Eating disorders are a serious illness that impacts millions of people. If someone you love is caught up in this pattern of self-hatred and self-destruction, it can be very difficult and scary. The good news is that recovery is possible, and family and close friends can play an extremely important role in guiding and supporting people struggling with this illness. Here are some ways to be a truly supportive and encouraging friend to someone facing an eating disorder.
Even though awareness and resources about eating disorders have increased significantly in the past few decades, it continues to be a misunderstood illness with stereotypes and misconceptions. As an outsider, it may be appear to be a problem with a simple solution. Acing out of these misconceptions, by, for example, forcing someone to eat can be counterproductive and end up causing a great deal of harm.
A proper understanding of disordered eating should begin from the knowledge that the seen behavior, of throwing up meals, self-starvation, or binge eating are rooted in deeper issues of a negative self-image. People engaging in these actions are trying to deal with uncomfortable or stressful emotions, or acting out of a self-critical understanding of his or her body image.
Although the behavior itself can be very harmful to the person’s health, it should not be the sole focus of your concern. Listen carefully to what might be the underlying issues behind the disorder, and recognize those stressful, shame-filled, or uncomfortable feelings as the main thing to which to pay attention.
How to have a conversation:
If you are concerned about someone’s eating habits or behavior around food or their body, do not hesitate to bring it up with them. Often, people with an eating disorder do not recognize their need for help, or may feel misunderstood or isolated in their struggle. Communicate your concern in a way that is loving, respectful, non-confrontational, and both willing to listen and focused on your concern. Being accusatory or critical will only encourage an angry or defensive attitude.
By dwelling on your relationship and compassion for the person, and using statements that start with “I feel…,” you open up a conversation that can gradually get a person to realize their need for help. It might take a while before this point is reached, and you can not force them to change. However, by making it clear that you are there for them, with compassion and support, you make the beginning of this journey of healing available.
Talk (and listen) to encourage change:
One important thing you can do is to model self-esteem and a healthy body image. Our culture is filled with stigma around issues of weight-gain and eating. Many people make supposedly flippant remarks about dissatisfaction with their bodies, or moralizing their food intake, in a way that can be very harmful to someone struggling with disordered eating habits.
Anything that reinforces fat prejudice, or the desire to be thin can end up reinforcing the attitudes behind the eating disorder. You should avoid talking about your friend’s physical appearance. Trying to comfort them saying “You are not really fat” plays into their attitudes about thinness, and doesn’t address the fears and low self-esteem that are the more central issues.
There may be a lot of mutual discomfort around the topic of a person’s eating disorder, but the sooner you are able to bring it up and encourage transformation and treatment, the better able you will be to stop behavior that can cause severe damage to your loved one’s physical and emotional health. Recovery is possible, and the support of a friend or family member can make a huge difference in the healing process.