Just be there: How to properly support the eating disordered

“Oh my God, stop it, you’re so skinny!”

No, I’m not.

“You look so thin today, wow, you look great!”

I don’t look thin every day?

“You’re thin, you can eat what you want.”

No, I can’t.

It’s become ingrained in our society to reassure someone at every opportunity that they always look perfect, everything is okay in their mind and looks aren’t all that matter. It’s a sentiment that has become glorified in our pop culture, repeated in countless movies — I’m sure you’re familiar with the “does this dress make me look fat?” scenario — and in our constant flow of entertainment. Of course, I could speak volumes about how the physical attribute of thinness has become our standard of beauty, but just as troubling is our overuse of “thinness” as reassurance to those who suffer from the constant desire to be thin.

I spoke out about my struggles with anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder in October, to overwhelming support. It is a battle that I fight daily, between balancing calories with exercise and maintaining my obligations to school, work and a social life. But daily struggles with these diseases go beyond what many people might realize. An anorexic not only has to deal with both internal and societal pressures to be thin, but with the commonplace language surrounding appearance and body image.

Constantly, anorexics are reassured by friends, family or others that they aren’t fat and they should be happy with their bodies and love themselves. Body positivity is great; it’s what we should strive for. But body positivity does not come from reassuring people they are skinny. Doing so leads to a cyclical train of thought for the eating disordered. It gives them a sense that their efforts to be thin are working, to the detriment of their health, while simultaneously furthering the desire to become thinner in order to continually earn this recognition.

Even worse, telling an anorexic that they need to eat more only causes these cyclical thoughts to persist. Saying “it’s okay to eat that cookie because you’re skinny” allows the eating disordered to feel remorse for their dietary choices — that cookies are inherently bad and should be typically avoided unless one is already skinny — while at the same time feeling rewarded for their outward appearance.

In many cases, the notion of “it’s okay; I’m skinny” becomes internalized, leading to a downward spiral in which the eating disordered may binge-eat and then later abstain from eating, or resort to purging or dangerous levels of exercising. It’s all in the “relentless pursuit of thinness and unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy weight,” as anorexia is defined by the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s happened to me. It should happen to no one.

It’s ANAD week at the University of Maine, a biannual week hosted by the sisters of Delta Phi Epsilon sorority that promotes body positivity and self-love. Throughout the week, events such as “Mirrorless Monday” and “Feel Good Friday” will attempt to show those who suffer from these diseases that they are not alone and they are beautiful. It will also teach those who watch from afar how to properly support the eating disordered — through recognition of the disease.

It is not enough to tell someone that “it’s okay, you’re skinny.” I argue it’s not enough to even tell someone they are beautiful. Being told those things doesn’t matter to those with eating disorders; those phrases make the eating disordered feel worse. So what should you do?

Listen.

An eating disorder is a telephone call from the brain that there is something wrong. Pick up the phone. For the 30 million people in the United States who suffer from eating disorders, it is not enough to dismiss their cries for help by reassuring them that they’re “skinny.” For those people, the best you can do is offer support on their terms. The best you can do is just be there.

Alan Bennett is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of Maine and Culture Editor at The Maine Campus. His personal interests include food and dining, music, and health and fitness.

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