far from the truth, as there is no single “normal” way to be around food – everyone’s relationship to food is unique and individualized. People with eating disorders are more than likely already putting immense, sometimes unrealistic, expectations on themselves around food, so telling them to “eat like a normal person” can be hurtful and damaging to their recovery process. It may cause them to feel shame, guilt, and anxiety around the act of eating.
“Why are you sabotaging yourself? You have a good life.”
This is completely invalidating. Dismissing one’s mental health experience with comments like this only makes people feel worse. To dismiss or invalidate a person with an eating disorder is not only hurtful and damaging to their mental health, but also fails to recognize the complexities of the condition. In addition, eating disorders often come with a general lack of understanding of the condition, which is why those who are struggling with it often feel misunderstood, isolated, and embarrassed. Dismissing and invalidating their experiences and struggles is likely to only exacerbate these existing negative emotions. Figuratively speaking, it can feel like you are shutting down an avenue of conversation, prompting the person to internalize their feelings, difficulties, and struggles.
“Maybe you should try this diet I heard about…”
Diets in general are a terrible way to nourish your body because they often encourage restricting and do not promote sustainable lifestyle changes. For people with eating disorders, diets are even more dangerous because it is likely that they will become more preoccupied with food and more rigid when it comes to eating. Their relationship with food will likely become worse and they may be more likely to engage in behaviors such as binging and purging. Not only will this harm the person’s physical health, but it may also have a long-term impact on their ability to fully recover. Recovering from an eating disorder requires learning how to nourish your body and consume adequate nutrients. This often involves going to therapy and working with a dietitian. Unless a person is a licensed professional, it is important to keep any advice around food and nutrition very general, such as “honor and trust your body.”
“I wish I could be as self-disciplined as you.”
People with eating disorders need encouragement and understanding, not a false sense of pride in their disorder. Complimenting someone with an eating disorder for being “disciplined” in their food intake may provide a temporary, but dangerous, sense of validation without providing the ability to process underlying issues, which often diminishes motivation to seek treatment. Those with disordered eating patterns require a foundation of acceptance and compassion in order to heal and develop a healthier outlook.
“You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.”
It is impossible to tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their appearance alone. Contrary to popular belief, an eating disorder can affect anyone, no matter their body shape or size. While certain characteristics, such as abnormally skinny body, are typically associated with eating disorders such as anorexia, many are unaware that all people, regardless of size or shape, can struggle with eating disorders. They can be found among people belonging to all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, sexual orientations, lifestyles, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Someone else recovered from an eating disorder by doing this…”
Comparing different people with eating disorders is not only unhelpful and damaging, but it overlooks the very unique and personal experiences that all individuals with an eating disorder face. It’s important to remember that there are many different kinds of any disorders and they all manifest differently from person to person. In addition, comparing different people with eating disorders can foster feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. Eating disorders are already difficult mental illnesses to manage, and seeing others “succeed” in coping with their own issues can lead to feelings of failure when those same successes are not achieved. Above all, it is essential to emphasize the path towards recovery and the effort that goes into it, rather than the comparisons between people.
Instead of these comments listed above, the key to interacting with someone with an eating disorder is to approach them with kindness, acceptance, and understanding. Adopting an attitude of patience and support is beneficial in trying to help someone on the road to recovery. Rather than focusing on the outward physical appearance of the individual, minimizing their experience, or comparing them to others, ask them meaningful questions about how the disorder is affecting their life. Showing empathy and non-judgemental kindness can help to create an atmosphere of trust and understanding, allowing the individual to seek help in a safe and supportive environment.
Written by Lauren Presutti