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Three Things to NEVER Say to Someone Who Has an Eating Disorder
by: Johanna Wendell, LAPC
1.”Just eat.” If it was as simple as that, they would! To someone with an eating disorder, this statement is extremely invalidating and frustrating and conveys that you do not understand the severity and nature of eating disorders. Someone with an eating disorder is struggling with far more than a difficulty eating-oftentimes they are struggling with severe anxiety, depression, negative body image, low self-esteem, perfectionism, trauma, etc, all of which makes it incredibly difficult to eat. If they were able to simply eat, they would not be struggling so much. Oftentimes, people with eating disorders feel misunderstood, alone, and different from everyone else, so it is extremely important to convey a sense of acceptance, understanding, and compassion. It is much more effective and helpful to say, “It seems like you are struggling; How can I help?”
2.”You look good.” While you may be simply giving your friend or loved one a compliment, which you assume he/she would appreciate, the person with an eating disorder hears “You look healthy” which equals “You look like you have gained weight.” Individuals with eating disorders tend to be extremely sensitive, self-critical, and terrified of gaining weight, so any statement that could be interpreted as they have gained weight, should be avoided. To be safe, it really is best to not comment on their weight or overall appearance at all. It may be safe to comment on their hair, nails, outfit, or something not related to their overall shape, weight, or size, but avoid any comments such as, “You look so much better,” “You look so much healthier,” or “You look great.” Again, someone with an eating disorder hears, “You look heavier” or “You look fat.”
3.”You don’t look sick.” The majority of the time, you cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at him/her. The majority of people with eating disorders are actually at a healthy weight or are overweight. Someone with an eating disorder who is at a healthy body weight or is overweight can be much more critically ill than someone who visually looks like he/she is extremely underweight. Eating disorders, like any other serious illness such as cancer, a drug addiction, Diabetes, congestive heart failure, etc cannot be depicted by just looking at someone. Looks can be incredibly deceiving. Someone can look incredibly healthy and drop dead from an eating disorder the next day, while someone who looks severely malnourished may be relatively healthy. Saying “You don’t look sick” is a naïve statement that conveys a lack of understanding and comes across as very invalidating and triggering. Someone with an eating disorder hears, “You aren’t skinny enough to truly have a problem or to warrant concern,” which can motivate those with eating disorders to want to become sicker and thinner. Again, people with eating disorders are incredibly sensitive, so it is extremely important to choose your words wisely.