How to be an ally to a friend with an eating disorder
Every week I meet with my friend, Holly, on Monday afternoons to record Rise and Resist podcast. Each week we talk about what we’ve been up to, what we are eating, answer some listener questions, and then usually we meander our way to a topic. Nine times out of ten, we talk about fitness, of course, because that’s what we do on R+R. Deadlifts, burpees, gear. You know- just your average thing 30(ish) year old women obsess over, right?
This week we talked about something a little deeper than our squat (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) We talked about how to be ally to a friend with a (confirmed or suspected) eating disorder. When we finally hit stop on the recorder, I felt something I hadn’t felt in a really long time. Raw. A little scared. And like I knew this was a topic that both needed more attention and needed to be out in the world. I also felt unsure that everything I said was right, and like our opinions were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what could be a larger conversation.
Here are a few tips Holly and I came up with for how to be an ally to a struggling friend.
If you notice someone’s body has gotten smaller, try not to shower them with compliments. This is perhaps a given if someone already has a confirmed eating disorder, but I want to talk about before that happens.
When I first started restricting my food, it wasn’t because I was necessarily aware that I was about to have an ED. I was heartbroken and unable to eat or sleep, I was a crying mess, and weight was literally falling off of my body. MANY people (doctors, people I was close to, strangers) told me I looked great, and that seed planted in my head and was really hard to get rid of.
I believe we can be an ally to people with eating disorders everywhere by not thin praising, or bringing up someone’s weight loss as if it were their paramount achievement in life. I know a lot of people work really hard to lose weight, but I stand by the assertion that in general, unsolicited body comments run the gamut between downright tacky to just plain damaging. We can do better!
If you see something, say something. This may seem contrary to my previous suggestion, but I truly believe it isn’t, because asking someone what’s up when you notice a change isn’t the same as blindly praising it. I suggest being gentle with your approach, but also using logic around whom you’re speaking with. (IE make sure the level of friendship that you’re at with the person can hold the weight of such a complicated conversation.)
If someone seems to have increased anxiety around food, social eating, or body image, a “hey, how are you doing lately? I’ve noticed XYZ behavior” may be a good idea. Physical changes can be really sensitive to approach, and I often tend to steer clear of them, but my experience has shown me that usually eating disorders can be identified by far more than how a body looks. When asking someone if they are having an okay relationship with food and body, try to be open, honest, and forgiving. Accept that they might not want to talk to you about this thing, but also that they might be waiting for an opportunity to open up to a trusted confidant. When you ask someone about this subject, don’t have expectations around their response.
If someone does indeed have an eating disorder, its time to decide your boundaries. Supporting someone through an ED is an incredible thing to do, and can also be incredibly draining. It is okay to offer support in some ways, and know that you can’t do so in all ways. In my recovery I had friends that would offer to eat with me, but were not willing to listen to me trash my body. That is a perfectly acceptable, reasonable, and okay boundary. We all have to take care of ourselves and our hearts, and having boundaries is a great way to do just that.
Direct communication works best. No one likes to hear that they’re looking sickly through a long and winding game of telephone. If you have concern about someone’s health and well-being, it really is best to talk with them about it directly instead of talking to someone else. (an exception to this would be talking to someone with a confidentiality agreement, like a therapist!) It can totally be difficult to not discuss someone’s situation with others, especially if there is a drastic change in appearance, but I swear that no matter how good your intentions are, its very painful to hear that someone has something to say about your body or your behavior that they haven’t said to your face.
Be prepared for rough days, and be prepared to be forgiving. Eating disorders are physical, sure, but they are also mental illnesses. They trigger depression, anxiety, and PTSD and, alternately, depression, anxiety, and PTSD can also trigger eating disorders. Often, the last behavior to leave someone with an eating disorder is obsessive thoughts about food, numbers, and calories. Those obsessive thoughts can make it really hard to always have good days.
Even when we look fine, ED thoughts can continue to plague us, which sounds scary, but is mostly just something that those in recovery eventually learn to work with. When your beloved eating-disorder-havin’ friend has an off day, it is your responsibility to treat them with the same tender kindness that you would someone struggling with other mental illnesses. You’re friend will get through this, and if you let them know you have their back, it will be all-the-easier (though, still not easy of course.)
Eating disorders thrive on both guilt and shame, so if possible, do your best not to contribute to that. Confronting someone about having an eating disorder may very well trigger shame, and that’s not anyone’s fault. But I think stressing that you are approaching the scenario with love and support and that guilt is not the aim is important.
Openness, honesty, forgiveness and understanding…if your actions fit into at least a couple of those categories, they are likely to help in some way. Sometimes the way that supporting someone with eating disorder helps them is not immediately apparent, but that’s okay. Recovery takes time, and for all the brilliant, amazing, and incredible people I’ve met who’ve also struggled with food, I can almost guarantee the investment will be worth it.
I’ve had a lot of people in life during my recovery, that have used a lot of tactics to help support me. Just as eating disorders are entirely uncomfortable and complicated, allyship can be too. These suggestions are merely from my experience, and as everyone is different, they might not work for all people.
What did I forget? What would you like to add? What’s the best way you support or have been supported?