How to speak to someone who has an eating disorder

Rosie reflects on her own experience of having an eating disorder to work out what to say to a friend

After I returned home from six months of travelling, I discovered my beloved friend had been struggling with an eating disorder. It was totally unexpected. I immediately wanted to offer anything I could do to help her. Having struggled with an eating disorder myself, I felt a responsibility to say something, anything at all. But I know it’s not an easy topic to approach.

When I had an eating disorder, people watched me getting smaller and smaller, and they worried over what they should say to me or what they could do for me. Many avoided addressing the issue, believing that an offering of awkward sympathies would disrupt any state of relative normality. A few tried to talk to me, giving me a pitiful look and offering a big reveal: something was wrong.

‘I have noticed something is up with you recently. Have you noticed it? You don’t seem to be eating much lately.’

They were just trying to help, of course. I am grateful for their kind efforts and offers of support. But I already knew something was wrong. I watched the contents of my plate sit idly as my stomach rumbled. I knew what was happening – I just did not want to deal with it, or have others point it out to me.

Having recently spoken to my close friend, I think we need to examine the way we discuss eating disorders. I don’t pretend to be any sort of nutritional or psychological expert. There’s not one script that everyone must follow when it comes to these difficult conversations. Everyone’s relationship with food is unique, and must be treated that way. But it’s a start.

There’s not one script that everyone must follow when it comes to these difficult conversations. Everyone’s relationship with food is unique, and must be treated that way. But it’s a start.

We need to delete judgement from the conversation entirely. There should be absolutely no infliction of shame on someone struggling with an eating disorder. This relates not just to tutting and treating people as helpless victims, but also to judging what the person is eating and how they are eating. This is a very delicate line to tread. It might be evident that someone is eating too much or too little and you want to express your concern. But statements evaluating their eating can come across as preachy and critical. I am talking here of course about non-medical personal, personal relationships – the close friends and family who want to articulate their concern from a place of love.

We need to delete judgement from the conversation entirely.

Communicating what you have noticed in a friendly and open manner can help. Asking the right questions and getting someone to talk through what is happening, from my experience, facilitates an honest and democratic dialogue rather than eulogising to someone about their situation. Otherwise, as I can remember vividly, conversations can lead to feelings of being watched and at times shamed. My habits where not healthy, and I knew that. I just needed a comfortable space to talk and seek help.

Food should be addressed in a positive manner and as part of a dialogue. Try and uncover how people feel about food, what they experience and what they want to do in the future. Having a whole conversation pivoted around meals and how much people eat is too much, but filtering the subject into a narrative about mental health, friendships, families and other support systems is less pressurising.

I think another useful guideline is to avoid what you think you ‘should’ say. Clichés and labels are dangerous. They mostly place other people’s perceptions of the world on to someone else. I found myself churning out clichés when speaking to my friend, like, “If there is anything I can do.” Then I stopped myself. I realised her journey was not going to become my story of heroism. My role was the supportive character. I couldn’t click my fingers and magically transform everything. I could just be there, giving support and love – for the long haul.

“I am here and I love you, and if you ever need anything do not hesitate to come find me.”

The most powerful conversation I had when struggling with an eating disorder was with my Auntie. She looked directly into my eyes and spoke passionately about her care and devotion to my health and happiness. Whilst realising that something was wrong, I was not barked at or monitored, but simply given a chance to open up and reveal how I was truly feeling. Her honesty and sincerity made me feel comfortable and aware of the worries of those around me. Her realism about the situation was refreshing and her words were tailored to me, and my unique experiences.

Whilst realising that something was wrong, I was not barked at or monitored, but simply given a chance to open up and reveal how I was truly feeling.

When speaking to my friend, I channelled my Auntie’s words and sincerity. Of course, as I’ve stated previously, there is no finite map to navigate a conversation about eating disorders. But, based on my variety of experiences, there are important signposts that can be placed in the discussion to support an open dialogue and ensure someone is listened to and respected.

…there are important signposts that can be placed in the discussion to support an open dialogue and ensure someone is listened to and respected.

It is important to create a space free from judgement, not to dominate the conversation with an analysis of people’s food phobias and integrating the topic of eating into a wider catalogue of advice and solutions. Clichés and labels offer little help. Instead, the conversation should be authentic, respectful, fair, and loving.

I send my support to anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder or knows someone who is struggling and wants to show him or her they are loved and cared for.

If you have an eating disorder or are supporting someone who has, you can find resources and experts that can help on the Bristol Mind website and on the BEAT website

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