It’s often a joke in romantic comedies and sitcoms: the aunt with no filter pinching the hips of female family members and commenting on them gaining weight. Only, in real-life, these comments on our bodies from our peers and loved ones don’t come with a laugh-track and can do serious damage.
When I was in the midst of my anorexia, people would compliment me on my small body size. “You’re so tiny. I’m so jealous.”
“Tell me your diet because I need to lose weight too.”
“I wish I could be your size.”
They didn’t know they were actually saying:
“Your organs are going to shut down. I’m so jealous.”
“Tell me how you starve yourself.”
“I wish I could have my hair fall out.”
It’s not their fault; we’ve been taught since birth that commenting on someone’s weight loss is a positive thing, no matter what. I grew up watching Oprah make grand entrances every time she wanted to display her weight loss from the latest fad diet she promoted. I watched people pull the equivalent of the weight they lost in a wagon as they displayed their new bodies for shock value. The Biggest Loser awards those who lose the most weight, no matter what methods they use to achieve that number, with life-changing amounts of money and fame. The message we received is clear. Weight loss is good. Weight loss is an achievement. Is losing weight a few times in her lifetime really the biggest accomplishment Oprah made? Is that one diet she went on in the 90’s something that comes to mind when thinking about how she took over the world?
Comments about my appearance when I was in the depths of my eating disorder had a sick impact on me. They further fueled my desire to keep harming my body. If I was complimented on my body, I would use it as reassurance that I was doing the right thing to be good enough. When a concerned loved one commented negatively on my appearance, I was still pleased. Looking sick was a compliment to my anorexic mind. It meant what I was doing was working. For the disordered mind, healthy is not a compliment. The disordered mind thinks healthy is average. Healthy isn’t good enough. Therefore, compliments on how much “healthier” I looked as I began recovery caused panic and easily could set me back.
The problem with making any sort of comment about someone’s weight when they have an eating disorder is the fact that you’re fixating on their weight and appearance just like their eating disorder. The sufferer already obsesses over their appearance enough; pointing out their weight is only adding fuel to the fire. The focus should be on the mental health and behaviors of your loved one, not how they look. A comment like “you look sick. I’m worried about you. You need to eat,” will push the individual with an eating disorder away. Their brain is working differently than your brain. They hear that comment and they don’t interpret it as concern. They interpret those words as sabotage.
If you’re concerned that someone in your life has an eating disorder, talk to them about how they’re feeling. Don’t pry and judge; just listen. Offer to give them a ride to the doctor or therapist. Let them know they’re not alone. The more complicated parts are for the professionals. As their loved one, they need you to just be there. They need someone to trust when they can’t trust their own mind and afraid to trust their bodies.
The most important thing you can do is to let go of commenting on the bodies of others, especially around your loved one with an eating disorder. Let her know you ran into Susie from high school but don’t tell her how much weight she gained or lost. Talk about what you love about the personality or talent of your favorite celebrity, not about them being “body goals.” Tell your friend you love their compassion for others, the way their nose crinkles when they smile, or how quickly they jump to help others in need, instead of commenting on their body.
You may notice I didn’t mention how much weight I lost or gained in my recovery. That wasn’t an oversight. The numbers, besides being triggering, don’t matter one bit. I am more than any number that appeared on a scale I stood on. When I was anorexic, I was sad. I was lost. I was hurting. In recovery, I’m happy. I have a purpose. I’m healing. On a technical level, the physical transformation was a process of saving my internal organs and bringing back my mental clarity. The physical side effects of eating disorders are very real and scary. But that’s about what happened internally and (I hope) you’re not looking at my organs when you’re in a room with me. You’re probably not taking my pulse on a regular basis. When you talk about the physical in front of me, you’re talking about the way my body looks, which was the center of attention for so many years that it nearly killed me. When you’re in a room with me, I want you to see that I’m happier now. I want you to see that I’m comfortable being myself. I want you to see that I genuinely smile in photos for the first time in so long. I want you to see that I went to the Sky Deck in Chicago with my boyfriend (pictured). I never would’ve done that while my eating disorder dictated that I don’t leave home in fear of not being in control of my food. I’m truly living my life and that’s what I want you to comment on.
If you enjoyed this piece, make sure to check out To Eat Or Not To Eat? Do I Really Have To Diet?