I've struggled with eating disorders since I was a teen, so I know a little bit about talking to someone with an eating disorder. I fought anorexia and bulimia constantly for years, but my biggest scare came during my junior year of college when I threw up so much that I could see blood. I would expel every single meal, no matter how small. I felt disgusting — some days, I still do.
In today’s society, we have become amazingly open about a lot of stuff, but one thing we still don’t talk about that much is eating disorders. Eating disorders, (such as bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder) affect both men and women. While women are more likely to develop an eating disorder, an estimated 15 percent of people with anorexia and bulimia are male, and approximately only one out of 10 people who have an eating disorder seek help. That’s why it is critically important to know what to say — and what not to say — to someone with an eating disorder.
Many people who have an eating disorder will try to hide it. Sometimes this is because they feel ashamed, other times its times because they aren't ready to get help. Regardless, if you discover that someone in your life is struggling with an eating disorder, be supportive — and don't say these six things.
1. "You Look Good!"
Many times, commenting on how the person looks will lead to an
unintended result. We know you're trying to be supportive if we look like we're getting healthier, but in the end,
saying anything about how our body has changed will likely backfire.
If you say we look good, then we may fall back into destructive patterns, so it's important that you to try to be supportive without commenting on the person’s looks.
What to say instead: Honestly? Say nothing about our weight, or looks, period.
2. "It's Just Food, You Can Beat This"
Having an eating disorder is a constant struggle with your relationship to food, so it’s not “just food." Also, even though you may think saying, "you can beat this" is supportive, it’s not. People with eating disorders often go through periods of eating only “safe” foods. That means they will only eat foods that seem “OK” to them.
It's been found that people suffering from bulimia have dopamine abnormalities in their brains that are similar to those found in the brains of people suffering from cocaine and alcohol addiction. Binging and throwing up causes a bulimic person to feel a rush that they soon begin to crave.
So, is it just food? Not really.
What to say instead: Try not to mention food being "easy" to overcome. It's hard to understand, but a simple, "I'm here," is sometimes what's needed the most.
3. "But You're So Pretty!"
Um, thanks? Sometimes people who have an eating disorder don’t have physical
signs of one. Just because a person may binge and then purge doesn’t mean that
they will lose pounds upon pounds, either.
You may see this person as perfect, but at the end of the day, they're the ones looking at themselves in the mirror — and being “pretty" isn't always enough.
What to say instead: "I love you."
4. "I Understand, My Friend/Mother/Brother/Etc. Went Through This"
Knowing someone who's had an eating disorder is not the same thing as battling one yourself. Plus, saying the above phrase makes your friend's eating disorder about you.
What to say instead: "I know people who've been there, if you ever want to talk to them." (That is, if you get that person's permission.) People who have had an eating disorder, and are recovering (in a healthy way) are a great source of companionship when the time is right.
5. "You Don't Look Like Someone With An Eating Disorder"
I have had so many people say this to me, and I understand what
they mean by it — but in all honesty, what does a person with an eating disorder look like to
They are your sisters, your mothers, your friends, your brothers, your teachers. They are the people sitting next to you on the train and the people playing a pick up game of basketball in the park. Eating disorders don’t discriminate, and they aren't just for emaciated-looking people.
What to say instead: Again, "I love you."
6. "You Should Get Professional Help"
There are many mental stages of an eating disorder, (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action maintenance, and relapse) and how they're followed all depends on the person. I didn’t realize my eating disorder was full-blown until it was too late. I started out with the occasional binge and purge, and then it became regular. By then, I was denying I had an eating disorder left and right. When people said I should get help, I got angry and bolted.
If you think a loved one has an eating disorder, simply let them know that you care about them, and try to start a dialogue simply by telling them you care and love them. Even if the individual is in the stage of “I don’t want to get better, I like getting thin,” they still need to hear that you care.
What to say instead: "I care about you, and I'm worried. What can I do to help?"
The Bottom Line
Eating disorders affect everyone differently. When you're speaking to someone with an eating disorder, be prepared for fights, disagreements, crying, laughing, bonding, and everything else. Most importantly, though, remember that eating disorders are lonely. So, when all else fails, just listen. Be supportive, do your research, and show your love.