This week was Eating Disorder Awareness Week in the UK. Although I haven’t been especially active about it on my Instagram account, it’s a cause close to my heart and so I wanted to dedicate a blog post to it. I’m going to focus on the subtle, insidious triggers that many people won’t think twice about; but for an ED sufferer, they could mean the difference between recovery or relapse. This post is by no means exhaustive, nor is it designed to call anyone out for saying these comments. I simply want to educate you on what could be harmful for someone who has, or had, an ED, in the hopes that you will avoid it in the future.
Using “anorexic” interchangeably with “skinny”
First and foremost, we have to stop using “anorexic” as a synonym for “skinny”. Before having an eating disorder myself, I used to do this all the time, not realising how harmful a mindset it was. Because not only does it perpetuate the myth that anorexia (and EDs in general) are exclusive to those who are underweight, it also implies that they are an appearance. When in actual fact, eating disorders are dangerous, potentially fatal mental illnesses that start in the mind, not the body. They can result in being underweight, but it is not a “prerequisite” to being diagnosed with one. It’s a shame that many people are only deemed worthy of help – by themselves and society – after they hit a dangerously low BMI. So many cases could be rescued before they get life-threatening if we only stopped equating EDs with an appearance or a number.
Also, this is a side note but you shouldn’t be commenting on someone’s appearance like that anyway. It just perpetuates the societal approval of people through their weight/ body shape.
“Are you really going to eat all that?”
Or other such phrases, including “you ate five minutes ago” or “you’ve got a big appetite” and a whole host of sentences with underhand, food-related criticisms in them. You don’t know how hard that person found it to put that food on their plate and in their mouths. You don’t know whether that comment will cause them to restrict or over-exercise to “burn off” what you’ve effectively told them is too much food. How can you expect someone to heal their relationship with food if they’re constantly being fed sly comments about their eating habits? It’s different if you’re super close with someone and know how they are with food, but in all honesty I don’t think such comments are ever necessary. You never truly know how someone will take it.
“You look so strong/ healthy”
I know these comments usually come from a good place… but to someone who has/ had an ED, this often translates in their brain to “you’re fat” (many ED sufferer’s greatest fear). I’m in a place where these comments come across as compliments and I don’t take them badly at all, but I know a lot of people who still interpret them negatively. In general, just avoid making a comment on someone’s appearance like that, especially if it’s to do with their body. Let them know you value them or notice them for more than just a size or shape. Say their skin is glowing, or their hair is shiny, or you love their makeup (etc) if you do want to compliment them on their appearance without triggering harmful behaviours/ mentalities.
It probably seems warped to you, but that’s because EDs completely warp your perception of reality and, specifically, yourself. So to someone with an ED, looking “unwell” equates to being “normal”. Looking “healthy”, to them, therefore equates to looking big/ fat/ overweight.
“Why can’t you just eat?”
Seriously, if you don’t get it, then count yourself lucky. And I wish I could explain it to you. To be honest, because of how far I’ve come, I kind of don’t get it anymore – by which I mean, I personally don’t feel that mental block around food anymore, so it’s much harder for me to explain. But just know that, for whatever reason, to that person eating is the scariest thing imaginable. Deep down, they know they should eat, and they want to. But there is a literal block that stops them from doing it. It’s so complex and unique to each individual, but eating is not the simple, joyful, routine action that it is to you.
“You’re so lucky – you get to eat whatever you want”
Again, not helpful. To an ED sufferer, this is a lie – because for whatever reason, they feel like they simply can’t eat “whatever they want”. I remember getting this comment a lot, or people just saying that I was lucky because being underweight isn’t a “bad thing”. Comments implying that, because of my low BMI, I didn’t have to watch what I ate. Which just perpetuates the idea that everyone has to watch their food intake, that everyone has to stay a certain body shape… concepts that may have pushed that person to an ED in the first place.
“I’m on a diet too – tell me your secret!”
As if having an ED is a good thing. Which it’s not. There’s a strange, insidious glorification of EDs that stems from societal fatphobia and the fact that many people – primarily women – “diet” their whole lives. Beauty standards make us feel that we have to be “skinny” to be worthy of love and validation. And so, as if being dangerously underweight (if that’s your ED experience) is something to be applauded, people ask for their “secret”. Honey, there’s no secret to weight loss, and this person is not on a diet – they’re destroying themselves from the inside out. Never compliment someone for losing weight, regardless of whether they’ve had/ have an ED or not. And never ask them how they did it either.
I hope that post was insightful and not too overwhelming. Everyone is doing their best, so take on board whatever you can. Just know that if it seems like a minefield to you, it feels like an abyss with no bottom and no way out to an ED sufferer.
If in doubt, don’t comment on someone’s eating habits or their appearance. Always err on the side of caution.