In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week, it is crucial to be aware the impact you have on those living with or recovering from an Eating Disorder.
What with the distorted portrayals of the “ideal body” in the media, film and fashion industries, it’s no news that the number of people who suffer from eating disorders is sky rocketing. Up to 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder) – and that’s just in the US. Unfortunately, eating disorders can affect absolutely anyone in your life and you could very well be blissfully unaware of it.
Having personally suffered from Bulimia nervosa for a fair share of my adolescence, I am no stranger to having people give their unsolicited opinions about my body. Furthermore, being a person who has been in recovery for a portion of my early adulthood, I am also no stranger to relapse. Undoubtedly, recovery is a slippery slope- I and anyone else going through this phase of our disorder has to be incredibly patient and persevering. Eating disorders are like a manipulative, needy and emotionally abusive partner disguised as a knight in shining armour – they beg you to never let them go and then relentlessly use you and abuse you.
Personally, my eating disorder squandered my once extroverted, “life of the party” personality and quite basically turned me into a hermit. This didn’t happen overnight – but with the constant comments on my weight, what I ate and constant prodding from friends, family and strangers alike, I slowly began solely preferring my cat’s company instead. Whenever I thought I was doing well and ready to face the world again, I would be ambushed by a plethora of comments which sent me spiralling back down into the depths of my disorder; something commonly known as a “trigger” among mental health professionals and patients alike.
This isn’t an excuse for a relapse, but it can be a reason – recovery is a tender stage after all. So if you want to help some you know who has an eating disorder, or if you suspect it and don’t want to send them off the edge, here are some common triggers you can avoid inflicting in the future:
1. Commenting on their body
I will never understand why it is socially acceptable to comment on someone’s body, especially if it is a negative comment.
Personally, during my weight fluctuations, I have had people teasingly pinch the fat on my stomach and then comment on how “skinny” I’m looking a month or so later. I’m not going to delve into why commenting negatively, even if you laugh it off, is unacceptable (as I hope that is obvious enough to the logical mind) but I will explain why compliments are triggering for those with eating disorders.
If I’m looking thinner and you point that out, I will either (a) think you are saying that out of pity and mean the exact opposite, or (b) intensify my eating disorder to keep it up.
We know you mean well, but it’s just best if you don’t comment on our bodies- lord knows we do that to ourselves enough already.
2. Telling them what to eat
With Bulimia, I faced both ends of the spectrum – from people telling me that I looked like I needed some meat on my bones to people laughing about how I should stop “inhaling” my food.
I faced this particular trigger everywhere – my workplace, school, parties, home – you name it. When I took out my meal at work, my co-worker who shared my desk felt the need to comment and say that she hoped that wasn’t the only thing I’d be having for lunch. Thus, I either avoided eating at all for 6-7 hours straight and lied about having lunch or I would put on a show of having a big meal in front of her and purge it later.
When you have an eating disorder, you already have a constant commentary in your head telling you what to eat and input from others just validates that voice and makes us feel even more scrutinized. If someone is in recovery, they most likely have a meal plan from a certified dietitian – it’s simply not your place to comment.
3. Commenting on their exercise regime
Exercise is an especially tricky subject when it comes to eating disorders. This is because eating disorder patients either refrain from it completely or overdo it. During one particular relapse, instead of vomiting post binging, I compensated through over exercise to the point where I would injure myself. So in this case, if you tell me to “just go to the gym” to deal with my body insecurities, you are encouraging me to fall back into the binge/purge cycle. People diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa aren’t even allowed to work out during certain stages of their recovery. Again, leave it to the professionals to decide whether we are exercising too much or not enough – whatever you have to say about it will only make us feel inadequate and not help at the slightest.
I hope you take something positive away from this piece and have a slightly better idea on how to help a loved one, classmate, stranger – whoever it may be – have a smoother recovery. To anyone with/recovering from an ED, just know that you are not alone and that you deserve to live a better life that your eating disorder will not grant you.