If you have a close friend or family member struggling with an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia, it can sometimes feel difficult knowing what to say when trying to show your support. Like any mental illness, it's an intensely personal experience for those suffering and having a close network of friends and family can be game-changing when it comes to recovery.
It's also important to keep in mind that there's no 'typical' way that a person with an eating disorder might look – currently, it's estimated that around 1.25million people in the UK have one in some form (with those who identify as female making up three quarters of that number). Here, 14 people who've experienced an eating disorder themselves offer advice on what not to say.
“Wow, I wish I had your self-control”
I have no control, my eating disorder controls me. I wish I could casually eat a biscuit with my tea, or enjoy a croissant in a morning meeting, but I can’t. Likewise, exercise isn’t a hobby anymore but feels like a necessity. – Belle
“It's just attention seeking”
Eating disorders are not a choice, I would rather dress up as a penguin to attract attention than this. People affected go to great lengths to hide their behaviours, and keeping it a secret is a big element. – Zoe
“I could never be anorexic, I love food too much”
Anorexia isn’t about hating or not being interested in food. For me, it means that no matter how hungry you are, you feel that you aren’t allowed to and don’t deserve to eat. – Cara
“If you think you’re fat, you must think I’m massive!”
I always just wanted to scream at people who said things like that. This is not about you, or about how either of us look! – Emma
“You don’t look anorexic"
When I hear that, my instinct is to plan from that moment on what meals I will skip and how much extra exercise I should do. That one comment can put a halt in my recovery and send me backwards, upsetting all the hard work I’ve done to get where I am now. This is because eating disorders are fatal mind games.’ – Claire
"But you have so much going for you!"
It might be meant as a compliment, but comments like these imply I have no 'valid' reason to be unwell. I may have my own talents and abilities like anyone else, but that doesn't mean that I'm invincible, or not prone to my own struggles with food and my body. It would be so much more helpful to be met with a listening ear, rather than a lack of understanding that eating disorders can happen to anyone, irrespective of how successful or talented they might seem. – James
“It’s nice to see you eating chips again. They used to be your favourite!”
It can be difficult to be asked if you enjoy the food you are eating, as more than likely the answer is no. Lots of people receiving treatment think of food as medicine and are a long way off appreciating it. Even if you did enjoy it, having it commented on could cause an instant feeling of extreme guilt or could even trigger them further. – Evie*
"You look so thin"
This can reinforce the eating disorder thoughts. If someone is saying you look thin it can make you feel like it’s worth it and want to carry on. – Keira
Please don’t say “well done” or congratulate us for any apparent progress we make during mealtimes (or just after), such as trying a new food or eating more. We will be receiving a tirade of abuse and anger from the voice in our heads, and chances are if you say something now we will get stressed or anxious and all of our efforts may end up being wasted. – Holly
“Food won’t hurt you”
Hearing this made me feel as though nobody understood or cared what I was going through, and as if they thought me struggling to eat certain things was pathetic. I was terrified of food and I absolutely believed it was going to harm me or make me 'fat' – Katie
"You look well"
I really did find it hard when I was struggling with recovery – people just assumed because I physically looked better I was mentally fine. I think it's important that people move away from looking at eating disorders as weight disorders, and remember that what they see on the outside is not the best reflection of what's happening inside. – Joss
“But I’ve seen you eat!"
I could never starve myself for days on end, but I did restrict my food intake very heavily. Just because you’ve seen someone eat doesn’t mean that they don’t have anorexia. – Dave
“You’re eating more, that means you’re better!”
Anorexia manipulated me into believing I was unworthy of happiness and of life itself. I had no quality of life, I was existing merely to satisfy the irrational voices in my head. I was no longer allowed to do anything I had previously enjoyed. I spent hours crying because the pain was too much for me. I felt like a constant burden. Fighting against that and learning that I was worthy of food is the hardest thing I have ever done. The more I ate, the more anorexia fought, as though it could feel it was losing its hold over me. The thoughts were still there every minute of the day, I didn’t start feeling 'better' until I started smiling, laughing and enjoying a life free from the shackles of anorexia once more. – Abigail
"You're looking much healthier"
It was a constant reminder that whilst I was getting better from my eating disorder, I was also gaining weight; which is the thing that terrified me the most. I didn't want to know that it was visible, because to me, that meant I was getting fatter, rather than I was looking healthier in general. It then made eating more difficult. – Katie
How to support somebody with an eating disorder
Beat, the UK's leading eating disorder charity, suggest the following if you're supporting a friend or family member with an eating disorder.
- Recognise that you are not to blame.
- Educate yourself about eating disorders where you can.
- Try not to back them into a corner or use language that could feel accusatory. “I wondered if you’d like to talk about how you’re feeling” is a gentler approach than “You need to get help”, for example.
- Ask how you can offer practical help – e.g. your loved one might want assistance with sticking to regular eating. Equally, they may say you can’t do anything to help, at which point it can be helpful to remind them that you can hear their distress and acknowledge how difficult things are. Stress that you are there if they need you.
- Avoid discussing weight, body image, food and diets in front of your loved one, and if you can, model a balanced relationship with your own food and exercise.
- When you have the conversation is important too. A good time to talk to someone who is unwell is outside of mealtimes, e.g. mid-afternoon or a few hours after dinner. Have the conversation when neither of you are feeling angry or upset.
*Name has been changed
Beat is the UK's leading charity dedicated to helping people with eating disorders. If you or someone you know is struggling and want to seek help, call their helpline on 0808 801 0677 or visit their website for more details.
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