From the steady stream of diet advertisements on TV, to the calorie counts on menus at restaurants, our diet and fitness-obsessed world is a complicated climate for those who are in recovery from an eating disorder. While it is impossible to completely eliminate diet-culture from one’s life, there are steps that individuals who are struggling can take to distance themselves from negative media messages. However, certain comments from friends or family members can also be triggering to those that are suffering. When a loved one is battling with an eating disorder, it can be hard to know what to say. The following are six things that you shouldn’t say to someone with an eating disorder.
1. You look so healthy.
Saying “you look so healthy” is often a well-intentioned effort to tell the person that you are supportive of their recovery. However, often their eating disorder voice will twist any appearance-related comments into a negative sentiment. For instance, their eating disorder voice may tell them that the statement of “you look healthy” really means, “you look fat.” It is generally a good rule of thumb to avoid making any comments about the person’s weight, body, or appearance. Someone with an eating disorder is usually entrenched in negative thoughts about their weight and body. Therefore, it can be helpful to pay them a compliment that has nothing to do with their outward appearance. A more helpful statement might be, “You look much happier,” or “You seem to be more at peace with yourself.”
2. You look way too thin.
On the flip side, telling a person with an eating disorder that they look “too thin” can also be triggering. At their core, eating disorders are not really about a person’s weight. Often a person who is suffering is attempting to control their weight in an effort to feel more in control of their lives, cope with past trauma, or to numb difficult emotions. Further, it is a common misconception that you have to be emaciated in order to have an eating disorder. A person can be struggling with an eating disorder at any weight. Telling someone that they look too thin may be exactly what their eating disorder voice wants to hear. Understand that often there is no weight that their eating disorder voice will deem to be “too thin.” A person who is suffering may take this comment of concern as a “compliment” and it may serve to fuel their disorder even more. A more helpful statement could be one where you point out your concern over the person’s behaviors and how it is impacting their life, rather than focusing on their weight. For instance, it might be more useful to say, “It seems like you think about food all of the time and it is negatively affecting your life. You seem really sad and anxious. I am worried about you.”
3. You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.
Telling the person that they “don’t look like they have an eating disorder,” only serves to fuel their disordered thinking. Their eating disorder voice will tell them that they are “not sick enough” to seek help. Denial is an integral component to eating disorders and this statement insinuates that the person does not “look sick enough” to have an eating disorder. Frances Garrote, a writer and survivor, exemplified this point when she stated, “Actually, I looked completely average and my biggest issue about looking for help was that people wouldn’t believe me. I was horrified that if I told someone I had an eating disorder, they wouldn’t believe me. I was drowning in a wave of embarrassment and indecision.” An eating disorder is a mental illness, and therefore it is impossible to determine someone’s level of suffering based upon their physical appearance. Everyone who is struggling with an eating disorder deserves to seek treatment, regardless of his or her weight.
4. I need to lose some weight.
Engaging with your loved one in “fat talk” or a discussion about your latest diet program is counterproductive and may also be highly triggering. Discussing how you are on a low-carb diet with someone who has an eating disorder is akin to talking about your drinking binge with a person who is recovering from alcoholism. Instead, try to engage in discussions with the person about things that are unrelated to food, weight, and exercise. The person likely already spends a huge amount of time thinking about these topics and could probably use a mental break.
5. I wish I had your willpower.
Eating disorders are not about willpower and they are not a choice. No one would choose to watch in terror as their hair falls out, to lose their friends because they cannot go out to eat, to exercise despite physical pain, or to binge eat until they feel like they are going to explode. If you find yourself wanting to make this kind of statement, I would encourage you to educate yourself on eating disorders and the devastating impact that they can have on people’s lives. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness. They are not something “to aspire to” and they are definitely not a choice. Instead, try to affirm to the person that you understand they are not “choosing” to feel and behave this way. However, they can choose to work towards recovery, and you are here to support them every step of the way.
6. Why can’t you just eat that?
Asking someone to “just eat,” insinuates that they are choosing to have an eating disorder. If treatment for an eating disorder was as simple as telling the person to just “suck it up and eat,” we would have no need for residential centers, therapists, or nutritionists. Telling someone with an eating disorder to “just eat,” is like saying to someone with a broken leg to “just walk.” Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with both genetic and environmental roots. A person never chooses to have an eating disorder, but they can choose recovery at any time. Instead, encourage the person to seek professional help from a therapist, psychiatrist, or nutritionist- preferably one who specializes in eating disorders.
No one would choose to have an eating disorder, but it is never too late to choose recovery. If we can begin to eradicate some of the triggering and unhelpful comments that are made to those with eating disorders, we can fight back against the misconceptions and stigma that surround this deadly illness. Rebecca Perkins, a blogger, expressed her thoughts on supporting a loved one with an eating disorder when she stated,
“One of the hardest issues I had to deal with was recognizing and understanding that I couldn’t “fix” her. I couldn’t make her better. I couldn’t give her paracetamol or put a band-aid on a grazed knee. This illness was hers, not mine. She had to want to heal herself. In a way, I had to watch events unfold and be there with unconditional love for her at all times. When the rage came I stood and took the full force. When the tears came I sat and comforted…When the fear came I held her in my arms.”
Author: Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW, is a licensed mental health therapist who specializes in working with adolescents, survivors of trauma, eating disorders, and with individuals experiencing mood disorders. She received a Master’s in Clinical Social Work from The University of Maryland and a Bachelor’s in Public Communication from American University.
Jennifer has experience working in a variety of settings including, an outpatient mental health clinic, therapeutic group homes, and a sexual assault crisis hotline. She holds an Advanced Training in Traumatic Stress certificate through The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.
Jennifer’s writing has been featured on numerous websites including, PsychCentral.com, MindBodyGreen.com, ElephantJournal.com, NationalEatingDisorders.org, Bedaonline.com, and TheProjectHeal.org.