Earlier this year, YouTuber Eugenia Cooney took a social media break and sought help for her eating disorder. I was so relieved, and other’s were too. A picture was posted on Instagram of her new haircut, and Twitter exploded. The picture was shared everywhere as well as before & after comparisons, and comments about how she looks. The well meaning comments seem innocent enough, but it’s not actually that simple when the person you’re complimenting has an eating disorder. So, what should you not say to someone with an eating disorder?
The people telling her to eat a hamburger before weren’t doing her any favours, and the comments acknowledging that she gained weight aren’t either. Here’s what not to say to someone with an eating disorder:
[Disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional. These opinions are my own. I’m someone with lived experience. Please seek professional help if you or someone you love has an eating disorder.]
Why It’s The Wrong Thing To Say
Eating disorders can be very manipulative, and something that would be taken as a compliment from someone without an eating disorder, such as “you look healthier,” could trigger someone with one. Your eating disorder can associate “healthy” with “fat,” and can make you want to relapse again.
Although before and after pictures tend not to bother me personally, because in the after photo people always look happier, they do trigger other people. There’s always a risk of someone who looks like the after, wanting to be the before, and using it as “thinspiration.” For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend sharing those images.
I understand that people mean well and are trying to be helpful. If you’re attempting to do something nice, but are shut down, I get it feels like a slap in the face and you might get defensive. The thing is, the nicest thing to do in this scenario is to take into account what mental health professionals and the eating disorder recovery community suggests. Everyone has different boundaries so I would also suggest directly asking your loved one what they’re okay with too.
For someone with an eating disorder, it’s not as simple as “just taking the compliment,” or “being too sensitive,” it can be detrimental to their recovery.
Again, I’m not a mental health professional, but from observation, eating disorders are not outright about fatphobia. For many people, the eating disorder is a coping mechanism. They feel out of control in their lives so seek rigid control in this area. For others, they find comfort in the behaviours or use it as a form of self-punishment. Beneath the eating disorder, there’s often trauma.
A lot of fat people have eating disorders too. They are very much not a skinny-white-teenage-girl illness. Not all eating disorders are about “restrictive” food behaviours – and not everyone with an eating disorder loses weight. Most people with eating disorders are not underweight.
However, a lot of pro-ana forum platitudes are outright fatphobic. Much of the fatphobia is internalized too. With that said, although these are people struggling with their own mental health, it doesn’t exactly give anyone a free pass to be fatphobic, especially to others. Check out this resource on tackling fatphobia.
I also want to address how people seem to support recovery up to a certain weight. If you go beyond being slim-but-not-emancipated people start with the “you used to be so disciplined,” “you looked better before,” “you used to be so good, what happened?” comments – as if they spontaneously forgot you have an eating disorder in the first place. Those comments are dangerous too.
I think it’s healthier to gain weight – even if that means not being slim – than to continue eating disorder behaviours. Your health and happiness are far more important than how you look.
Health and happiness come in all different shapes and sizes.
How To Support People With Eating Disorders
Even though someone might look weight restored, that doesn’t mean they’re cured. Understand, they will be struggling for some time. Recovery isn’t impossible, but you have bad days and good days. Some days, are so good, you feel like you did before your eating disorder. Some days are unbearable. Don’t use someone eating pizza on a good day as a “a-ha! You can eat when you want to, you don’t have a problem!” moment.
What You Should And Should Not Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder
I’m not a mental health professional; it’s always best to check in with one if you’re concerned. These were simply things that are helpful to me and things that did the opposite:
- Be understanding and patient.
- Don’t compliment their body, but instead things like outfits, hair, make-up, achievements, kindness & nice personality traits, and interests & hobbies.
- Educate yourself on eating disorders to understand your loved one better.
- Respect their boundaries (within reason if you suspect they’re hiding a relapse).
- Allow them to bring up their mental health first, if they want to vent.
- Show them love and attention at all sizes – people were far nicer and more interested in me when I was at my most unwell.
- If we’re close, ask questions whenever you’re unsure about something. A lot of frustration in my life has come from assumptions or mutual friends not being accurate sources of information.
- Don’t use the good days against them on the bad days.
- Don’t pry.
- Don’t comment on their current or past body.
- Don’t assume you know more than a dietitian – don’t meddle with the eating plan they were given. Refeeding syndrome can be a concern in recovery.
- Don’t comment on how great it is to see them eating.
- Don’t say things like “that’s a lot of food for a small person.”
- Don’t act disappointed if recovery means no longer being slim or toned.
- Don’t talk about your diet around them.
- Don’t suggest shape wear.
- Don’t talk about how you “need” to lose weight or you wish you had their discipline.
- Don’t act like the eating disorder was a choice.
- Don’t suggest restrictive diets – a lot of people just swap to a new kind of restrictive diet rather than recovering for real. I’m sure there are people with healthy relationships with food on these diets and feeling great – but for someone in recovery, it’s probably not the time or place to join you.
- Don’t criticize their safe foods. It might not be “healthy” but I think eating anything is better than not eating at all.
- Don’t assume they’re cured when they’re weight restored.
- Don’t send them diet blogs talking about how certain foods are supposedly evil incarnate.
- Don’t say just eat; it’s not that simple.
- Don’t get visibly frustrated when they’re struggling – process those emotions when they’re not around.
- Don’t discourage recovery because you think they look more conventionally attractive – skinny isn’t always healthy.
- Don’t volunteer them to help other people without asking if they’re well enough to do that first.
When To Address Concerns
If you’re worried that someone is relapsing, then – in my opinion – it’s okay to intervene. Eating disorders can be fatal, so I’m not suggesting saying or doing nothing when you’re concerned, but you need to be careful with how you approach it.
I don’t think you should be be aggressive or accusatory in your approach. I understand it’s hard on you too, and that’s valid. However, the tough love approach might just push your loved one away. If someone isn’t in a place where they’re ready to admit they have a problem, they’ll likely double down if you just start shouting or grabbing them to “show how skinny they’ve gotten.” You need to navigate these situations with a lot of tact and I’d recommend reaching out to a professional for advice first.
After all, if you accused them of being vain or selfish, why would they come to you when they’re ready to seek help?
If someone seems to be getting along fine in recovery, then there are a lot of thoughts on their body and diet you should just keep to yourself. Check out this resource on supporting someone with an eating disorder.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, I’d encourage you to seek help from the following resources:
- Bodywhys – firstname.lastname@example.org 1890 200 444
- SEED Eating Disorder Support Service – 01482 718130
- Beat – 0808 801 0677 (Helpline), 0808 801 0711 (Youthline), 0808 801 0811 (Studentline)