“I’d still date you if you gained a few pounds,” a date blurted out as we watched the sunset. “But I looked through your Facebook photos from a few years ago and man, you were fat.”
“Actually, you’re starting to look a little gross,” a close friend told me. “You’re too thin. You should eat more.”
“You’re like, a third of what you used to weigh,” a dental office assistant told me. “I mean, you weren’t heavy before, but now you look like a model. What’s your secret?”
As you’ve probably guessed by now, my “secret” was that on most days, I was consuming less than 1,000 calories –and I obsessed over every last one. In college, I was among the 20 million American women who suffer from disordered eating. Although I still have eating issues today, therapy and sheer willpower brought me back to a healthy weight. On the road to recovery, my two worst enemies were my own misguided notions of worth and those I considered friends.
The people I trusted most were the ones who unintentionally kept me down with their words and actions. And in a country where 91 percent of women are dissatisfied with their bodies and headlines like “Exclusive Pics of Kim Kardashian’s Belly Bulge” dominate the media, can we really blame them? Being a friend to someone with disordered eating can be downright tricky, but it is possible. Here are a few guidelines:
DON’T try to help –especially when your definition of “help” means shoving food on her plate or waiting next to the bathroom door to make sure she isn’t purging. Remember how strongly your parents urged you to break up with your cheating boyfriend? You didn’t listen to them then and there’s a good chance your friend won’t listen to you now.
DO educate yourself. There are numerous online resources that can help. In many cases, offering to accompany your friend to therapy or a support group can feel inappropriate, especially if she won’t admit that she’s struggling. But a feminist, pro-body group (like Endangered Bodies) could be good place to start. Search Meetup.com for groups in your area or check your campus support service listings if you’re a current college student. Even if you simply start “Liking” pro-body Facebook pages like Beauty is Inside and Beauty Redefined, your friend will begin to see you as someone to turn to.
DON’T body shame. When I first started losing weight, most people oohed and aahed and begged me to spill my diet secrets. They told me how much better I looked now, as if I somehow gained worth because I was thin. They poked and prodded at their own body fat and called celebrities “huge” and “ugly” without a second thought. But as soon as I lost too much weight, they went from heaping praise upon my body to pointing out my jutting chest bones and even stopped including me in photos. By shaming women for not having an “ideal” body, we’re equating having value with a tiny (but not too tiny) waistline. And for women suffering with eating disorders, this is a blow that’s especially hard to handle.
DO take the focus off of physical appearance. Starving myself was my way of coping with problems that, at the time, seemed overwhelming. But my issues were more than skin deep. Sometimes, the best way to help a friend who is struggling with disordered eating is to make yourself available and reserve judgment. Ask her about her life. Make her feel loved and included. Most importantly, keep the focus on all of her amazing qualities rather than on her body. And if you see someone engaging in body shaming, say something. It might not change our weight-obsessed culture, but it will make a difference.
Remember, even if your friend doesn’t look emaciated, she could still suffer from disordered eating. It’s never easy to watch someone you care for struggle, but with these tips, you’ll be the friend she needs—and that can make all the difference.
Diana is a 24-year-old New Yorker and proud Endangered Bodies NYC social media intern. When she’s not working at a local non-profit that advocates for the advancement of professional women, you can find her hanging out with her fiancée and wonderful cat children. She loves a good cup of coffee, swingy skirts and dresses, and exploring new places.