There’s a fine line between trying to eat healthy and falling down a slippery slope of orthorexia, disordered eating, and/or diagnosable eating disorders. If your loved one has realized their habits were taking an emotional toll and asked for help, congratulate them! It’s difficult for anyone to ask for help, especially with something that we often categorize as basic and easy.
Hopefully they’re in treatment with a Health at Every Size (HAES) professional to improve their relationship with their bodies, food, and movement. Disordered eating is isolating, and if your loved one has asked for your support, consider this a privilege. They’re being vulnerable letting you in on their internal dialogue, and often feel split between what their disorder and their treatment are telling them. A strong support system will help them be more successful in recovery. Here are a few things you can do to help them in their journey to body acceptance and food freedom:
Avoid Body Talk
Even if you say positive things about your loved one’s (or anyone’s) body, this guides them towards focusing on their body and creates social pressure to be thin. Don’t comment on the eating habits or body size of yourself or others, and don’t talk about wanting to lose weight. Even a comment that seems casual to you can send your loved one into a spiral of body obsession, fear, and renewed disordered eating habits. Notice how often you comment on yours or other people’s bodies in a day or a week, and work to reduce that number. Not only will it help your loved one, it will help everyone. There are so many other things to talk about!
Affirm your loved ones and others based on accomplishments, character, and talent. Everyone has so much more to offer the world than their physical appearance. If you want to compliment your loved one or others, make it about their charismatic energy, leadership qualities, kindness, or humor. Disordered eating and fragile self-esteem often go hand-in-hand. Your person would benefit from your kind words, as long as they aren’t directed towards appearance. Be specific and genuine.
Check In Regularly
Disordered eating can be isolating. A little check-in goes a long way in helping your loved one feel supported and seen. Check in with them to make sure they’ve eaten, or offer to eat a meal with them. Experience the joyful pleasure of food together without comment, criticism, or food moralization.
In our fatphobic, looks-obsessed culture, everyone has baggage related to body image, eating, and exercise. On top of that cultural baggage, disordered eating is closely linked to perfectionistic tendencies, low self-esteem, inflexible thinking, anxiety, and history of dieting, which are all common experiences/emotions. It’s a wonder anyone manages to have a decent relationship with food and movement at all.
Do some unpacking of your own history with diet culture, fatphobia, and body image. Remember that pursuing weight loss is not a way to take care of oneself, and that healthcare can be size neutral and still be effective. Notice what you say to yourself and about others and if you tie your self-esteem to your weight or physical appearance. Actively work to change that, the way your loved one is attempting to do.
Name the Harms
When you’re both ready, an honest conversation about each of your histories can be helpful for both of you. Talk about ways you may have misstepped in the past by sending the message that appearance is valued above all. Our culture encourages disordered eating, body shame, and body mistrust. Because of this, everyone is a varying level of fatphobic. Weight stigma is everywhere and normalized. Maybe you’ve said negative things about yours or someone else’s body in the past. This work is hard because it’s counter to cultural norms. Acknowledge that your loved one is doing something difficult, and try your best to be with them while they do so.
These topics are not easy to talk about. Many people carry a lot of unacknowledged body shame. Your loved one is doing the important and difficult work of dismantling their own body shame, and they need you by their side. If done sensitively and with founts of self-compassion, you can be a valuable source of comfort for your loved one on their journey. And in the process, you may notice that your own body shame is moving towards healing.
Supporting Vs Enabling Dos and Don’ts for Families and Supporters of People in Eating Disorder Recovery
Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder
How to Talk to Someone with Disordered Eating Habits