Eating disorders have everything to do with food, but if you’ve ever struggled with disordered eating, you’ll know that doesn’t quite get to the heart of your experience. While food, weight and health are certainly part of it, eating disorders for many people are really about control, regulating difficult emotions and managing a deep sense of shame about who you are.
“The world inside your head is so twisted and controlling, a prison of black and white,” wrote one Mighty contributor about what an eating disorder can feel like. “It makes you fear every aspect of your life outside of your ‘control.’”
Because others might not understand what eating disorders are really about, loved ones may try to encourage your recovery with phrases such as “you look healthy” or “you’re beautiful.” No matter how well-meaning these comments may be, these phrases can be seriously triggering to the internal monologue that fuels your eating disorder behaviors.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder and get frustrated by seemingly “harmless” comments others make about your appearance or eating habits, you’re not alone. And if you love someone who lives with an eating disorder, keep in mind that the following comments can be harmful to those in recovery.
Here are 17 “harmless” comments The Mighty community said hurt people with eating disorders:
1. ‘You look great!’
“‘You have a great figure!’ — This was said to me countless times by the same person when I was at a very low BMI. I was told I would have to go into hospital against my will if I didn’t maintain that weight just a few weeks after the last time I heard it. People’s minds are so distorted when it comes to weight, eating disorder or not.” — Amy L.
“’You look great! Wow! You’ve lost a ton!’ As a woman diagnosed with bulimia nervosa it’s hard to talk about my weight. If I’m losing weight it’s because I’m binging & purging or eating almost nothing. My relationship with food has been disordered since early childhood.” — Jodi A.
2. ‘You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.’
“‘But you’re not underweight!’ I would get this all the time until I would be hospitalized! Weight does not always adequately represent one’s relationship with food. What it does relate to is a poor body image and the way one would cope with stress.” — Hannah B.
“‘Fat people don’t have eating disorders!’ That hurts every time I hear it. Just because I’m overweight doesn’t mean I don’t have a problem. I have binge eating disorder. … Food has been a problem for me since I was a kid. I can’t help it. I used it as a coping mechanism and now it’s come to rule my life.” — Diana M.
“‘You aren’t even skinny though?’ My friend said to me when I was trying to admit I needed help. [I] was on the verge of a mental breakdown because I couldn’t stop … but, because I was losing weight from a higher BMI, I wasn’t ‘qualified’ enough to have an eating disorder. Everyone was so proud of me.” — Darian K.
3. ‘You have to eat.’
“Just eat something, it’s not that hard. Look, I’m eating.’ This used to drive me insane. I recognize for some people it’s not that hard, but with an eating disorder it is.” — Jessica R.
“’You have to eat.’ ‘Why do you eat so little?’ I hate hearing those both. When my anxiety gets bad I can’t eat. My body rejects all food besides fluids and hearing that I have to eat makes my anxiety worse.” — Becca Lynn M.
“You have to eat. I’ve been able to keep my disorder mostly under control and I’ve learned healthy coping strategies, but I still have slips. But whenever someone tells me I have to eat, it causes so much panic and then I slip into old habits and it takes some work to get back to where I was before. It’s exhausting.” — Katie S.
4. ‘I wish I had an eating disorder.’
“’You look great! Whatever you’re doing, just keep it up!’ I actually told that person directly after that I had an eating disorder and her reply was, ‘If I knew I could look like that, I’d have an eating disorder too!’” — Cierra F.
“If having an eating disorder can make you look like that, sign me up!” — Anna M.
“I wish I had that problem.” — Kenzie L.
5. ‘Keep up the good work!’
“’Keep up the good work.’ Like my worth was measured by my size.” — Nicole B.
“’You’ve done so well.’ When I developed anorexia I went from overweight to nearing underweight very quickly. People told me it was such an achievement, which added fuel to the fire. I convinced myself if people spoke so nicely of me when I was thin they’d think I was a bad person if I put the weight on again.” — Lorna O.
“I was really sick and not eating. When I did eat, I would throw up … and I lost [weight] from it. I told my stepdad and he said, ‘Congrats on losing weight.’” — Elizabeth H.
6. ‘Should you be eating that?’
“‘Another plate?’ I have had trouble with binging and dieting, and at Thanksgiving one year a family member said this to me and I cried for days after.” — Jade E.
“‘Should you be eating that?’ Guaranteed to make even the most amazing day instantly horrific and can often lead to binge eating even if I’ve been in a really good place for months. That one phrase is enough to derail all my hard work.” — Hazel B.
“‘Oh… you’re eating a muffin for breakfast? That’s not very nutritious,’ said my roommate after it took me hours to get myself to come downstairs because I was worried if I went downstairs or near the kitchen I would eat. I finally forced myself to at least go see if there was something I could get myself to eat, and as soon as I picked up a muffin, that’s what she said. I felt so ashamed in that moment, like she saw how disgusting I was, and I immediately regretted even thinking I could get away with eating that day.” — Kimberly B.
7. ‘Your weight is perfect just the way it is.’
“’Your health and weight are perfect just the way you are’ (after I had literally just explained my doctor’s and dietitian’s opinions to the contrary).” — Leiba R.
8. ‘I wish I had your restraint.’
“‘I wish I had your self-restraint!’ I hear this all the time and I hate it. If I had self-restraint I would be able to fuel my body [and] not starve myself to near death.” — Bethany W.
9. ‘Aren’t you grateful for what you have?’
“‘You need to eat more! There’s people starving, why are you ungrateful.’ I’ve struggled with anorexia for years and it’s not like I don’t try to eat. Sometimes I just can’t.” — Jessica N.
10. ‘Eat a burger already.’
“‘You look so skinny.’ ‘Eat a cheeseburger already’… I stopped eating, trying to be perfect at everything. That’s when the ‘you look so great’ started while others told me I looked sick. My school nurse demanded weekly weigh-ins and said if I lost weight they would call my parents.” — Melissa W.
‘Eat a burger girl, you could use it.” — Kenzie L.
11. ‘You’ve eaten so much!’
“After dinner one time, my mom looked at my plate and said ‘you ate a lot today!’ and when I stared at her she continued with ‘it’s good.’ She didn’t mean any harm by it, [but] it stuck with me and I didn’t eat anything else for the rest of the day.” — Jessica E. W.
12. ‘You just need to try harder.’
“‘If you tried harder to eat more often you wouldn’t be so skinny or struggling to keep weight on. You wouldn’t have these health issues.’ I literally hear this every single time I see anyone in my family. … I know I have an issue with eating. I was always made to see it as my fault.” — Amanda S. S.
13. ‘At least you’re not a drug addict.’
“I have binge eating disorder and someone once said — well it’s better than being an alcoholic or drug addict!” — Anne C. C.
14. ‘You’re so skinny!’
“’Wow, you look so good. I can’t believe you lost all your baby weight so fast!’ Yes, please, feed my anorexia with your compliments. Right after I had my daughter I lost all my progress and fell right back in. I’m still struggling and the compliments about how skinny I am makes me want to lose more weight.” — Katt S.
“‘You look so skinny!!’ before eating dinner at a restaurant with a family friend as a compliment. … I lost so much because I was too depressed to eat and hated my body. Now every time I’m triggered, I have a flashback to that moment and wish to be that way again despite it being no good for me. Please don’t comment on a person’s weight — you don’t know what they’re going through or how they feel about it.” — Vanessa C.
“I am recovered from anorexia, but eating food comfortably is a struggle I still have. Working out makes me feel good, but anytime I mention this to some people they tell me, ‘You’re so skinny! You don’t need to work out,’ or ‘You don’t need to lose weight.’ It’s not just about my looks, it’s about my mental health and I feel like so many people forget that working out does not necessarily mean weight loss. It’s also just hard hearing those comments because when I was anorexic, I thrived on those comments and they gave me the extra motivation to starve myself on top of working out.” — Hannah L.
“The dietician I saw who works with type 1 diabetics, as I am type 1, told me not to be silly, she’d love to be as thin as me. I’m actually anorexic and diabetic. Extremely underweight.” — Helen D.
15. ‘You should go on a diet.’
“I’ve always starved myself. So when someone tells me I need to go on a diet to lose weight, it hurts so bad because I’m thinking if they only knew.” — Zeferena H.
“After battling an eating disorder and a distorted view of my body image for most of my life, in the last year, I have finally managed to gain weight, got myself to a stage where I feel comfortable and finally not classed as underweight, only to be told by a close friend I look tubby and apparently need to sort this belly out.” — Ross S.
“When I was in junior high or high school, I lost a little weight. My mom’s friend told me I was so pretty. If I could just lose some more weight I could be a model. What I heard was, ‘No matter how hard you try, it will never be enough.’” — Christy L.
16. ‘You’re lucky.’
“‘You’re so lucky!’ I don’t see it as lucky. I’m skinny, but only because I lose weight too quickly. When I feel really stressed or anxious I stop eating and can quickly become underweight, then struggle to regain a healthy weight. I’m not lucky.” — Trix P.
17. ‘You look so healthy.’
“‘You look healthy.’ When I was struggling and trying to overcome it. It was meant as a compliment but in my mind I felt like they were commenting on my weight gain.” — Kimmie B.
“‘I don’t understand, you look so healthy and happy.’ Just because I can fake it well does not mean that it’s a good thing.” — Jessica R.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you’re not alone. It takes a lot of strength to work toward eating disorder recovery, no matter where you are in your journey. If you’re ever in need of support from those who get it, don’t hesitate to reach out on The Mighty’s #CheckInWithMe page.