A while ago we went through some comments about food that we should remove from our vocabulary for good, because they perpetuate the impositions of diet culture and contribute to create an unhealthy general mindset around food. However, when you know a person next to you is suffering from an eating disorder, you need to be specially careful.
Comments made without thinking, or even wanting to help, can turn out very triggering and have devastating effects: either consolidate the twisted ideas of the illness if the person isn’t in recovery yet, or deeply hurt the person and even push her to relapsing if she is.
With this I don’t want to say that it’s your fault if this things happen, or that you always have to go walking on eggshells. In fact, truth is, when you’re recovering from an eating disorder, EVERYTHING is triggering. It’s impossible to create an aseptic environment, and that wouldn’t be healthy either, since the person needs to learn to live in the world. But also think that, precisely, she has enough between the nightmare in her mind and all the triggers she has to face in a daily basis, and be a little careful when there’s something that you can easily do.
Among those things, I highlight avoiding these 10 kinds of comments:
1. I'd like to have your willpower!
(No, you wouldn’t…) This is something I was told a lot during my anorexia when I refused for example to eat sweets, chocolate or pizza, or didn’t have a morning snack or things like that. It was very counter-productive because it filled me with pride and reaffirmed me in my idea that I was morally superior to everyone because of my asceticism. As if food was a temptation and one should try to avoid falling into it. I loved to arouse that kind of admiration, feeling like anorexia really turned me into a higher being than the average people, who couldn’t but succumb to the passions of the flesh.
They key is to understand that the person with an ED doesn’t have willpower or control, but that’s all an illusion: in fact, she’s completely controlled by the illness.
Stopping to praise food restriction and instead normalizing that each one eats knowing and listening to their body would be a a great help to break this environment that’s so favorable for the proliferation of eating disorders, both purely restrictive and those in which people restrict in public and can’t help but binge-purge in private.
2. I wish I had that problem
(I wouldn’t wish it on my worse enemy) This is a common thing people answer when you say you’re struggling to gain weight, eat more or do less exercise. It shows an incredible ignorance and lack of tact and it’s very dangerous because it not only hurts the person, who see her effort dismissed, but can reinforce her belief that she’s not sick enough and doesn’t need help.
People don’t understand the excruciating pain that a recovery process brings with it. They stay on the surface. If they could live 5 minutes in the mind of someone who’s going through it, they’d be as terrified as if they saw a vision of hell.
3. I look fat next to you
I think here the first ones who should apologize are those of us who have made others feel so insecure about their bodies because of our awful example. Although what’s sad is that there’s a social perception in which a malnourished body provokes that reaction instead of pity or even rejection, which doesn’t happen until one reaches minimal numbers.
Despite everything, since as we’ve said the person with an ED is not in control, but you are, take responsibility. Don’t accept acritically the images we’re bombarded with from social and traditional media. First figure out if the person really seems healthy. And don’t contribute to increase her ego by glorifying, even indirectly, her thinness. This kind of comments will make her want to stay like that and think that recovery, reaching a healthy weight, would mean getting fat.
4. You look so healthy / so beautiful
This is a tricky one. The person has started to gain back some weight and you want to express your happiness and encourage her. But you get just the opposite. Because probably she still has a long way before her, and this makes her think that people already see her well, and therefore if she gains 1 more kilo she’ll overshoot and be fat (or maybe, that she’s already fat, because for us healthy equals fat; we’re the only sick people who like to look sick). Consequently, it’s jam on the brakes for recovery.
There’s a very simple way to rephrase this kind of comments so they’re truly uplifting, and it’s to use the comparative: you look healthier (be careful with this one because of what we’ve said earlier), better, more beautiful… This will convey the message that as she gains weight her appearance improves and encourage her to keep going to reach a “best”.
5. You’ve gained weight / You’ve put on weight / You look chubbier
Notice how in the comments of the previous section weight is just implicit, but here it’s spelt out. That makes it a thousand times more triggering. Gaining weight is always associated with something bad, something that one shouldn’t do, giving in… But there’s something even millions of times worse and it’s using any word that can relate to fatness. “Put on” weight has the connotation that the weight is visible, that every kilo she gains is like if you place a block of fatness on her bones. And don’t even get me started with things like “chubby”. It’s like you’re telling her that the absolute worst disgrace in the world is happening to her, and moreover, she’s asking for it; if she keeps going on that way (recovery), she’ll keep sinking into that horrible thing and it will be her fault.
6. It’s good that you don’t care so much about your body anymore
The mind of a person in recovery from an eating disorder is always going to interpret that as if you thought she’s letting herself go, becoming lazy in her body care. And, therefore, fat.
It’s true that there are people in recovery who want to get rid completely of any concern in regards to their physical appearance, but many others don’t. On the contrary, we still have the same goal, we just accept (with a lot of struggle) that because of our body dysmorphia we’ve been looking for it the wrong way, and we’ll achieve it with recovery. That our healthiest point will also be our most beautiful point. This comment, however, makes again these two concepts appear as opposite poles. In addition, it makes the person feel vain for being concerned about her body, as if the moral thing was not to care, which is very unfair.
7. Are you going to eat (all) that?
I understand you’re surprised that someone who used to order a side salad is eating two meals, bread and dessert. But that person has made a huge effort not to give in to the extortion of his mind and order what she must, and she’s only wishing that no one calls her out. That no one notices and, if they do, that they don’t make any comments. You’ll make her reconsider her brave decision and feel embarrassed or as if she had to give explanations. She’ll interpret that she’s eating a lot, too much. That she’s become one more among the greedy and willpower lacking people she’s always despised.
8. I thought you only ate healthy
To start with, you can’t know whether someone eats healthy or not just by seeing one of her meals, because one meal can’t be healthy or unhealthy, only a diet can be. Foods that aren’t very nutritious, have too many oil or sugar, or are ultra-processed, when consumed abundantly for a long time, make a diet unhealthy. But, in the context of a diet based on nutritious, real and whole foods, they just make it balanced for the person’s mental health. Again, think that in order to dare to eat that, the person has had to overcome many mental barriers and face all her fears screaming. She’s done something heroic. She doesn’t need someone to express out loud the lies of her mind.
Moreover, what’s healthy in recovery is not the same as what’s healthy in general. I now eat in a very different way than I used to at the beginning of my recovery, but then I ate in an infinitely more different way than I used to when I was anorexic. I had to face all the fear foods that I’d been avoiding for years and years because I was scared of them and considered them bad. That included many foods that nowadays aren’t a staple in my diet. But I don’t regret how I did it, I needed to break those barriers. Not to mention that when you’re in such a critical situation, any food is incomparably better than no food.
9. I wish I could eat like that and not gain weight
With that, the person will interpret that eating what she’s eating will make her gain weight; which she actually has to do, and she’s looking to do it if she’s in recovery, but it’s very triggering because said from outside sounds like getting fat. It can also insinuate that you’re jealous of her thinness, which we’ve already talked about. Or lead her to believe that then when she gets to a healthy weight she won’t be able to eat freely but will have to restrict again to avoid overshooting.
As for you… why can’t you eat like that? If your metabolism is slower, your body is not asking you for more food; therefore, you have no reason to envy a person that needs a bigger amount. You should already feel satisfied with what you eat. And if that’s not the case… perhaps you’re imposing an artificial restriction on your body and need to start eating more intuitively?
10. You eat so fast / so slowly / [any other pattern]
When we’re starting to recover from an eating disorder, we generally don’t like to eat in public. We can’t control the food as much, we can’t allow ourselves to cry or have a panic attack, we can take 10 minutes to breath repeating positive mantras, we compare obsessively what we’re eating to what others are eating and get very nervous if we’re eating more than others, we’re exposed to all kind of triggering comments about food, our food and ourselves, etc. But, in addition, we feel observed and judged. We try to convince ourselves that it’s not like that, that each person is minding their own business and that’s it. That’s why any small thing someone says questioning something about our way of eating is mortifying.
I’ve been asked to write a positive version of this post (update: here it is!) and the one about food comments that should never be made. That is, what kind of things should be said instead and could be helpful (although I’ve already given clues). But I believed it was urgent to first offer this guide about what you shouldn’t say. In fact, unless you’re someone very close to a person with an ED, when in doubt it’s always better to say nothing, make as few comments as possible about what others are eating or their weight. It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke or if you say it with good intentions: it’s usually a bad idea.
If you really want to contribute to moments with you, especially when they involve food, being as calm and comfortable as possible (they will never be 100%) for people in recovery from an eating disorder, avoid making these kind of comments and correct others when they make them. I grant you that creating this kind of positive environment can make a difference and help the person to feel more confident to keep on taking steps.