Monday, April 23, 2012

Stupid Things People Say About Eating Disorders

Last week I sat on a flight from Canada to Arizona. I met a man who asked me what I was doing in Canada. "Speaking at a college," I told him. He naturally responded, "Oh, what did you talk about?" I went on to tell him a very brief synopsis of my story: Cambodia, eating disorder, life changes, healing and recovery.
The next words out of his mouth, "What was your lowest weight?"

A bit taken back, I fumbled for the nicest words I could think of, because all I wanted to say was, "Oh heeeeey'll no (insert finger wagging)! I know you did not just ask me such a stupid question!" So instead, I took a deep breath, looked him in the eyes and said, "Ya know what? The number is not important and I'd rather not talk about it."

At this point, he seemed equally taken back and a little embarrassed (I hope). We chatted about a few other things as I continued eating my salad. A few minutes later he felt the need to say, "Now you go ahead and finish all that salad, ya hear? I'll make sure you do. I don't want you to go starving yourself."

Again, I hoped he was joking, but I knew he wasn't. He really thought he was being helpful. He really believed that my struggle--the last six years spent re-wiring my thoughts about food, body and worth, re-claiming my own soul, and re-learning how to eat--could somehow be summed up and even benefited by a stranger making sure that I finished my salad.

As frustrating as it was to talk with this man about something he knew nothing about, I would rather endure the awkward and inappropriate questions myself, than to have him go on and spread his ignorance to someone else. And really, this was one of the few times that someone has approached me with their ideas about what an eating disorder is so bluntly.

Last semester, a student of mine blurted out: "I could never be anorexic. I like food too much."

I again paused, tilted my head trying to figure out what would make a person say that, and responded, "People with anorexia don't dislike food. They just tremendously hate themselves."

She chuckled awkwardly and rolled her eyes.

I appreciate when people ask me questions. I appreciate when people want to know more and learn more, especially when they're really asking about their best friend or their girlfriend or even themselves. This earnestness to know and understand excites me. But sometimes I gather that people are operating solely off of only a few overused stereotypes they've been exposed to. And instead of recognizing them as such, they spread the information like Bible truth.

I suppose that we all sometimes seek boxes with which we can reason and better understand. That if we can just fit this new idea into that box, it will be easier somehow. Like people who have told me they understand what it's like to have an eating disorder because they too have struggled to lose weight.

So people generalize what they think they know about eating disorders. Here are some of my "favorite" misconceptions:

-People with eating disorders have more will power or self-control than you do

-People with eating disorders don't really like food

-Eating disorders are just about eating more food: so more food, no more problem.

-If an anorexic simply regains her weight, she is healed! Hallelujah!

-Eating disorders are a rare phenomenon effecting only a small number of people

-Eating disorders only effect vain teenager girls

-You can't die unless your weight drops below 100 pounds

-People with eating disorders always look really thin

-It'll help if I tell her how beautiful and thin she is all the time. She just needs to hear it more.

-A recovering person should always clear their plate and if they don't, they're slipping, you better watch out and follow them to the bathroom

Not one of these things is true.
Not one.

So instead of operating off of those misconceptions, let me tell you this. The number one best thing you can say to someone with an eating disorder: I'm here for you. How can I help?

Don't assume you know what it's like to have an eating disorder.
Particularly (duh), if you've never had an eating disorder.

-Acknowledge it. Don't keep acting like no one sees it (here are some warning signs).
-Say something like, "You look unhealthy," or "weak," or simply, "You don't look good." Choose an adjective that has a more undesirable tone because saying, "You look thin," might just be rewarding.
-Voice your concern.
-Listen without interrupting.
-Practice healthy eating habits around this person. Which means you shouldn't say, "Oh, I shouldn't have eaten that," or "That has SO many calories!"
-Encourage psychological help, but do not demand it.

Sometimes people will ask me when the eating disorder started.
My usual response, "When I was born. It's been working on me ever since."

It wasn't a decision I made one day.
Like, Gee, my life doesn't have enough drama. I think a mental illness will do the trick.
But studies haven't necessarily found genetic links either.
It's just a way of being. Of thinking. Of seeing the world. Of contemplating my place in it.

Please make it easier for those who are struggling around you.
Because there are people struggling around you.


Kylie said...

I'm sorry for any inconsiderate words or generalizations I have said to you. Thank you for helping me become more aware of this topic, and so many others as well. You are growing me, and I'm so grateful for you!

kessia reyne said...

great post! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

You're wonderful. I relate to almost everything you write. You take whatever I'm feeling and make it beautiful and poetic. Thank you.

Joelle said...

As always Heather, thank you for saying what I am not able to say to others. I too have struggled with an eating disorder for almost 13 years now. Everyone's solution for me was eat, eat, and eat. It was not until I chose to get myself help two years ago that my true journey to recovery began.

I often try to explain to those around me what it is like to have an eating disorder and they best I have come up with is this.....

Eating disorders are like any other addiction; alcoholism, smoking, gambling, sex etc. Except, for someone with those addictions the answer is to stop drinking/going to bars, don't go to casinos/bet, stop smoking......With an eating disorder it is pretty hard to tell someone to stop eating as you need to eat to live. It is a double edged sword.

Thank you for your posts Heather. They inspire me to continue fighting my fight.