(Content notice: sizeism and eating disorders – including restriction, bingeing, and purging)
Every February, for Eating Disorders Awareness Month, I think about what I could share regarding my anorexia recovery that could help others.
This year, I asked myself, What information do I wish my loved ones had? And I realized there’s a lot of misinformation I wish they didn’t have.
From ages 15-17 – and on and off over the years since – I suffered from a mainly restrictive eating disorder that also included purging at certain points. I received residential treatment the summer before college, which led me to be mainly symptom-free from then on.
But my body image disturbances and certain disordered eating habits have continued to this day.
I’m lucky to have received support from professionals and other eating disorder survivors. But the hardest part may have been dealing with friends and family who didn’t always quite understand what I was going through.
Here are the assumptions I noticed people operating off of during my anorexia recovery, the ways they impacted me, and the realities they mask.
1. ‘Once You Realize You Have an Eating Disorder, You Can Just Stop’
During the first year of my eating disorder, I didn’t believe I had one.
I thought I was just “eating healthy” – we’ve got diet culture to thank for that. Once I was informed that I did, in fact, meet the criteria for anorexia, I expected to be able to change my eating habits immediately – and genuinely wanted to.
But that proved harder than I thought.
After I ate larger portions than I was used to, I panicked. Feeling my stomach expand left me in distress. I didn’t know it was normal to feel this way, since I logically knew I hadn’t overeaten.
My family was also perplexed. It seemed to my parents that I was intentionally rebelling against them when I didn’t enthusiastically eat everything they put in front of me.
“Just enjoy it,” my dad would say.
One of my friends sent me an email saying, in all caps, that it was ridiculous for an intelligent person like me to be behaving this way.
Since I didn’t understand that eating disorders can be addictive and you can’t “just stop,” at least not without withdrawal symptoms, I believed them. Thinking I was weak, defiant, or irrational, my self-esteem dropped.
What I was dealing with is actually more common than not.
Eating disorder survivors don’t usually just snap out of it once they realize they have an eating disorder. It takes lots of self-reflection, emotional turmoil, and help to get to the point where you’re not using symptoms, many of which become maladaptive coping mechanisms for dealing with life.
If someone you know is embarking on the process of eating disorder recovery, understand that no matter how self-aware they are, they’ll probably still feel the urge to engage in disordered eating.
Awareness may be the first step, but it’s far from the only one.
You can offer to help – just don’t judge them.
2. ‘If Someone Looks Like They’re Doing Well, They’re Doing Well’
This misconception really applies to any mental illness. Just because somebody “looks like” they’re not anxious, depressed, or struggling does not mean they aren’t.
Telling somebody that they’re “doing well” or “seem healthy” may be intended as a compliment, but it actually invalidates them if they’re not, in fact, doing well.
It communicates that even if they think they’re suffering from a mental illness, they’re actually not.
Several misconceptions can lead people to believe someone with an eating disorder is doing better than they are. One is that putting on a happy face means you’re happy inside. Another is that there’s such a thing as “looking” like you have an eating disorder.
Telling someone they look “better” or “healthy” may trigger them by calling attention to their weight, but it also furthers the myth that all eating disorders result in weight loss, and the worse the eating disorder, the more weight lost.
When I confide in people about my eating disorder, they often ask what I weighed at my lowest. I feel like I have to round it down to prove I had an eating disorder.
But so many eating disorder symptoms, like binging, purging, and even restricting, can result in weight gain or even no change in weight. And recovery isn’t just about your symptoms – it’s also about how you’re feeling.
If you eat three normal-sized meals a day, but are completely consumed by body dysmorphia, you could be having more trouble than someone who only got through one meal, but feels triumphant and proud of themselves and at peace.
When I first met with my college advisor, who knew from a writing assignment I’d completed that I’d recently had an eating disorder, she said, “I’ve dealt with this issue a lot, but you look really good.” This implied that because I was at a “healthy” weight, I didn’t require as much attention as her other students in recovery.
Telling someone with an eating disorder that they don’t require much help or care sends the message that their well-being is not worthwhile.
In general, the way to show support and friendship is to ask someone how they’re doing and then address it– not tell them how they’re doing and address something that may not even be there.
3. ‘Once Someone’s “Better,” You Can Do Triggering Things Around Them Again’
Some people decided that once I “seemed better,” it was now totally okay to discuss their weight with me, which led me to compare us, talk about how “bad” the meal they just ate was, which made me worried that I ate similar things, and even tell me to watch my weight because I wouldn’t want to “swing in the opposite direction.”
Since I wasn’t actually “better,” these comments led me to resort back to eating disorder symptoms.
And even if I wasn’t struggling any more than your average person, a lot of the things we shouldn’t be doing around eating disorder survivors are just things we shouldn’t be doing in general, anyway.
We shouldn’t be discussing our weight loss regimes with anyone (aside from maybe our doctors) because that encourages the false idea that dieting works and is beneficial. We shouldn’t be commenting on anyone’s body because we’re not entitled to a say in what they do with it.
If you want to support someone in your life with an eating disorder, learn from your mistakes. Realize how certain behaviors of yours could have contributed to the struggle of their disordered eating, or at least a culture that encourages it, and change them permanently.
Don’t view your loved one’s eating disorder as an isolated case that requires you to be careful around just them. View it as a wake-up call that the way we behave all the time has consequences, not just for them but also for the millions of people with eating disorders and the people without them who also struggle with body image or disordered eating.
See if you can find yourself in your loved one. Maybe you’ve beaten yourself up over your eating. Maybe you’ve bought into the lie that life would be better at a smaller size. Maybe you could take inspiration from them to liberate yourself from these oppressive thought processes.
Many people don’t think about the toxic messages they’ve internalized about food and weight because they haven’t significantly interfered with their lives.
But chances are, they have made their lives less physically or mentally healthy than they could be.
People with eating disorders present a great learning opportunity. Dismissing them as outliers further stigmatizes them, masks the larger problem, and takes away our chance to grow and heal.
It takes a lot of self-possession to stick to your eating disorder recovery when the rest of the world is against it. To reject dieting when your friends keep talking about it as if it’s the right thing to do for your health. To not restrict when your family literally tells you to.
So, while this article was written to educate people without eating disorders about how to support those with them, I hope it also validates people in recovery who are getting the message that they’re doing it wrong.
Struggling doesn’t make you incompetent or inconsiderate toward those who want to see you get better. People who tell you you’re mentally healthier when you’re not – or aren’t doing better when you are – don’t know what they’re talking about; you understand your progress.
And though it may not be the most widely accepted path, your recovery is the right path. Popular wisdom has a long way to catch up with science on this one, but dieting isn’t healthy, and weight gain isn’t bad.
You’re fighting the good fight, so don’t let others’ misconceptions stop you.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is 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. Read her articles here.
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