• Mon, Feb 24 - 12:09 pm ET

10 WTF Things People Say When You Have An Eating Disorder

how to talk to someone with an eating disorder

Most well-intentioned humans don’t really know how to talk to someone with an eating disorder, and when people get it wrong, the results can be devastating. I talk somewhat openly about my past eating disorder and recovery–my friends know about it and understand that it’s still something that’s a part of my life. I’ve been in recovery for four years now, and talking about it has gotten significantly easier. But that hardly means that everyone understands, or that people don’t say remarkably callous and moronic things in connection with eating disorders.

Everyone I know who’s had an eating disorder has heard some variation of everything on the following list, and it’s baffling to me that people keep saying it. I heard every single one. If someone you know is struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder, make sure you don’t say any of these things. Ever.

  1. “I’m jealous–I wish I had your discipline.” An eating disorder is not a diet.
  2. “But you don’t even need to lose weight.” Again, an eating disorder is not a diet, and is rarely based on any medical need to lose weight.
  3. “You’re at a good weight. I think you should stop now.” People with eating disorders aren’t trying to get to a goal weight. It’s an obsession with a moving target.
  4. “You don’t look like you have/had an eating disorder.” I personally heard this while I was in treatment and in recovery, since my weight fluctuated significantly during my illness. Yes, I was emaciated at some points, but I was also very overweight for some period, too, and I had an eating disorder the whole time. Eating disorders happen to people of all sizes.
  5. “Binging sounds like fun.” Binging isn’t the same thing as having a gluttonous evening with your friends. And parts of binging are fun–there’s a high involved. But binging isn’t a fun hobby. It’s a punishment. It’s a sickness.
  6. “But I see you eat all the time.” That does not mean that person does not have an eating disorder, and saying “I am very aware of your eating habits” has the potential to be extremely painful.
  7. “You look fantastic.” This should be self explanatory.
  8. “You look awful.” There’s no statement to be made about a person’s body that’s appropriate. This also does not help.
  9. “Eat a sandwich.” This bullying wrapped in concern is unnecessarily hostile, and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of eating disorders. A person with an eating disorder won’t just be be like “oh, why didn’t I think of that? Fetch me a meatball parm!” They can’t just eat a sandwich. It’s not stubborness, it’s sickness.
  10. “You look better with some meat on your bones” or “you’re so curvy! You look so much better this way!” I heard these a lot in my first bout of recovery–which didn’t take–when I started to gain back a bit of weight. Every pound I gained back was a heartbreak, even though I was starting to understand that I needed to make a change. Those euphemistic comments were at least in part responsible for my backwards fall that extended my illness for another three years. Do not make comments about another person’s body.

If a person speaks to you about having an eating disorder, the best thing you can do is listen. Don’t confuse it with a diet, don’t make comments about his or her body, and don’t assume anything. Just listen and gently suggest professional help. You won’t be able to fix it, and all you can do is provide support.

February 23 to March 1 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. To read our special coverage on ED topics, click here.

Image: Shutterstock

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  • Lindsey Conklin

    all of these are awful. especially #7.

  • bluesandgolds

    I’d just like to point out that there are a lot of people with eating disorders who are not thin, and this article erases them completely.

    • Kaitlin Reilly

      #4 shows that perspective.

      The worst part of #4 is that it often comes from professionals. Doctors and sometimes even therapists will say things like, “Oh, well, you’re thin for you, but thankfully you’re not emaciated or REALLY skinny.” While I suppose they really mean “Thankfully we caught this” it comes off as “You are not sick enough”. SO not okay.

    • Joanna Rafael

      Did you read the post?

    • bluesandgolds

      Yes. And while there was the line “Eating disorders happen to people of all sizes”, the rest of the article did not seem cognizant of that fact, with it’s focus on comments regarding “discipline”, “not needing to lose weight”, and “eat a sandwich”.

      I didn’t insult or negate the article, just pointed out that we need to expand our understanding of what constitutes eating disorders and the people who experience them. So I’m not really sure why you responded this way.

    • Julia Sonenshein

      I’m not sure where you’re getting that from–that’s inaccurate.

  • Sarah Marshall

    I appreciate the points made in this article, but I would like to point out that the image of the scale could prove highly ineffective and triggering for some who are battling eating disorders.

    • Joanna Rafael

      I’m sorry if you found it triggering, but why would someone triggered by images associated with eating disorders click on a post specifically about eating disorders? The headline gives away that it could be triggering.

    • Sarah Marshall

      It wasn’t triggering to me personally, but I have no doubt that it would be to many people who suffer from eating disorders. The image was on my Facebook news feed so this image would have been seen by people who didn’t even click to read the article. The point of my comment was that as much as we need to educate people about eating disorders, it contradicts trying to help people to slap triggering images on articles and brochures. People with eating disorders could share helpful information like this with loved ones, but having triggering images on it maybe actually provoke self-destructive behavior so it’s ineffective to present it to them. Those struggling with eating disorders tend to place a great deal of power on scales and on specific numbers. So if you are trying to help them…why not avoid potentially triggering images when educating people??

    • Kaitlin Reilly

      I think that a stock image of a scale is far less triggering than some of the OTHER stock images out there in relation to weight loss/dieting/eating disorders/etc. I’ve seen a ton with women with tape over their mouths, women picking at little bites of lettuce, skinny women staring down at a scale and cringing… This image seems pretty innocuous compared to those.

  • Guest

    I’d just like to add a couple of the good ones I’ve heard over the years (8 years into recovery, woohoo!) I’m sure there are more, but I must be blocking them out of my thought process at this moment.

    1. “Anorexia, which one is that? The one where you starve?” — from a nurse (AWESOME)

    2. “But I like girls who take care of themselves and watch what they eat.” — from an ex as I was trying to explain to him about my disorder. (TOTALLY AWESOME.)

  • Rachel

    A couple of years ago when my teenage step daughter was in the midst of her recovery for her eating disorder, she went out of state to visit her cousins and biological mother. Her mother knew full well what she was going through and sent her the below picture. My step daughter texted me the picture and said, “Why would my mother send me this?” I responded, “Because she’s an idiot and an asshole.” The saddest part was, I don’t think her mother connected the dots…she really is that stupid and insensitive.

  • HB

    4. ‘“You don’t look like you have/had an eating disorder.” I personally heard this while I was in treatment and in recovery, since my weight fluctuated significantly during my illness. Yes, I was emaciated at some points, but I was also very overweight for some period, too, and I had an eating disorder the whole time. Eating disorders happen to people of all sizes.’

    PREACH.

  • http://advocatemag.com Christina Hughes Babb

    I will never forget the day a well-meaning uncle who hadn’t seen me in a year said the ol’ “you look better with some meat on your bones” line. He never could have guessed that what he said was equivalent to a gut punch. He is my sweetest uncle! They just do not understand. Sadly the people who usually say these sorts of things — generally people, often men, who have no awareness of the disease — won’t read this, because they are not gloss’ demographic.