Today I’m sharing what not to say to someone with an eating disorder and what might be helpful to say instead. Often times, these comments come from a place of ignorance and lack of understanding so I hope that this post can bring insight while preventing more people with eating disorders from being hurt.
1. “Don’t worry, guys don’t want skin and bones.”
This was actually told to me by my well-intentioned nurse during my most recent residential treatment stay. Um, whether guys will find me attractive or not has literally nothing to do with the development of a mental illness. Eating disorders aren’t a vanity issue. They develop due to a combination of factors including genetics, environment, and trauma.
When I cry about struggling with body changes or discomfort in my body, I don’t need you to reassure me that men will find me attractive or that I still look beautiful. I need reassurance that I am loved. I need acknowledgement that our culture’s obsession with thinness is wrong and a million level of fucked up. I need you to sit with me in my discomfort and then remind me that being smaller does not bring happiness.
2. “But you don’t look sick!”
Eating disorders DO NOT HAVE A LOOK. Eating disorders are a MENTAL illness and for a very small percentage, eating disorder behaviors may cause the person struggling to be noticeably thin. But with the vast majority, you’d likely not be able to tell they have an eating disorder based on what they look like.
Rigidity around food, fear and anxiety around eating, purging, restricting, overexercising, and bingeing… those behaviors can happen to people in ALL size bodies. There are thin people with anorexia and fat people with anorexia. Also, there are thin people with binge eating disorder and fat people with binge eating disorder. Bodies do wildly different things depending on genetic makeup.
Saying “you don’t look sick” is incredibly invalidating to those suffering with an eating disorder so please consider that the next time you’re inclined to make a comment along those lines.
3. “I have the opposite problem! I love food too much!”
No, you don’t have the opposite problem. And in fact, if you are truly struggling with binge eating disorder, it’s not the opposite problem at all. It’s extremely similar to anorexia and bulimia if you’re using food as a way to self-regulate and cope. You’ll even find that switching from one disorder to another is INCREDIBLY common. It happens all the time because they’re all interconnected.
And if you don’t have an eating disorder, loving food isn’t actually a problem. Food should be enjoyable and pleasurable even if diet culture continues to tell you otherwise. People with anorexia also enjoy food too – but they’re often extremely fearful of enjoying the food or are trying to avoid the anxiety and noise that comes along with eating.
4. “Why can’t you just eat healthy and exercise in moderation?”
Because I’m very ill, that’s why. A comment like that is so invalidating because trust me when I say that many people with eating disorders know significantly more about nutrition than the average person. But knowing and doing are two completely different things because once again, this is a mental illness.
It’s not about will power or knowledge. It’s not about wanting it enough. Instead, eating disorders are often about being a harmful coping mechanism in a world that’s felt unsafe for so long.
What would you add to this list? Read my eating disorder story here, the barriers to eating disorder treatment in our fatphobic world here, and why I’ll never compliment weight loss here.