Recently, news outlets shared the heartbreaking story of Rachael Farrokh, a woman battling anorexia who reached out to the Internet for help in her fight. While many of the responses she has received since creating her now-viral video have been positive, comments like "it's sad people do this to themselves" and "she just needs to eat" do nothing but perpetuate myths about anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders that approximately 24 million Americans suffer from.
Telling a woman like Rachael to simply "eat healthily" will not work. I know this because I struggled with bulimia and anorexia for about a decade, wandering in and out of treatment until finally recovering in my early 20s. And I've been told by doctors that I will have the resulting health implications for the rest of my life. While my weight veered into an unhealthily low territory a couple times, I never got near the mark that Rachael has hit. Her situation is dire, and she needs true help, not inconsiderate words of advice that don't take into account the fact that anorexia is a serious mental illness.
In my experience, a lot of people think they're helping by offering up "tough love," but it often does far more harm than good. If someone you know is struggling with anorexia or another eating disorder, these are the phrases you simply need to stop saying to them.
1. "Just eat."
Telling somebody with anorexia to "just eat" is like telling somebody with a broken leg to "just walk." It simply doesn't work like that. Having anorexia creates an intense fear of food to the point where that person is willing to tolerate physical and emotional pain in order to avoid it. Instructing someone to "just eat" merely shows the sufferer that you don't take her disorder seriously, which can make her feel even less like seeking treatment.
2. "You looked better before."
Not only do eating disorders often involve self-image distortion, meaning they see something different in the mirror than when others look at them, this kind of comment only serves to make the sufferer feel even worse about her (or his) appearance. While low self-esteem isn't the only root of anorexia, worsening it can antagonize the disordered behavior.
3. "You look better than ever right now."
On the flip side, vocalizing this observation affirms that the person's disordered behavior is effective and positive.
4. "There are people starving in the world."
Yes, there are, but I can personally guarantee that the person you're saying this to already knows that. This knowledge does nothing to support the person struggling, instead making her or him feel guilty and ashamed. Plus, some eating disorder sufferers see their behavior as actually helping the world by not consuming food.
5. "Don't you miss (insert delicious food item)?"
Maybe, maybe not, but regardless, it's important to keep in mind that eating disorders are not just about eating. While television often portrays anorexia and bulimia stemming from a desire to lose weight, there are numerous other elements that can be involved. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, contributing factors can be psychological (depression, anxiety), interpersonal (physical and sexual abuse, bullying), biological (genetics), and social (cultural pressures, discriminatory prejudices). It is not simply about food.
6. "You need to eat a cheeseburger."
Variations of this include "go eat a taco," "you look disgusting," and "nobody wants to hug a bag of bones." Unfortunately, these are comments people regularly say to and about women suffering from eating disorders, as well as women who just happen to naturally be very thin. Here's a good etiquette rule: The next time you feel the urge to comment on the size of somebody's body and what she "needs" to eat, just don't. Chances are that it will only hurt that person's feelings and make her feel worse about her body.
7. "I wish I could lose weight like you."
Skip the comparisons and envious talk. As the National Associate of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders says, "Eating disorders are not about willpower, they are serious mental illnesses."
8. "You don't look like you have an eating disorder."
Regardless of how you intend this to sound, a person coping with an eating disorder can interpret it in many different ways — most of which are negative — ranging from "oh, so I'm not thin enough yet?" to "you think I look overweight" to "in that case, I won't seek help."
When I was primarily bulimic, I worked out regularly and looked conventionally healthy with regard to weight (occasionally even plump), even though I was throwing up several times each day. Eating disorders aren't just about numbers, they're about behaviors.
9. "You'll be fine."
If someone comes to you for help, this is one of the worst responses you can give. It indicates that you don't take their problem seriously — a huge mistake given the potential health implications (as shown by Rachael Farrokh's case). Some of the possible effects of anorexia include a slow heart rate, kidney failure, weakness, hair loss, brittle bones, and muscle loss. Bulimia can cause gastric rupture, irregular heartbeats (and possibly even heart failure), tooth decay, ulcers, and pancreatitis. Eating disorders are serious and require assistance in overcoming.
10. Negative observations about other people's bodies.
Just because you're not saying it about the sufferer's body doesn't mean she isn't internalizing your negative speak. She could compare herself to the person you're speaking negatively about, thereby triggering more disordered thinking and behavior.
11. "I wish I were anorexic."
Right around late spring when all the "bikini body" issues of magazines start coming out, some of my friends would say comments about how they "wish" they could be anorexic for "just a few weeks before summer." They didn't say this to be insensitive, but the fact of the matter is that having an eating disorder was deeply painful, both physically and emotionally. Hearing people talk about something that was killing me always hurt. Jokes like these normalize eating disorders, turning them into a comical notion rather than a serious health issue.
12. "Why don't you just diet and exercise like everyone else?"
Again, eating disorders aren't just about weight. I promise, we wish we could simply eat healthily and exercise "like everyone else," but it doesn't work like that. These behaviors often stem from so many other factors than a simple desire to drop pounds.
13. "You're hurting the people around you."
Just like the millions of people who struggle with depression each year, those dealing with eating disorders often feel incredibly guilty about the effects their illness has on loved ones, yet they cannot do anything about it. Guilting them about their illness perpetuates shameful and negative feelings towards themselves. Being supportive and listening to their feelings rather than shaming them into getting better is far more effective.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders helpline at (630) 577-1330, or email them at email@example.com.