Being helpful rather than harmful requires a delicate balance.
Story: Jade Augustine
Eating disorders are very common, and it is likely that you know someone who has one. The most common eating disorders are binge-eating, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa, but nonspecific eating disorders are almost as common.
If you know someone with an eating disorder, you likely worry about that person but may not know what to do to help. Here are some tips about what to do and what not to do when talking to friends with eating disorders:
Avoid making comments about their body
Whether your comment is good, bad, or indifferent, keep it to yourself. Telling your friend he or she has gained weight can be devastating and mentioning that they have lost weight can further motivate their eating disorder. Even innocent-sounding comments such as “You look healthy,” can be heard as “You look fat.” Comment on appearance such as choice of fashion, hairstyle, or makeup. Make conversation in other ways.
Avoid making comments while they are eating
Whether you think your friend is eating too much or too little or you’re worried about them purging, keep it to yourself. For obvious reasons, eating is a stressful experience for those with eating disorders. Eating in front of others can be especially difficult. Don’t ask what they’re eating or comment on their food. Keep the conversation light and on any topic but food.
If you are concerned about their eating habits, of course, as a friend don’t refrain from talking about it. Gently ask questions but do so away from mealtimes.
Avoid placing blame
Don’t place blame on your friend for having an eating disorder, don’t blame yourself for it, and don’t blame their family or anyone else for his or her development of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are very complicated and while many things could be a trigger, it isn’t any one person’s fault—take blame out of the conversation. Removing all traces of blame from your vocabulary may open the door to productive conversations in the future.
Avoid engaging in ‘fat talk’
Obviously, don’t say anything negative about your friend’s body, but be careful with how you speak about other people’s bodies, including your own. Be a good role model for your friend. If you make comments about your body, make them positive.
If your friend starts calling him or herself fat, there is nothing wrong with simply telling them that they are not fat and changing the subject. Try saying this, “I don’t want to talk to your eating disorder, I want to talk to you.”
Do ask how you can help
Different tactics help different people. The only way to really know how to help your friend is by directly asking your friend what you can do. Don’t be surprised if your friend doesn’t know or tells you there is nothing you can do. Still, let your friend know you care and leave it at that.
Do encourage professional help
Ask your friend if they would consider seeing a professional, and if they agree, help with the process. You can help by looking up therapists or attending an appointment with them, but do not force professional help on your friend unless an emergency situation arises.
This may be a topic you need to bring up more than once, so don’t despair if your friend doesn’t want or need professional help at first. Be persistent.
Eating disorders can be all-consuming to a sufferer. The best course of action is to keep reminding them an eating disorder is just one aspect of their lives. There are plenty of interesting things about them outside of their eating disorder.
About the writer:
Jade August is a writing from Colorado who specialties include health, fitness, and related issues.