What Not to Say to Someone with an Eating Disorder

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By Maddie Ruud

Good Intentions

You just found out that your loved one has an eating disorder. Or perhaps an acquaintance revealed their struggle during the course of a conversation. You want to be understanding. You want to help in any way you can. You want to encourage, affirm, support, validate. But what you thought were kind words seem to offend, even injure the person you so wished to show your empathy.

What went wrong? It’s hard for someone without an eating disordered mind to comprehend the right and wrong things to say. Consequently, both you and your friend are left unsettled, unsatisfied, maybe even angry to a point that might damage your relationship.

As someone with insight, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten worst things to say to someone with an eating disorder, both from my own experience, and horror stories from other eating-disordered women. Some of the worst offenders to an anorexic might sound benign to you at first read, but once you understand how your loved one hears things, you’ll find your relationship vastly improved. I hate to say it, but this is one case where it’s not the thought that counts.

Bad Reactions

  1. Why? (Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with multiple factors, and the last thing you want to do is put him/her on the spot, after a vulnerable revelation.)
  2. But you don’t look like you have an eating disorder! (Sounds like: “You’re fat!”)
  3. If you want to lose weight, why don’t you just diet and exercise? (This is like telling an alcoholic to just have a “few” drinks.)
  4. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. (Sounds like: “You’re ugly.”)
  5. You look great to me! (You do not know if this is his/her healthy weight, or what s/he may have done to get here.)
  6. How long has it been since you’ve eaten? (This is unimportant, and sounds callous. Eating disorders are never, at the heart, about food.)
  7. I had a friend once whose sister was bulimic, and she… (Invalidates him/her as an individual; sounds like you think you know it all. No two eating-disordered people are the same.)
  8. Just eat what you want! (Sounds like: “It’s not a big deal.”)
  9. Nice weather we’re having. (Self-explanatory.)
  10. ____ (Self-explanatory.)

Constructive Comments

I may be able to list for you the “wrong” things to say, but I’m afraid I can’t tell you what’s right. I don’t know you or your loved one. Each person has a unique situation; each conversation is a unique interaction. I can give you a few helpful tips for framing your responses:

  • Empathize (This doesn’t mean telling the person that you know how they feel, because you don’t, and that’s obvious to both of you.)
  • Focus on Feelings rather than facts. Try to validate the person’s experience, and take the emphasis off of attempting to grasp some objective “reality.”
  • Listen – This person is telling you something intimate about themselves, and even if they do not consciously know what it is, there is a reason why. Rather than giving the impression of being burdened, appreciate the trust s/he has placed in you by confiding. It is a compliment.

If someone close to you does have an eating disorder, I suggest you pick up a few books on the subject. A few selections to get you started can be found here. The rest is up to you.

Helpful Resources

Originally published at Hub Pages. Crossposted with permission.

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Discrimination and EDNOS: One Woman’s Story

Celebrating Eating Disorder Recovery: Inaugural NEDA Walk in Texas

Study: Black Girls 50% More Likely to be Bulimic than Whites

Multicultural Women & Body Image

You Don’t Have to Have an Eating Disorder to be Image Obsessed

Expressing Disorder: Art Therapies for Eating Disorder Treatment

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Comments

  1. Another good one (or rather, good “bad reaction”!) in my experience is: ” but if you KNOW eating chocolate and cookies is bad for you, why do you do it?” (I’m speaking here of an overeating/emotional eating disorder). This from a very “sorted” and extremely slim friend, vegan and all, who with the best intentions in the world, could not begin to comprehend self-destructive patterns or indeed how food was only the surface of the issue. People with eating disorders are usually far more aware than the average person of what constitutes a standard healthy diet, sometimes down to calorie count/G.I count/superfood categorization and the rest of it- assuming a) that they don’t know what is healthy for them and b) that they overeat (in this case) with no “reasonable” cause is very belittling.

  2. Some great suggestions here. I’ve posted the link on my Facebook account. It’s completely pro-recovery for EDs. Everyone’s welcome and feel free to post on my wall. ~

    Lori (www.facebook[dot]come/anad.lorilicker)