In 13 years of having an eating disorder, I have heard it all– the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have heard some “jokes” about my weight or struggles that make me want to chuck a bottle of Ensure at them and then text my therapist with lines of angry emoticons.
Sarcasm aside, the ugly comments sting.
While people are often well-intentioned and lack adequate mental health education about eating disorders, an inappropriate comment can dig deep into the shame, anxiety, and terror that lurks underneath.
Speaking from personal experience of hearing all of these things (many friends have too), I am telling you: please, please, please don’t say these things to someone with an eating disorder. Please.
1. “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.” Okay, there is not a “look” of someone with an eating disorder. Culture glamorizes the ultra thin ideal and focuses on (glamorizes? objectifies?) people who are extremely sick with anorexia. However, emaciation is not the eating disorder norm. In addition to the fact that problems with binge eating and bulimia are more common than anorexia, consider the huge diagnostic crossover between anorexia and bulimia/ binge eating disorder.
Regardless of the fact that this comment doesn’t make sense, when someone says a comment that taps into that stereotyped ideal of how someone with an eating disorder “should” look, my feelings of shame and panic about my body (which are already present) are intensified. I already have to mourn the loss of my eating disorder identity on a daily basis, and I don’t need any more reminders about how I look.
2. “When are you due?” In general, people shouldn’t say this to a woman in general unless they’re sure. For someone with an eating disorder, they should be SURE. Not sure as in, “It might be a hamburger or it could be a baby.” If in doubt, don’t say anything. When people are in the stage of weight restoration, they often gain weight in their stomach, and it can stay there for a while. Chances are we are sensitive about this noticeable bloating, and a pregnancy oopsie comment is just the worst. Even if weight restoration isn’t a contributing factor to the bloating, it’s possible that we could (gasp) just have a stomach. I know, revolutionary. Side note: our culture’s weird obsession with spotting baby bumps ASAP is strange. Chillax, people. Pregnancy is a beautiful, wonderful thing, and if we’re pregnant you’ll find out when we’re good and ready.
3. “Wow, you must be hungry today!”/ “Aren’t you hungry?” Please do not comment about what I’m eating when I’m eating about what I’m eating. Whatever you say, chances are I’m going to feel disgusted and panic. Meal/ food comments can be appropriate, but if you must clarify or express concern, do so after a meal… significantly after. Eating can suck when you have an eating disorder anyway, and public shaming just exacerbates the general icky feelings.
4. “Have you lost/ gained weight?” If I’ve lost or gained weight, I will know about it. So will my dietitian and therapist. But do you know who doesn’t have to know? You! Why? Because it’s none of your business. For whatever reason, women just say, “You’ve lost weight,” as a compliment on par with “You just won a million dollars!” That’s just absurd in general. People need to find other ways of amusing themselves besides commenting on weight.
5. “I wish I could be anorexic.” And I wish I could be a unicorn. Just kidding, that would suck. And so does having anorexia. Don’t even go there with me.
6. “It’s just food (or insert specific food).” I know, it’s just food. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t walked a day in the shoes of someone with an ED. Speaking from experience, when I’m deep into my eating disorder, it feels like the world will end if I eat x, y, and z. Getting out of that mental block requires time and intensive treatment. Do you know what does NOT help with getting over that fear? People saying “It’s just food.” I know it is, okay, but my eating disorder can be strong and whisper that I cannot cannot cannot cannot have x, y, or z. Pointing out the obvious here is not helping me.
7. “Is it about control?” (pity glance) Please do not try to guess the reason for my eating disorder. Just because you learned on Dr. Phil that eating disorders are about control doesn’t mean that I want you to ask me, condescendingly, if my eating disorder is about control. I’ve been in therapy for a while. It’s not just about one thing. And to be honest, after some point, it stops being about one thing. My neurobiology has changed and I. cannot. stop. It’s not like I can realize I have control issues and throw pixie dust in the air and I’m better. It is WAY more complicated than that. Don’t mention control to me.
8. “You’re eating 3 meals a day right? So you’re fine.” Not fine. Not. Fine. Three meals includes so much variability. It is not about the number of meals, it is about the quality, quantity, and variety of food consumed. I learned in treatment that I should have at least 2 or 3 snacks in addition to 3 meals each day. So if I’m eating only 3 meals a day, it means I’m headed towards relapse. And you not taking me seriously is adding fuel to my ammunition.
Now a few caveats: these comments are not inherently bad, nor are the commenters inherently bad for saying things in innocence. An appropriately placed comment about a hypothesized pregnancy when you know the person has been trying to get pregnant is totally fine. Sometimes meal time comments are social conventions, and most people are fine receiving them. The issue here is saying such a comment when a person has an eating disorder. It has also been my experience that people are often oblivious when they have said something that I find hurtful or insensitive. A lot of times, an eating disorder can be a silent, invisible struggle, so people are not aware when they have been damaging.
You have to think how your comment will be interpreted in light of someone’s eating disorder. I cannot pretend my eating disorder thoughts are nonexistent. A comment about my size/ what I’m eating can send me into a destructive spiral. You don’t know the eating or weight struggles of the people with whom you interact. Think twice about saying something that can be taken the wrong way.
People don’t understand the effect stigmatizing or triggering words can have. Be kind and compassionate, and question your own stigmas about eating, weight, and eating disorders.