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.

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