1. Don’t try to force them to eat.
People often fail to understand that eating disorders aren’t primarily physical; they are mental disorders, and they begin in the mind. Trying to force a friend with an eating disorder to eat not only causes great emotional distress for them, it also isn’t going to cure them. They might eat when pressured by a friend to do so, but they will return to their disordered habits as soon as they are alone. If said person has bulimia* or EDNOS**, there is a chance they will simply attempt to vomit after being forced to eat.
2. Don’t comment on their appearance negatively or positively.
Telling someone with an eating disorder that they are “beautiful the way they are” is a nice sentiment, but it will not make a difference. People with these disorders do not see themselves realistically. It doesn’t matter if they weigh 100 or 200 pounds. They see themselves as ugly or fat no matter what. That being said, don’t comment on how skinny they’ve gotten. This kind of comment can have a negative impact in multiple ways. They may become defensive and therefore put in a greater effort to hide their disorder. Conversely, being told that they’ve become skinny puts the idea in their head that their disorder is working and encourages them to continue their disordered ways. The final and most obvious one: Don’t tell them that they’ve gained weight or make any other negative comments about their appearance. This will clearly feed into their negative body image.
3. Don’t comment on how little they eat.
Unless you’re truly trying to intervene and confront your friend out of concern, don’t comment about the fact that your friend is only eating an apple for lunch. When someone with an eating disorder feels that people are catching on to their unhealthy lifestyle, they feel backed into a corner. They’ll put forth great effort to hide it and be dishonest about their disorder because they never want to get caught again. They also will be less receptive to help if they feel that they have to be defensive.
4. If someone admits to having an eating disorder, don’t brush it off or disbelieve him or her.
Most importantly, don’t tell them that they simply don’t look like they have one. Eating disorders can take many forms: starvation, purging***, binging, over-exercising, and a variety of combinations of the aforementioned. Not everyone who has a serious eating disorder is thin. In fact, most girls with eating disorders do not fit the rail-thin, skin-and-bones image we often associate with them. Some victims will attempt to starve themselves, only to crumble and descend into an all-out food binge every night. Some will overeat and not be able to purge it afterward. There are so many reasons that people with eating disorders may not be underweight or even an average weight. Disordered eating can cause someone to be overweight as well. There is no body type that cannot belong to a disordered eater. Never write someone off as being healthy just because they don’t appear to be sick.
*Bulimia: eating disorder characterized by eating very little or a lot (sometimes binging), followed by purging the food that has been eaten in order to lose weight.
**EDNOS: “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” usually combining habits belonging to multiple eating disorders.
***Purging: forced vomiting or the use of laxatives to get rid of food that has already been consumed, usually in an attempt to avoid absorbing the fat and calories.