During my battle with Anorexia Nervosa, I kept my secrets close to myself and didn’t want to let anyone in on what I was actually going through. The sense of judgement, shame and stigma around eating disorders is unfortunately still very real, and sadly, the comments some people around me chose to make during an already torturous time only confirmed this.
Here are 7 things you should never, ever say to someone with an eating disorder:
1. “Just be happy with yourself!”
While this makes perfect sense in general, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. If you were to walk up to someone with cancer and say “Just be healthy!” they’d likely slap you in the face. And, similarly to how a cancer sufferer can’t just ‘choose’ to be healthy, neither can an eating disorder sufferer simply switch it off. It’s a mental illness, not a lifestyle choice.
2. “Are you just looking for attention?”
Contrary to popular belief, attention is often the very last thing that eating disorder sufferers want. In fact, eating disorders thrive on secrecy and shame (the reason why so many never reach out for help or admit that they’re struggling). And despite certain popular celebrities (*cough* Meghan Trainor *cough*) making uneducated comments about “trying” eating disorders for a little while, they’re not just something you try on for size. They’re crippling mental illnesses with mental and physical impacts that can last a lifetime.
3. “If you’re not even going to eat, you’re not having lunch with us anymore.”
As friends, you can play an incredibly important role in the life of an ED sufferer. Support networks mean everything, and when you make the decision to publicly humiliate or embarrass someone for a condition that they have little to no control over, you can make things far worse for them. If their disorder makes you uncomfortable, then that is a great moment to suggest to them that you’re there for them, ask them what activities they would prefer to do with you or contact a support hotline and ask for advice on helping your friend, not to make it an issue of social participation. You are not the one being negatively impacted here.
4. “No big deal, you can get over it!”
It’s great that you’re wanting to positively encourage your friend but undermining the seriousness of their condition is dangerous. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and only an estimated 46% of ED sufferers (of any category) make a ‘full’ recovery. It IS a big deal. Minimising what your friend is going through can make them feel like it’s all in their head or make them feel ashamed that they ever mentioned anything at all. Instead, be willing to sit and just listen without judgement.
5. “Don’t you think it’s a bit shallow to be this obsessed with your weight?”
It’s a common misconception that all ED sufferers are obsessed with weight and although some EDs include symptoms that may involve weight, this does not mean that weight is the entire focus. They’re not ‘shallow’ conditions.
6. “You looked so much better before though!”
You might think you’re being complimentary, but being critical of someone’s appearance when they’re suffering from an ED won’t magically push them towards health – if anything, it will push them further into sickness. It’s important to understand that as a mental illness, an ED will warp the sufferer’s self-perception in ways that you won’t always be aware of, and conversations about when they looked better vs. worse should be avoided at all costs (as they should be with everyone, really).
7. “You’ll grow out of it, don’t worry!”
This is one of the more damaging statements that ED sufferers hear frequently. It’s incredibly harmful because firstly, it implies that eating disorders are ‘phases’ reserved for teenagers and secondly, because they don’t just disappear of their own accord. They take trials, tribulations, tears and a hell of a lot of therapy to move past – and by telling someone that they’ll just grow out of it, you’re encouraging them not to seek professional help. EDs don’t just disappear on their own and if a sufferer doesn’t seek help, their life is at risk.
Instead of judgement, assumption and minimisation, those who know/love someone with an eating disorder need to be aware that their words alone won’t heal that person – and that’s no failure on their part.
Friends and family can help by:
- Listen in a supportive, non-judgemental way. You’re not required to ‘fix’ anything and sometimes, a listening ear can make a big difference.
- Encourage them to speak to their GP or call a support hotline.
- Do your research on eating disorders and try and understand about the war they’re fighting.
- Keep your eyes and ears open, and be aware of their symptoms. If you notice them getting worse and you have fears for their health/safety, contact a health professional. Not all sufferers want to get better and by picking up warning signs of comorbidity (eating disorders and anxiety/depression often go hand in hand), you might just save their life.
- Don’t be afraid to seek help yourself if you’re having trouble processing what they’re going through.
Your words matter.
Image by HighwayStarz for Dollarphotoclub.