Most of us don’t know what to say to someone who has an eating disorder. Eating disorders are poorly understood, and most of us have never had a meaningful conversation about eating disorders.
The result is that people often say the wrong thing to people who have eating disorders. It’s not because they are trying to be hurtful, but it hurts nonetheless. I interviewed thousands of people who have/had eating disorders to find out the phrases that hurt the most.
The three most damaging eating disorder comments are:
- Just stop doing it: the idea that recovery is simple misses the depth and complexity of eating disorders. They are intensely personal and deeply challenging disorders that impact the mind and body. Recovery is rarely simple and requires comprehensive treatment.
- But you look great: while it’s true that an obsession with appearance is a symptom of an eating disorder, that is not all that an eating disorder is about. And no amount of reassurance will ever budge an eating disorder. They require specialized treatment and care.
- I wish I had an eating disorder: an eating disorder is a life-threatening disorder that can impact a person’s body and mind for life. Usually what people mean when they say this is that they wish they could lose weight. This is deeply damaging and hurtful for someone in the depths of a mental disorder.
If you’re not sure what to say to someone who has an eating disorder, then stick with compassion and support. Avoid making suggestions or comments that expose your own fear of fat or belief that an eating disorder is a choice.
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 they stem from a combination of biological, psychological, and social conditions. All of these conditions combine to create a situation in which eating disorders thrive.
When people start a statement about eating disorders with the word “just” It shows a lack of understanding of the complexity of the situation. This suggests they 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 a comment begins with “But you” the next thing that comes out is going to hurt. This is because it suggests that a person shouldn’t have an eating disorder. The word “but” means “you shouldn’t.” Phrases that begin this way suggest that a person with an eating disorder is making an active choice to have an eating disorder rather than struggling with a mental health condition. A simplification of the problem will not make the eating disorder go away because it misses the point.
Also, the idea that eating disorders have a certain look is deeply damaging. The vast majority of eating disorders are invisible.
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
“I wish” statements are often 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. These statements suggest that an eating disorder is a healthy diet with a positive outcome rather than a deadly condition. There is no upside to an eating disorder.
Another option is “I wish you would just stop!” This suggests that you think recovery is 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.
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 lose 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 heal it by themselves. That’s essentially what happens when someone suggests that a person who has an eating disorder 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
When a response begins with “but,” this suggests that eating disorders are simple and/or ridiculous. We’ve covered the fact that eating disorders are not simple. Eating disorders are also not ridiculous. They are coping behaviors that are rooted in a web of biology, psychology, and societal forces.
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
It’s almost never helpful to tell someone who has an eating disorder what they need to do. Leave that up to the professionals who are working with the person who has the eating disorder. They alone are qualified to provide any guidance on this topic.
What to say instead
This doesn’t mean you can’t say anything! Just 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
- It sounds like this is really challenging
- I love you
I know it’s hard to learn these guidelines. Most people genuinely want to be helpful, they just don’t know enough to avoid causing harm. Hopefully, this has given you some ideas about why these statements can be hurtful and what to say instead.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.