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What NOT to Say to Someone with Bulimia Nervosa

And What to Say Instead

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Telling someone you have an eating disorder is never easy. For the most part of my disorder, no one knew how sick I was, yet as I continue recovering, I decided to start telling people that I had a problem. This helped immensely as it meant that the element of deception and dishonesty in my bulimia had been reduced. I suddenly felt less alone and more willing to get better, simply because all these people who I had told had expressed their concern and their support.

However, as beautiful as this notion of honesty sounds, there were a few comments that were made that seemed inappropriate. I am not condemning the people that said these, for I know they were purely made as a sign of support. I’ve made this list simply to explain what the effects of these comments are and what you could say instead.

“Woah, I would have never guessed… you don’t look it.”

This is something you receive a lot as someone with bulimia. I’ve come to notice that for a lot of people an eating disorder is equivalent to anorexia. It’s not. An eating disorder is an unhealthy relationship with food. This may include anorexia, or it may not. It depends on the person.

And bulimia is not the same as anorexia. This is also a common mistake.

To clarify, anorexia is when you reduce your food intake severely. Typically, there are no purging behaviors, although eating disorders vary among individuals. This means some with anorexia may engage with purging behaviors that are typically found in bulimics.

Contrastingly, a textbook definition of bulimia is an eating disorder characterized “by repeated episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors.” Using my own experience to give you an example of what this would look like, I would compulsively eat about 4,000kcal in half an hour then try to throw up as much of it as I could. The next day would be followed by a 3hour–4hour gym session. As a result, my weight looked pretty normal.

Another misconception about bulimia is that compensatory behaviors don’t always have to be self-induced vomit. A bulimic may compensate by over-exercising, ingesting laxatives/diuretics, or simply refusing to eat after a binge.

Whilst I’m on the subject, I’d like to highlight that anorexia and bulimia, although the most well-known eating disorders, are not the only ones out there. To mention a few, there’s also binge-eating disorder, ortorexia, vigorexia, drunkorexia, and diabulimia. If an individual doesn’t fit neatly into a category, this doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer from an eating disorder (in these cases they’d be diagnosed with an Eating Disorder Otherwise Not Specified). To put it simply, an eating disorder is an unhealthy, and sometimes deadly, relationship with food.

So please remember this before saying that someone doesn’t “look it.”

“You look fine, you shouldn’t worry about your weight.”

This one relates to the previous point. Although an eating disorder can develop for a number of reasons, it’s safe to say that one of the most probable ones is because of a poor body image. You may be trying to reassure them, but by commenting on their weight you’re highlighting the fact that you have observed their weight. This can create a feeling of insecurity as the person with the eating disorder will feel that their weight is the focus of your attention and that your opinion of them may rest on it. 

The safest thing you can do is not comment on weight. If you want to throw a compliment their way, try making it something that is unrelated to appearance so that they know that they are loved and appreciated for things other than their weight.

Comments on Somebody Else’s Weight

Like commenting on a person with an eating disorder’s weight, commenting on other people’s weight highlights that same focus on body image. They will feel insecure and ask themselves if you say the same things about their weight.

“Don’t worry, I sometimes finish a whole packet of ______ in one sitting.”

Please, please, please do not try to compare your behavior to that of someone with an eating disorder, unless you yourself have gone through an eating disorder. Yes, you may have once eaten a whole pack of m&m’s in one go and probably felt guilty after, but it passed pretty quickly. For someone with bulimia, that pack would have been followed by a pack of cookies, a family-size pack of crisps, and a box of cereal, all to be later thrown up, defecated, or burned through hours of exercise, not to mention all the tears that may have been shed along the process.

So please, if you have not gone through this, don’t try to validate an abnormal eating behavior. It’s not “ok” and they are highly dangerous.

“You should just _______.”

This is a vague one, but it’s a general “Don’t Give Advice," unless that advice is to go seek help from a professional/counsellor/support group.

I’ve had all sorts of tips given to me, some as vague as “love yourself,” others as simple as “take a trip.” The problem I have with people giving advice is that it simplifies the eating disorder to one easy action. This is a mental illness that probably goes deeper than the food. Yes, part of the problem may be that I don’t love myself, but I cannot simply begin loving myself from one day to the next. This takes time. The same applies to “getting away from it all.” Something that has been there for years will not pass that quickly.

So instead of giving advice, simply listen. Maybe ask questions if you don’t understand something. I felt this helped as it put feelings and experiences down into words which I had previously ignored or was unable to communicate.

These were the main things that bothered me as I opened up to friends and family. Of course, this kind of list can depend on each individual, and if you feel that your loved one’s list is vastly different from the above, ask them what you should or shouldn’t say. Honesty is the best policy for someone trying to recover.

Like I said before, although these things bothered me, I had to learn to accept that people did not mean to be cruel or to make me feel awkward. They were simply trying to be supportive.

To end on a positive note, here is a list of things you can do so that you can offer the best support possible to your loved one:

  • LISTEN: Ask questions. Give them a hug (and maybe a tissue). If they are telling you about their bulimia, it’s because they are tired of keeping it secret.
  • Offer support whenever they have a bulimic episode. Assure them you won’t judge them. Tell them that if they ever need to talk to someone right after an episode, you’ll be here for them.
  • Make plans that don’t evolve around food. Go to the cinema. Go for a walk. Go bowling. Anything that makes socializing a little less stressful for them.
  • TREAT THEM THE SAME: Please don’t be “their savior,” or look at them differently. They’ve probably had this for a while, meaning that they haven’t changed just because they told you. They’re still the same person and so you should treat them as if they were. If they want help with their recovery they’ll ask you for it. But the best you can do is just be a friend and make them feel less lonely.
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