Yes, there are fat women with eating disorders. Here are 10 things to know so you can be a great ally to the ones in your life.
1. We exist! (Yes, really!)
Contrary to the stereotypes that abound, commit this to memory: an eating disorder can affect literally anyone. There is no weight requirement. There are very thin people who have no food issues whatsoever. There are lots of fat people that struggle with food every day. You can’t tell who is who on sight, so don’t make any assumptions!
“I am fat and have had an eating disorder since I was a kid. It’s been super hard being delegitimized because of my weight. Like, a fat person could never POSSIBLY have an eating disorder.” –Natalie
2. Our body positivity might not look like yours.
If you celebrate your freedom from diet culture by eating whatever you want without shame, that’s awesome! But some of us can’t do that. And that’s OK. Eating disorders aren’t an indication that someone isn’t down with body love or that they’re still living by the rules of the patriarchy. In fact, people with eating disorders are fighting these fights every day just as hard, if not harder, than you are. What looks like liberation to us might not look like liberation to you — but you should still have our backs.
“I often have fears around talking about my relationship to food because I think I will be seen as adhering to diet culture. My ED makes ‘eating anything I want’ a dangerous game. I have to be responsible with my food in order to keep myself safe from numbing out emotionally.” –Briana
3. Our food issues don’t just disappear if we enter recovery.
I’ve been bulimic since I was 11. Throughout my life, I’ve had periods of recovery and relapse. I’m doing pretty well these days, but sometimes I still struggle. This is true for most of the folks with eating disorders that I know. So if your friend confides in you that they’ve battled with an ED in the past and are in a better place now, don’t give them a hard time if it still looks to you like they’re “dieting.” Eating disorders are not diets. Let me put it this way: there have been days in my life where I’ve only let myself eat a small container of pudding. Ordering a big salad when we go out might look “diet-y” to you, but trust me, I’m thriving.
4. We know our needs better than you do.
We don’t need or want your advice unless we ask for it. Don’t try to play therapist with us, and especially not at the table. It’s not only rude, but you are truly taking shots in the dark. The chances are great that we’ve spent years contemplating what conditions led to our EDs developing and we’ve spent even more time learning how to manage our triggers, spot our relapse gateways and find coping mechanisms to help us if we’re spiraling. Trust us when we state our needs. Don’t assume our needs even if we’re quiet. Pay attention and listen.
5. Don’t study our bodies.
This one is major. I have this one friend who comments on my body every single time they see me. “You look like you’ve lost weight.” Then, the following month: “Oh, good, you’re your regular size again.” Please don’t do this to people! It’s not unusual for someone with an ED to fluctuate between several sizes within short periods of time. There is zero chance that someone with an eating disorder isn’t already aware of the changes their body is going through. We don’t care what you think about it, for better, worse, or neutral. Keep your observations to yourself.
6. Some of our eating issues are rooted in physical pain.
Eighteen years of bulimia has done number on my body. I know exactly what I can and what I cannot eat if I want to avoid excruciating discomfort. So don’t be offended if your friends with EDs don’t eat what you’re serving. It’s not personal!
“I wish people understood that a great deal of my discomfort with food is my anxiety about my invisible illness. Whenever I’m around my activist friends, who also happen to be fat, there are all sorts of assumptions made about why I’m ordering a side salad instead of a greasy burger and none of them ever hit home. I don’t need reassurance that there will be ‘no judgement’ if I go for something cheesy. I don’t need someone to offer to split a dessert with me as some excuse to eat what they assume I want. I have gastrointestinal issues that mean I’m much better off cooking for myself and (sometimes) eating blander foods in smaller quantities. It has nothing to do with vanity or THE PATRIARCHY trying to make me shrink my womanly girth. I literally just don’t want to stay up all night because my stomach hurts. My rebellion is in how I communicate with our legislators, not on my plate. I wish that was something activists that get hooked on symbolism could calm down, slow down, and understand.” –robinchristinaf
7. You can support fat acceptance if you have an ED.
You can support fat acceptance, not just the general concept of body positivity, especially if you have an ED! Folks with EDs are not pretending to stand in solidarity and we’re not just performing our activism. Just because we have EDs doesn’t mean we secretly harbor fat-shaming thoughts about others. It doesn’t even mean we necessarily harbor those thoughts about ourselves! Again, eating disorders are very complicated and the sources of anyone’s ED are unique.
8. We might go through a lot of clothes. Don’t judge us.
I swap, sell, or give away 60 percent of my closet every few months. Wait, though, you’re asking, aren’t I always talking about rejecting that kind of consumerism? Yes, I am. But it’s also complicated. When your body is constantly changing, what you’re comfortable wearing is also constantly changing. What was a super cute work outfit last month might make me extremely insecure to wear to work this month. I try to minimize the environmental impact of my ever-shifting closet, but the fact is, with an ED, you just never know what issue might pop up when you’re getting dressed, and if the way you look in a certain top is crushing your mental health, sometimes you just have to be kind to yourself and get a top that works better. Every three months. It’s a process.
9. Our social needs may be different, too.
Thanks for the invite to this lovely event where everyone is half naked and covered in liquid gold, but stop asking me when I’m gonna take my coat off. (Spoiler alert — the answer might be when I get home!) And thanks for bringing me to this everything-on-a-donut restaurant, but please don’t be mad if I don’t order anything but a drink.
Just being fat in social spaces already comes with a ton of baggage around desirability, access, trauma and so many other things that can make gatherings way less fun. Add a hyper-awareness of your body and food (and sometimes not even a rational one) to the mix, and guess what? A coat might be helping to distract from those feelings and enable someone to have a good time. And everything-on-a-donut sounds great most days, but some days I just can’t. So let folks with EDs take our own lead if we seem uncomfortable. Instead of assuming we need your permission to feel relaxed, try to find out how to make your gatherings more welcoming instead.
“A lot of the body-positive events where I live are all about showing a lot of skin. I love that idea, don’t get me wrong, but it would be great to show my dedication to loving my body without feeling any pressure to show a lot of skin around strangers.” –Hanna
10. We don’t need you to validate us.
This is the one that people always seem to have the hardest time with. Almost every single time that I’ve opened up about my eating disorder, people have immediately responded with, “Why, you’re beautiful!” That’s kind. It is. I appreciate that kindness. But it’s also totally minimizing what an eating disorder entails. (It also kind of implies that having an eating disorder should be reserved for people who aren’t “beautiful”?) Since beauty itself is totally subjective and arbitrarily constructed, it’s really not the issue here. Try instead, “Thanks for trusting me enough to open up about that. Do you need any support?” Then be supportive, and remember these tips if you get stuck.
February 26-March 4 is eating disorder awareness week.