What We Say Can Encourage Disordered Eating

Even positive comments can be destructive.

Photo by Bethany Newman on Unsplash

Last night, I had a nightmare where I ate an entire box of donuts. Powdered jelly, swirled cinnamon, double chocolate. It was really great, until I realized how much I had eaten. The anxiety of overeating and the possibility of a terrible stomachache turned it into a nightmare. I woke up at some point and said out loud, “Thank God it was just a dream.”

Disordered Eating vs Diagnosable Eating Disorders

A small percentage of people have a diagnosable eating disorder like anorexia or binge eating disorder (BED), but a huge percentage has disordered eating (about 75% of American women).

According to mentalhelp.net, disordered eating includes:

[A] wide range of irregular or potentially unhealthy eating behaviors that cause a person to spend an inordinate amount of their time and energy on food, weight and body image.

Disordered eating habits began when I was a preteen. These flared into diagnosable eating disorders when I was a teen and have now settled back into disordered eating. Every day is a mental battle for those of us with disordered eating, because food is part of everyday life.

The Connection with Self-Esteem

Most people with disordered eating habits also have self-esteem issues and are unhappy with their bodies, and most are girls and young women.

Perfectionism is the glue that binds self-esteem issues and disordered eating. It is encouraged and rewarded in girls, but this has negative consequences, as an article from The Atlantic by Claire Shipman et al. explains:

[P]erfectionism…inhibits risk taking, a willingness to fail, and valuable psychological growth.

If we understand how our words can be destructive to girls/encourage their perfectionism, we can prevent ourselves from making unintentionally harmful comments.

Words That Can Unintentionally Hurt

“You’re too skinny! You need to eat something!”

  • When I had anorexia, comments like this fed my eating disorder (but not me *nervous laughter*) — I felt more motivated to stay skinny and eat less.

“You put on some weight! It looks good on you.”

  • My pediatrician said this to me.
  • This was a blow to my self-esteem. It stayed in my mind months and years after it was said, as I purposefully lost weight. Sometimes, we say things that we don’t even notice could affect someone or be taken or used in the wrong way, even if they’re meant to be positive.

“Are you sure you should be eating that right now?”

  • When I had BED, even comments about how much I was eating by caring family members trying to make sure I didn’t make myself sick would make me feel guilty for eating more than “normal” and want to eat more to mask the guilt and anxiety.
  • Not to mention when someone would ask, “Who ate all the ____?” and I would feel abnormally guilty for eating whatever it was.

If you are not personally dealing with disordered eating, you likely know someone who is (even if you don’t know they are). This is not to say you should assume someone has disordered eating if they make a diet change. Everyone eats differently, because all of our bodies are unique and have varying needs.

What’s Safe to Say, Then?

Sometimes, silence is the best support.

Knowing the right thing to say is difficult, and the “right thing” may be different for everyone. This is why it’s better to say nothing.

We don’t have to walk on eggshells, but we should stanch the flow of comments about physical appearances and eating habits, especially toward girls and young women. This way, people with disordered eating won’t feel like the comments from others define whether they are successes or failures.

Every member of society is responsible for the growing disordered eating cases, not just social media and supermodels.

My Challenge for You:

Next time you meet up with a friend or family member(s) you haven’t seen in a while, see if you can go the whole visit without commenting on their physical appearance. Instead of saying, “You look so great!!” talk to them and see if they feel “so great,” then praise their wellbeing.

Full-time college student who loves fiction-writing, hiking and running, and eating peanut butter on everything.