7 Things To Never Say To Someone Who Has Struggled With An Eating Disorder
As anyone who has ever struggled with their mental health knows, discussing your problems with others means you will eventually hear some offensive comments about your disorder— ones that are often not intended to be offensive at all. Eating disorders are no exception to this rule. In fact, since they are arguably the most glamorized mental illness — and are certainly among the mental illnesses most commonly depicted in popular culture — discussions about eating disorders often come with their own unique set of ignorant, triggering and frustrating remarks.
I grappled with anorexia and bulimia for years before fully recovering and getting my life back. To be clear, plenty of friends, family members, and acquaintances were compassionate and supportive. I would not be where I am today (aka alive) if it weren't for their patience, kindness and unwavering belief that I possessed the strength to recover. But I'd be lying if I said everyone in my life was supportive. Some friends bailed because they didn't want to deal with someone who was not only miserable, but also awkwardly fiddled with the food on her plate to avoid eating it. And I heard offensive comments so often that I should have become desensitized — but they still stung every time. From people expressing envy over the "self-control" exhibited by anorexics, to people who asserted that the disorders are a choice or a desperate bid for attention, it was always clear to me that many people have zero understanding of this complex illness.
Although I've been recovered for years, certain observations and opinions about eating disorders still make me shake my head in frustration. I'm not saying you have to walk on eggshells around a loved one with an eating disorder. But here are 7 things you should take care to never say to them — regardless of whether they're in the throes of the illness, fully recovered or somewhere in the painful in-between.
1. "Eating Disorders Are A Choice"
No illness, physical or mental, is a choice. This statement blames the person suffering and implies that we're not deserving of help or treatment because — since we chose to have an eating disorder — we can just as easily snap our fingers and make it go away. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are caused by a complex combination of environmental and genetic factors — but they are not caused simply by the desires of the sufferer.
Like any other illness, once we've been diagnosed, we should choose to use all resources available to us in order to recover. "I didn't choose this" shouldn't be used as an excuse to avoid the painful (but incredibly rewarding) recovery process. But developing an eating disorder is not a choice, and this statement is dismissive of the genuine suffering experienced by people with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and other eating disorders.
2. "Can You Give Me Advice On How To Lose Weight?"
When I was underweight, I got this question more times than I can count. To be fair, it sometimes came from people who didn't realize how mentally and physically ill I was. But when it comes to questioning people about their weight loss, err on the side of caution. If a friend or family member has rapidly lost weight, chances are they didn't do so in a healthy manner — so don't egg them on by making comments about how great they look.
3. "I'm Jealous Of Your Self-Control"
Eating disorders are glamorized in the culture for a number of reasons, one of which is the belief that sufferers have astounding self-control. The truth is, many of us develop eating disorders because we feel helpless in other areas of our lives and we're on a quest for control. Once we begin restricting our intake or bingeing and purging, we develop the illusion that we're finally in control of something.
It usually takes a long time to realize that the eating disorder is actually controlling us. It prevents us from taking part in many normal social activities because the need to avoid food trumps all else, and the obsessive thought patterns take over our minds and prevent us from focusing on anything else. We need to plan our entire days, weeks and lives around our eating habits. And therein lies the irony of eating disorders — they're a bid for control and they ultimately end up controlling us in ways we never imagined. So please, don't compliment someone struggling like this on how good they are at controlling themselves.
4. "Only Teenagers Have Eating Disorders"
In addition to being completely inaccurate, this insulting comment insinuates that an eating disorder is nothing more than a silly and childish phase that we should simply grow out of. No matter how old we are, our eating disorders are not a phase and they're not the result of immaturity.
The misconception that the illness is specific to a certain age group is invalidating to the many grown adults who are struggling with eating disorders and it can potentially deter them from admitting they have a problem. This is especially concerning because the parents of children and teens with eating disorders can order them to get treatment, while adults need to go willingly (unless the illness is so severe that a family member has grounds to commit them to a treatment facility).
5. "If You Have An Eating Disorder, It's Because You're Shallow"
Eating disorders aren't caused by vanity or shallowness — and, although depictions of super skinny females in the media are often triggering to sufferers, they aren't the cause, either.
And while we're on the topic of eating disorders being specific to "shallow" people, it's worth pointing out that I've never looked worse than I did when my eating disorder was in full swing. Not only was I far too thin (yes, such a thing exists, although I didn't realize it at the time), but I was pale as a ghost and boasted some seriously uncute massive circles under my eyes. Plus, I was frequently too exhausted and weak to even bother doing my hair and makeup. Lifting a hair straightener or make-up brush took an extraordinary amount of energy that I preferred to save for the gym. I was frequently told that I looked "terrible", but I didn't care, because my illness had nothing to do with vanity.
6. "You're Just Looking For Attention"
Would you tell someone with a chronic physical illness that they're just desperate for attention? I really hope not — and this shouldn't be said to a person with an eating disorder or any other mental illness, either. Again, this statement invalidates the complexity of an eating disorder and undermines the pain experienced by the sufferer. Seriously, if I was desperate for attention, I would have just dyed my hair pink — it would have been considerably less agonizing and damaging than restricting my intake to the point where I walked around dizzy and disoriented 24/7.
7. "I Can Relate Because I Crash Dieted For A Month"
While these kinds of attempts to relate usually come from a well-intentioned place, they invalidate the intense struggle experienced by those who have clinical eating disorders. I've frequently been told by others that they "understand" my eating disorder because they crash dieted before a wedding, a beach vacation or another special occasion. While I certainly don't condone crash dieting, it's not the same thing as an eating disorder. The most obvious difference? You were able to stop the restricting and go back to your normal eating patterns.
For people with eating disorders, the opposite is true. Anorexia and bulimia often begin as a crash diet or the harmless desire to lose five pounds. For me, I had an upcoming ballet performance and I wanted to look as thin as possible on stage. I fully intended to go back to my old eating patterns as soon as the performances were over. But when closing night arrived, I'd become addicted to watching the number on the scale drop.
So, What Does Help?
If you don't understand, that's totally OK! We don't expect our friends and family members to automatically become experts the minute we're diagnosed. Asking questions is a good thing, but be sure to pose them in a thoughtful, sympathetic manner. I always appreciated when my friends asked me what my triggers were, how the illness started, and what it felt like as it progressed. And since an eating disorder causes many irrational thought patterns, I appreciated when someone acted as a voice of reason — for example, providing a friendly reminder that I had seemed happier and looked better before my eating disorder.
If a friend or family member is in treatment and working towards recovery, don't expect them to "get better" overnight. It's a long, painful process and setbacks are inevitable. Never tell someone you're angry or disappointed in them for not recovering more quickly. But do remind them of all the wonderful opportunities they'll be able to embrace once they're in a healthier place. Many people with eating disorders are forced to take medical leaves from school and miss out on great life experiences. I found it helpful when my friends and family reminded me of all the great things I would be able to do once I was healthier.
Most importantly, don't treat us as though we're simply the eating disorder. It's always much-appreciated to let us know that you're there to listen when we need to talk, but the eating disorder should never be the only topic of conversation. Even when we're at our sickest, we're still human beings with passions and dreams.