Most of us don’t know what to say to someone who has an eating disorder. Eating disorders aren’t understood, and most of us have never had a meaningful conversation about eating disorders.
The result is that most people say the wrong thing to people who have eating disorders. It’s not because they are trying to be hurtful, but it hurts nonetheless. Here are 32 of the worst things people say to people who have eating disorders:
- stop throwing up.
- put the fork down.
- start eating regularly, it’ll fix itself
- let yourself become one with god. And when you realize that you are in god’s love, your anxieties will go away.
Statements that begin with the word “just” suggest that eating disorders are simple. Eating disorders are absolutely not simple. They are complex biopsychosocial mental health conditions. That means that they stem from a combination of biological, psychological, and social conditions. All of these conditions combine to create a situation in which eating disorder thrive.
It’s the worst when you start a statement about eating disorders with the word “just …” It shows your ignorance of the complexity of the situation. This shows that you don’t understand how serious and challenging it is to recover from an eating disorder.
But you …
- are skinny, so you can’t be anorexic
- aren’t skinny, so you can’t be anorexic
- look fine
- don’t look like you have an eating disorder
- are so smart, why can’t you see that this is ridiculous?
- aren’t really bulimic. You don’t throw up, do you?
- can recover if you want it badly enough.
When you start your comment with “But you …” the next thing that comes out of your mouth is going to hurt. This is because it suggests that we shouldn’t have an eating disorder. When you say “but” it means “you shouldn’t.” You’re suggesting that we’re just making a mistake in our thinking. The idea is that we should be able to stop our eating disorder easily by understanding your simple statement.
I wish …
- I had anorexia! My body could lose a few pounds!
- I had the strength to not eat! My problem is that I eat too much!
- you would just stop doing this!
- you could hear how ridiculous you sound.
It’s the worst when you start your comment about an eating disorder with “I wish.” This is because it is usually followed by the idea that you wish you had some eating disorder symptoms. In doing this, you’re perpetuating diet culture, which is one of the contributing factors in eating disorders.
If you aren’t suggesting that you wish you were disordered, the alternative hurts, too. Because “I wish you would just stop!” tells us that you think it’s easy. As you’ve probably picked up by now, eating disorder recovery is not easy.
Making a wish will never make an eating disorder go away. Intentional action on your part can help make eating disorder recovery easier. Some ideas: get therapy and work on your self, learn about eating disorders, and talk to us compassionately about our recovery.
It’s not that hard …
- focus on eating healthy and get some light exercise!
- stop caring what people think!
- run. If you run, you’ll be hungry. AND it cured my depression.
- it’s just about willpower!
- just eat normally and then lightly exercise
- if you’re unhappy with your weight just diet and loose it!
- if you’re unhappy with how you look then eat better and workout more
It’s dismissive and hurtful to suggest that “it’s not that hard” to recover from an eating disorder. Of course it’s hard! If it weren’t, then nobody would have an eating disorder.
We live in a culture that has a poor understanding of mental health, but here’s a really simple rule of thumb. Any time you want to say it’s not hard to be mentally healthy, consider whether you would say the same thing to someone who broke a leg. Would you suggest that they could heal by simply “getting over it?” Or adding some light exercise? No!
And you definitely wouldn’t suggest that the way to heal a broken leg is to break it again. That’s the equivalent of telling someone who has an eating disorder that they should eat, not eat, or exercise their way out of their eating disorder. That’s just not how it works.
- you look perfectly fine to me.
- can’t you see how bad you look right now?
- there is nothing bad happening in your life for that you act like that.
- doesn’t everyone have an eating disorder?
- you’d look better if you gained weight.
It’s the worst when people start their eating disorder response with “but.” Like so many of the examples given here, this suggests that eating disorders are simple or inexplicable. We’ve covered the fact that eating disorders are not simple. Eating disorders are also not inexplicable. They are coping behaviors that we have adopted based on a specific set of circumstances. These circumstances are beyond our control.
We did not “choose” to have an eating disorder any more than you chose to have blue eyes or curly hair. Don’t fight the idea that an eating disorder is present. Instead understand that there is likely a very good reason for its existence.
You need to …
- stop being so selfish and take care of yourself so you don’t make your mother worry. Why do you keep making things so difficult for her?
- eat normally. You don’t have to eat pizza everyday but just eat something.
- go eat a hamburger.
- pray and Jesus will make it go away
Here’s an idea to avoid saying the worst things when someone has an eating disorder. Don’t suggest that you have any idea how they can or should heal. Unless you are a trained eating disorder specialist, don’t make any comments that you think will help the person recover. You just aren’t qualified, and the majority of people in our society carry hurtful diet culture beliefs that can hurt, rather than help, someone who is in recovery.
This doesn’t mean you say nothing! Just work really hard to say words of compassion rather than advice. Compassionate statements recognize that the person is doing their very best. They also demonstrate that you trust the person to make the right choices for their recovery. Here are some ideas:
- I’m so sorry that you’re hurting right now.
- It sounds as if you’re working really hard.
- I’m here to support you.
- I can hear this is really challenging.
- I love you.
Finally, if you really want to help, learn about Health at Every Size and stop being a contributor to diet culture.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.