What Do I Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder?

What do I say to my friend or family member with an eating disorder? How can I help? Is it possible for me to fix it?

As a survivor of anorexia and an advocate for body acceptance, I get asked these questions all the time. This makes me sick, since it reminds me that if I had a magic wand to make eating disorders go away forever I would wave until my arm fell off, but it also reminds me that my arm is still here and I keep getting asked for more people.

First things first: I am neither a medical professional nor a licensed therapist. I am merely someone who nearly died because of anorexia, spent even more time suffering a whole bunch, and fought her way through to the other side.

Please engage with professionals who can truly help your loved one. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline and a host of resources I urge you to check out.

What I have said to many others is based on my experience as a survivor who lost some friends along the way. I have less to suggest in terms of what to do or say, and more in terms of things to not do or say.

Do offer your unconditional love and support. What I most needed were people to love me, not fix me. Leave the treatment to the professionals and don’t try to be “the enforcer” of healthier habits. The “I’ll save you” path isn’t likely to go far, and it can also make it harder for the person to come to you later if they need help. They may not want to let you down when they are slipping. At least, this is the way I was.

Knowing that you will always be there and love them — no matter what — is a powerful weapon that may ultimately support a recovery process led by the person with the eating disorder and the professional team supporting them.

Don’t engage in “fat talk” — about them, or yourself. Your loved one doesn’t need to hear you tell them that you feel fat, or that you ate something “good” or “bad.” And while you don’t want to be dismissive if they bring up their body or eating or exercise with you (after all, it’s probably dominating their thoughts), you certainly don’t need to play the eating disorder-affirming game of good foods and bad foods, fat clothes and skinny clothes, hot bodies and ugly bodies.

Don’t comment on their appearance. “You look good,” or “you look healthy” were horrible swords thrown at me by well-meaning people. Sometimes I used these comments as reasons to be proud of horrible things I had done to myself. Other times I would use them as proof that I needed to punish myself further. You simply don’t need to comment on their appearance. Stay out of it. Comment on and compliment them for who they are, not what they look like or what they are eating.

Don’t participate in trigger activities. Your loved one may most want to suggest activities that serve their eating disorder, such as exercising, going for a long walk, trying on clothes at the mall, baking a batch of cookies (maybe only for others to eat, a common eating disorder behavior), or going to a buffet to eat. Not lecturing them about these activities would be good, but that doesn’t mean that you need to participate. Find other healthy things to do together.

Do support them getting professional help. If your loved one has an eating disorder, support them in getting professional help. No, you don’t have to be the enforcer, but you can support them by scheduling fun group activities at times when they are not going to therapy, not disparaging therapists or anti-depressants and similar drugs, and the like. Further, if they haven’t taken that first step yet, you can share with them names and telephone numbers of places where they can get help and assure them it’s strong, not weak, to reach out for support.

Good luck and I am so sorry for the experiences that have led you to read this.

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How Much Weight Have You Gained? On Pregnancy And Fat Talk

“How much weight have you gained?” If I gained a pound for every time someone has asked me that question during the course of my pregnancy, I would beat everyone at see-saw for the rest of my life. Instead, I generally answer with, “I’m not going to answer that question,” because I believe in granting anyone listening permission to rethink the appropriateness of this common routine. It’s okay to refuse to answer a personal question you didn’t invite. It’s okay to not ask women to recount statistics about their bodies in lieu of asking how to support their experiences within them. It’s okay to opt-out of fat talk, including pregnancy-specific strains of fat talk. Fat talk is a profane part of the lives of women and girls.

Defined simply, fat talk is a negative “my body sucks” conversation that takes place between women. It is a game of one-downwomanship that often goes like this:

– “I can’t believe I ate that.”
– “No, look at me, I had [this bad food] and [that bad food] last night.”
– “No, no, no, I’m so bad, I haven’t been to the gym in [a certain length of time].”
– “Yeah, well look at my ass in these jeans. I am so fat. No wonder I’m single.”
– And on, and on, and on, women saying horrible things about themselves that most would not say openly to their worst enemy’s face.

As someone who is pregnant and has a history of an eating disorder that nearly killed me, and someone who is thinking very deliberately about the kind of behavior I want to model for my future daughter and her friends, I experience pregnancy fat-talk as a one-two ladle full of bullshit punch:

In a social context, how much weight I have gained is irrelevant to my experience of pregnancy. If it were truly relevant, a doctor would have pointed it out to me, and if I wanted help from others in gaining weight at either a slower or faster clip, believe me, I would ask. Just like I would ask for your help if I thought you were the right person to help me avoid a urinary tract infection, a yeast infection or any other issue related to my reproductive health.

In a statistical context, how much weight I have gained is neither an accomplishment nor a tragedy. I am having a baby. My body is, amazingly, doing what it needs to do to pull off this particular pregnancy. My pre-pregnancy weight, my post-pregnancy weight and the so-called time it takes to “get my body back” — one of the most offensive of all fat talk frames placed around pregnant women, for I’m certain this is my body now and will remain mine in any and all shapes it takes — these are like toxic body culture baseball card statistics for women. Except unlike baseball cards, the statistics don’t revolve around our accomplishments as pregnant women (not throwing up during the meeting! continuing to experience physical strength! dodging bigoted lawmakers who want to regulate our every move!), but disembodied numbers that encourage judgement from others and worse, ourselves.

Like lots of women on the brink of having a daughter, there is so much I want to give her a chance to experience. Near the top of that list is comfort in her own skin, in spite of what I have experienced painfully and personally as a toxic body culture that is especially awful for young women. In a study recently covered by The New York Times, 93 percent of college women said they engage in fat talk.  I hope that all little girls will grow up not feeling the pressure to trash themselves on the basis of food behaviors and body measurements that say nothing meaningful about their experiences and worth as human beings. I hope that instead all little girls will grow up proud to share their accomplishments and experiences with one another, seeing this practice as a source for joy and collective strength, rather than bragging or an attack on the status of others. We have so much power that can not be pinned to a number, or a shape, or whatever the latest ridiculous comments are about Kim Kardashian’s appearance as a pregnant woman.

It is for the little girl who will soon be mine that I am refusing to participate in pregnancy fat talk. It is for the friends she will someday have. Also, proudly, it is for me.