The fact that it is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is really the sole reason that I am blogging today, because baby is tired. Apparently, recovering from surgery isn’t really a “vacation” and isn’t supposed to be “fun,” and oh yeah, I’ve been working the entire time. I am so brave, right? So, so brave. Anyway, today’s post is inspired by my friend from high school, Baylor. She and her husband are adopting a child (or possibly children…it’s complicated) from Ethiopia, and she has a great blog about it that I stalk read to get ideas for how to convince AJ to let me adopt children from across the world love. She does posts every once in awhile about the odd/offensive/misguided things people often say to her when they find out that she and her husband are going through the adoption process, and it inspired me to do something similar about eating disorders. Today’s post will give you some examples about what not to say to someone who is suffering or may be suffering from an eating disorder and will provide an alternative idea of what to say instead. That being said, feel free to not say these things to anyone ever, because you never know who you’re talking to. Just a thought.
Disclaimer: This is a series of posts about my experiences with anorexia and bulimia. Many of the things I discuss could be extremely triggering if you are dealing with an eating disorder, so please read at your own risk. I am not a doctor or a therapist. I am simply telling you my story and these are just my experiences. I don’t speak for anyone else.
1. “You look so healthy!”
This statement is often made to a known eating disorder patient by someone who has not seen the person since they entered recovery. The patient has gained weight, and the person is trying to compliment their appearance.
People, please, for the love of God/Flying Spaghetti Monster, do not ever use the word “healthy” in reference to an eating disorder patient’s appearance. Do you know what “healthy” means to someone with an ED? It means fat. There is no other way to say it. You say healthy, I hear fat. I realize that it’s meant to be a compliment, but it’s not perceived that way, and I know I have many other ED patients in agreement with me on this one (because I’ve asked to make sure I’m not insane). Gaining weight during recovery is a tremendous source of anxiety for patients, and we don’t need any reminders that we have gained weight and people notice. And I mean really, when would you ever say that to a normal person? If you hadn’t seen a friend from high school for 10 years, you wouldn’t greet them by telling them they looked “healthy,” you’d probably tell them they looked “great” or “exactly the same” or something. If you must comment on the appearance of someone in recovery, just tell them they look great. Even better, don’t comment on their overall appearance at all. Say something like “I love your hair!” or “What a cute shirt!” Or a simple “It’s great to see you!” would be perfect.
2. “What are you, anorexic/bulimic/a binge eater or something?”
This statement is made to someone during or after a meal in which you notice strange behavior. It might be said as a joke (like the burrito guys to me) or it might be said seriously, as an actual question.
If you’re making this statement as a joke…don’t. It’s not funny. You never know who you’re talking to. If you happen to say it to the wrong person (i.e. me…although that would be awkward now since you guys all know I have an eating disorder…but I digress), it’s going to make them feel horrible and possibly trigger ED behaviors, so just don’t say it. Ever. Deal? Deal.
If you are truly concerned about someone’s eating habits and believe that they might have an eating disorder, this is not the way to ask. It comes across as being kind of a joke and also being very condescending and accusatory, and it doesn’t exactly make someone want to open up if they do have a problem. If you are genuinely concerned, try approaching the situation in a neutral time and space – i.e, not around meal time. Focus on making “I” statements, like “I noticed that you skipped lunch last Wednesday and it’s something that’s been happening regularly, and I’m concerned.” or “It makes me afraid when I hear you vomiting after meals.” Present specific examples of incidents where you noticed the behavior and avoid making accusatory statements. I’ll touch a LOT more on this in my next post, which will be a comprehensive “How to Help” guide, but I wanted to address it here as well.
3. “Why would she/he have an eating disorder? His/her life is perfect!”
A sorority sister of mine said something to this effect a long time ago when a group of us were out at dinner. We happened to be talking about Mary-Kate Olsen, and my sorority sister was implying that Mary-Kate had no right to have an eating disorder because she is wealthy, a celebrity, and seems privileged in all senses of the word. Of course, no one knew at this point that I was seriously struggling with bulimia, and the comment prompted me to get up from the table and run to the bathroom and throw up everything I’d just eaten. Why? Because I had thought the same thing about myself a thousand times. I had a great childhood, a loving family, wealthy parents. I didn’t deserve to have an eating disorder. What was wrong with me? I was so ashamed and felt so guilty.
Of course, no matter how perfect someone’s life may appear, it is impossible to know what is really going on. Furthermore, no one does or does not “deserve” to have an eating disorder. Eating disorders have a very strong genetic component as well as an environmental component, and they can be triggered by many seemingly ambivalent things. It’s important not to make assumptions about anyone’s life and environment. That being said, I don’t have any suggestions about what to say instead of this – just don’t say it.
4. General discussion of weight, calories in food, dieting, etc. – “Are you really going to eat that?” “I’m going to gain so much weight if I eat this.” ” I need to lose X pounds.” “This has HOW MANY calories?” “I can’t eat that….but you go ahead.”
In our appearance and weight-obsessed culture, so many of us are constantly thinking about losing weight, dieting, cutting calories, etc. We make comments about how many calories are in this meal choice versus that, or say things like “Wow, I wish I could eat that! I’d gain ten pounds if I did!” On the surface, it seems like an easily relatable topic, and to many people, it is. The problem is the audience. If you’re talking to someone who you know is an ED patient or seems to be particularly sensitive about their weight and food, these types of comments can be very triggering. It can be very tempting to discuss weight, diets, and body image with an eating disorder patient, because you know they will understand, but these discussions cause tremendous anxiety. For example, as someone struggling with recovery, I’ve learned that I can’t really watch what I eat, or I become obsessive. Therefore, if I want to eat something, I eat it, and I try not to think too much about the calories. If I go to a burrito place and get the queso dip as a side with my chips, don’t tell me how many grams of fat are in it. Don’t question why I’m getting the bigger burrito – maybe I’m hungry! You might feel like you’re just making conversation, but it can come across as more than that. Stay away from numbers – weight, calories, miles, whatever. People with eating disorders are very focused on numbers and will latch onto these in a subconscious need to compete.
Instead, if you’re trying to change your diet or lose weight, focus less on the actual numbers of calories or pounds you want to lose and talk about the positive changes you want to make. Instead of “I’m only going to eat 1500 calories a day from now on,” how about “I think I’ll get that grilled chicken sandwich today instead of a burger. I heard lean protein is great fuel for running!” Focus on the things that are healthy to eat and the positive aspects of those foods rather than the negative aspects of others. Increase your workouts without constantly bragging about it. We’ve got a culture where a lot of people like to one-up each other in every conversation: ” I ran 3 miles this morning!” “Oh yeah? That’s cool, I ran 6.” We all do it, sometimes without even realizing it. But what’s wrong with responding with something like “That’s great! I love running to start the morning!” Note: if you know that the person you are speaking to has suffered from an eating disorder or you suspect it, refrain from talking about food at all- especially food that they are eating. The tips in this paragraph are general tips for promoting positive body image in general.
The point is, it’s easy to focus on the things we can’t do, can’t eat, can’t wear, etc. instead of the things we can. And why? Is that really doing any of us any good? What if we took the time, for once, to say something good about what we’re doing and what other people are doing? I think this is universally excellent advice, if I do say so myself. Kumbayah.
5. “Why does it matter how much you weigh? It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
Lovely sentiment, right? But if you say this to someone you suspect has an eating disorder, you’re essentially saying “you’re ugly” and “you’ll fail, so don’t bother trying to lose weight.” Look, no one ever said this was logical. Again, try and hear this from the opposite perspective – it can sound accusatory, and like the person is doing something wrong. Of course, their behavior is not to be encouraged, but making accusations and threatening the person is going to make them close off to you instead of trust you and open up about their issues. Instead of making generic statements like the one above, try focusing on what makes the person special or important to you. “I love your sense of humor and your extensive knowledge of marsupial trivia.” Or something.
6. “If you loved me, you’d get better.”
This is a nice idea, but fundamentally untrue. Guilt is not an effective motivator for people with eating disorders – we already feel guilty enough! We feel guilty for not being good enough, not being skinny enough, affecting our friends and family, attracting attention to ourselves…it goes on and on. In order to go into true recovery, an ED patient needs to be doing it for themselves, and not out of guilt or out of the desire to please someone else. Most of us are people pleasers by nature. Being reminded of yet another way that we are failing only leads to resentment and being closed off to help. Instead of saying something like that, try: “I love you and I want to be there to support you in any way I can.” Simple enough, right?
7. “That girl/guy needs to eat a cheeseburger/stop eating cheeseburgers.”
I assure you, if it was as simple as eating a cheeseburger (or not eating them anymore), eating disorders wouldn’t exist. I promise, it’s not like I suddenly forgot what cheeseburgers tasted like when I develop an eating disorder. Statements like this reflect a total lack of understanding of eating disorders in general, so just don’t say them.
8. “I wish I could be anorexic/bulimic for like…a month.”
You’d be shocked to know how many people have actually said this to me after finding out I have an eating disorder. Eating disorders aren’t something you can turn on and turn off, of course. What they really mean is “I wish I had your willpower,” and eating disorders aren’t about willpower – they’re a sickness. Statements like these emphasize the speaker’s belief that eating disorders aren’t serious or aren’t hard to recover from. While ED patients realize their actions are difficult to understand, they don’t need the idea to be reinforced that their actions are good – and that’s basically what you’re saying when you make a statement like this.
And for the record, no, you don’t wish that. I promise.
9. “You look so skinny! Are you ok?”
Let me be clear – voicing concern is good. Voicing concern like this? Not good. Here’s why – first, you’re drawing attention to the appearance of the person you think has an eating disorder, immediately making them self conscious and closed-off. Second, you’re inadvertently reinforcing the behavior, even though you mean “you’re so skinny!” in a bad way. When someone tells me I look skinny, that’s an automatic win – especially if they say it with a lot of shock in their voice. “I’m so skinny? SWEET!” Instead, as I mentioned above, focus on things that are not appearance-related, such as behavior: “I noticed you’ve only been eating small salads for all your meals lately, and I’m concerned.”
10. “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.”
What you mean is “you aren’t that skinny, so it must not be that bad.” Eating disorder patients don’t look a certain way, as we’ve discussed in previous posts. They are extremely thin, average weight, overweight, and every size in between. The severity of an eating disorder is not defined by a person’s appearance, and all this statement does is tell the person that they’re failing.
11. “My friend’s sister was bulimic and she…”
This is inappropriate in a very specific situation – when someone has just confided in you that they have an eating disorder. People tend to say things like this because they are trying to make the ED patient feel like they are understood, which is a very noble goal. The problem is that in the context mentioned above, it invalidates the individual, who has just made a huge confession and confided in you. While sharing experiences can be very valuable, particularly if you have suffered from an eating disorder yourself, it doesn’t do any good to talk about someone else in that moment. Validate the feelings of the person who is speaking, and try and reach out. In this moment, it’s not about you and how much you know or who you know. Wait until a later time to talk about your experiences. Note: I’m obviously not talking about the responses I got on this blog. Sharing my story on the blog is quite different than an ED patient finally opening up about their disorder one-on-one.
Maybe people reading this will say I’m too easily offended and that I need to lighten up. After all, many of these comments come out of a place of concern. Of course, I understand that. As a person in my actual life, I really work hard to shake off these types of comments, and because I’ve been working on it for years, I’m pretty successful. The problem is that you just never know who you’re talking to or where someone is in their recovery. The statements above can be so decimating and so triggering, they’re not worth saying. Any comment that makes someone feel not good enough, not important enough, not sick enough, is counter-productive to people with eating disorders and to society in general. This statement pretty much sums it up:
“That feeling, that fear of not being sick enough, is not about vanity or rivalry; it’s about feeling so worthless that you don’t believe you deserve to be cared for. That’s what it comes down to. People with [eating disorders] don’t believe that they deserve help, deserve rest, deserve to ask for what they need. In other words, they don’t believe they get to be human. And when they compete…to be the thinnest, the sickest, what they’re really doing is trying to prove that they’re worthy to be in treatment; worthy of the time and energy of the staff; worthy to nourish their bodies, worthy to start to heal.” Source
So please, think before you speak. Take time to consider how your words might affect the person you’re talking to. Take time to think about how you can be a more positive force in the world in general. We could all stand to feel a little bit better about ourselves and our bodies, so leave my burrito alone.
In the next post: I’ll finally give you the most comprehensive guide I can (I’m only a mere mortal, after all) on how to help someone who is suffering.
Leave a comment: What did I miss? What other misguided statements have you heard people make (or made yourself)? What have you learned from this series that you didn’t know before?