Given how desperately people want to help friends, family members, and partners with eating disorders, it’s striking how often their well-intentioned comments make matters worse.
When I faced anorexia during my teen years – and even now, when I don’t have an active eating disorder, but still struggle with body image – people have said all sorts of things to me that amplified my body-hating, food-fearing thoughts.
And they had no idea they were triggering me. In fact, they sincerely believed they were helping.
If they had known that what they were about to say would worsen my self-hatred or disordered eating, they would’ve stopped themselves. But they didn’t know – because they hadn’t experienced all the stressful thoughts that come with eating disorders firsthand.
As someone who has experienced those things, though, I can tell you exactly how certain words affected at least one person.
And while not every person with an eating disorder had the same symptoms I did or received the same reactions, I write this with the hope that those who have had similar experiences can be treated better as a result.
So here are some well-intentioned comments that exacerbated my eating disorder and might hurt others, too.
1. ‘The Worst Part of This Is That You’re So Smart’
A high school friend once sent me this message in an e-mail – with caps on.
Anger is really the last sentiment that’s going to help someone in the throes of a mental health issue who is feeling isolated already. In fact, it let me know that I could now no longer turn to her for support or advice. I was even more alone.
Having an eating disorder or any mental health condition has nothing – nothing – to do with someone’s intelligence.
Actually, since anorexics are often notorious overachievers, my eating disorder and my success at school or work may not have been contradictory at all.
This kind of statement certainly didn’t help me recover. In fact, all it did was let me know that you’re not one of the people I can lean on because you’ll only get angry if I open up about my struggles.
2. ‘Wow, You’ve Lost a Lot of Weight – You Look Great!’
Not all eating disorders result in weight loss, but mine did. And knowing that I looked more attractive to at least one person as a result of my eating disorder made it so much harder to get healthy.
Although I’m opposed to mantras like “Real Women Have Curves” that encourage women who have lost weight from an eating disorder to recover for the male gaze, it was scary to think that my recovery could compromise my beauty.
Which is why it was so damn triggering to hear that maybe I looked better underweight after all.
The people who said this didn’t usually know I had an eating disorder. Eating disorders are extremely common, and you can’t always tell if the person standing in front of you might have one.
So, if you want to tell someone they look good, it’s better just to tell them than to connect it to their weight. Otherwise, you could lead them to believe that their attractiveness is contingent upon dieting and other disordered behaviors.
Then, if their body changes, they will feel as if they’re not beautiful.
3. ‘What Did You Eat Today?’
My parents and friends said this to me constantly, and it only led me to lie and feel suffocated, which furthered the distance between us.
Trying to police someone’s food intake is never okay. Even if they have an eating disorder. Even if you think their eating habits are putting them in danger. It’s not your job.
If someone is in the midst of an eating disorder, no prompting on your part will change their eating habits.
These disorders are powerful. Like many eating disorder victims, I was too far gone to change my habits because someone else thought I should. I already knew self-starvation was bad for me. I didn’t care.
For many people, their best chance to recover is to receive professional help that eventually leads them to change on their own. It took me two months in a residential treatment program, and it can take others years.
If someone you know in recovery is following a meal plan or exercise regime or any other guidelines, it’s not your job to decide if they’re doing it right. You can’t really know unless you’ve read it yourself. And even if you have, it’s not your business to tell someone how to follow it.
Treatment plans can be nuanced, and healthy eating doesn’t look the same for everyone.
If someone is struggling to eat in a healthy manner and wants help, they can reach out to you.
In fact, if you want, you tell them you’re there if they need support. Then drop it – because they likely already feel guilty and degraded by being in a position where others feel like they have to care for them.
4. ‘Watch It – You Don’t Want to Swing in The Opposite Direction’
During a brief period I’ll call my Eating Disorder Recovery Part 1, which took place the summer before my junior year of high school, I was kept awake from hunger one night and went to the kitchen to have a bowl of cereal.
“You’re eating now?” my dad said with a furrowed brow as he walked through the kitchen groggy-eyed.
The next day, I asked what he meant by that. “I feel like you’re eating wrong,” he said. “You don’t want to swing in the opposite direction. You’re good now. It’s time to stop gaining and work on maintaining.”
And that marked the beginning of my relapse.
Please, please do not imply that someone trying to recover from an eating disorder might “swing in the opposite direction.” While people whose eating disorders involving weight gain might not hear this since the “opposite direction” for them is all too often considered healthy, this advice can be extremely damaging to people trying to recover from a disorder involving weight loss.
They have been headed steadfastly in one direction for the duration of their eating disorder, and their biggest concern is just staying where they are and not heading backwards – which is what happened to me (or turning to another eating disorder with the same end goal of weight loss, which is also common).
You cannot tell what someone is supposed to eat unless you can literally get into their brain and their stomach. Which you can’t.
So what might look like “swinging in the opposite direction” to you might actually be them eating in tune with their hunger signals.
You also don’t know what someone’s healthy weight is – because your healthy weight is the weight you’re at when you’re eating intuitively.
In my case, I was still below my healthy weight range, so my dad’s comment about “maintaining” gave me a skewed idea of what I was supposed to weigh and made it distressing to go above that weight.
When you tell someone with an eating disorder that they need to eat or exercise less or more, or do more of whatever their eating disorder involved, you are amplifying the toxic voices already in their heads.
5. ‘You Look ____’
In general, it’s best to avoid any descriptions of the body of someone with an eating disorder. People interpret a lot of these words differently, and you never know what might hold a negative connotation for someone.
For example, one of my trigger words was “healthy.” I’m not the only one who instead heard “fat” (which shouldn’t be an insult, but can come off as one when your thoughts are so disordered).
I probably learned to associate health with fat because our society teaches us that a lot of healthy bodies are fat. Think about it: The average plus-sized model is six sizes smaller than the average American woman.
Yup. Let that sink in for a second. Average American woman: size fourteen. Average plus-sized model: size eight.
Perhaps through this warped definition of plus-sized and normal-sized, I learned to associate the word “healthy” with “very well-nourished.” In my mind, a healthy body was a larger one.
And there’s nothing wrong with that – but it’s definitely not what people meant when they described my still-smaller-than-average body as healthy.
Assuming people shared my definition of “healthy,” my self-image became more dysmorphic, even when people said “healthy” just to mean—you know—not dying of starvation.
One friend explained to me that when she used that word, she was really saying that my face looked more alive. So if you’ve been bummed out about being told you look healthy during eating disorder recovery, keep in mind that it may not even have to do with your weight or size at all.
It also wreaked havoc on my body image when a partner called my body “average size,” defining that phrase in a completely different way from me.
And when my mom told me I looked “ugly” in order to motivate me to gain weight, it didn’t work at all. I wasn’t trying to be attractive – and only made me feel antagonized and further distanced from her.
Again, if you think someone looks good, just tell them that. They don’t need to know the specifics. And obviously, if you don’t think they look good, don’t say anything. I have never met anyone whose eating disorder recovery was prompted by the words “you’re ugly.”
6. ‘Your Treatment Team Chose a Really Great Weight for You’
On a family vacation after my Eating Disorder Recovery Part 2 the summer before college, which involved a seven-week stay at a residential program, my dad turned to me in my bathing suit and told me this.
And I have to admit, it was reassuring. I wasn’t looking at my weight because it was too triggering, so for all I knew, it was higher than I wanted. My dad’s comment made it clear that my body was still conventionally attractive.
But that’s not what eating disorder recovery should be about.
Because what about people who aren’t thin and curvaceous in the “right” places after they recover? They deserve their recovery just as much.
Some say that the sexualization of thin women leads to eating disorders, but the sexualization of curves does just as much harm. It can make women feel like prey, which can lead them to feel safer if they erase their curves with weight loss or cover them with fat.
Many of the things people said to inspire me in my recovery were sexualized: “Men like women with meat on their bones” and “Curves are beautiful.”
This sexualization of eating disorder recovery trivializes it and completely neglects why it’s important. The goal should be not to look better, but to take focus off looks and feel better, regardless of what we see in the mirror.
Women with eating disorders don’t need to be told they will be better sexual objects after they recover. They need to be seen as more than objects.
7. ‘You Look Great Now, Though I Didn’t Even Think You Looked Bad Before’
Whoa. Stop right there.
First of all, do not suggest there was anything “not bad” about someone’s eating disorder.
Even if they looked exactly the same at their sickest point (because eating disorders don’t always involve a change in weight), saying that they looked good makes it sound like the eating disorder wasn’t really such a big deal.
Secondly, the media’s image of health and beauty is all out of whack and can lead us to believe someone looks good when they’re way below their healthy weight range (which, again, is different for everyone – I’m not putting down people considered “underweight” by BMI charts who are actually at a healthy weight for them).
When a family friend told me I didn’t look bad during my eating disorder, I started to doubt my recovery and wonder if the people who said I needed to gain weight were misinformed.
If I really were that sick, people would surely have a negative reaction to my appearance, right?
Nope. Not so.
Our society glorifies thin bodies, no matter how they’re achieved, so if your body was glorified during a restrictive eating disorder, that’s really just further confirmation that you were not at your healthiest.
8. ‘I Hate to Be the Bearer of Bad News, But I Think You Need a Larger Size’
People who make comments like this are usually trying to sympathize with thoughts they imagine are already in someone’s head. But they could instead end up implanting those thoughts.
Before my mom said this to me in a department store, it didn’t occur to me that needing a size up in a pair of pants was “bad.” Sizes are finnicky; of course I won’t be the same size in everything.
But the phrase “bad news” sounded so ominous and permanent.
This statement also held the implication that it would be a problem to wear a size up, which, in my case, would still be smaller than average. What does that say about average-sized people or fat people?
When you assume someone feels bad about their body, you’re implying that they have a reason to feel bad. And that is not a message you ever want to send anyone who has struggled with body image.
Call my reactions to these comments “too sensitive,” but the fact remains that they are typical.
Eating disorders can make people sensitive to statements about their bodies and eating habits, and it’s far more helpful to keep that sensitivity in mind than to make a judgement about it that leads you to become insensitive.
It doesn’t take much out of you to be conscious of how someone with a different mentality might perceive your words. But it’ll take a lot out of them to hear your misguided statements.
You might then be thinking, “But Suzannah, what are we supposed to say?”
But I want to unpack the assumption that you need to say something at all.
Do you feel the need to comment on your loved one’s eating disorder for their sake, or for your own? Do you feel like it’s an elephant in the room that you must acknowledge? Do you feel the need to babysit your friend by making sure they eat and behave in a non-disordered way?
Then stop right there. They may actually have no desire to discuss food, weight, or body image. In fact, that may very well just make them self-conscious.
It can be super awkward to eat, shop for clothes, exercise, or do other body-related things around a friend who knows those are issues for you. It can be awkward just to hang out with someone when you know that’s on their mind.
When someone is constantly preoccupied with food or weight, sometimes the best thing you can do is distract them by talking about unrelated things.
If you want to make sure your loved one views you as a potential source of support, tell them they can bring it up – then let them bring it up.
You can also read tips for talking to a loved one with an eating disorder on the National Eating Disorder Association’s website.
What you should say varies from person to person and situation to situation, but what not to say is pretty straightforward.
Don’t police someone’s eating habits, don’t comment on their body, and don’t try to assume the role of their doctor, therapist, or nutritionist.
And don’t tell them how they’re feeling. There’s no right or wrong way to feel during eating disorder recovery. In fact, the best gift you can give someone is the space to deal with whatever emotions come up in whatever way works for them, free from judgment.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.