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Approaching A Friend With An Eating Disorder

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Photographed by Ruby Yeh
Jade is drunk and she’s boiling some broccoli. It’s 3am, and we – an excitable, rowdy bunch of first year university students – are splayed around our halls kitchen after a messy night out. While my housemates and I splash salt, vinegar, and ketchup into our brown-paper McDonalds’ bags, Jade is at the hob preparing her version of a drunken feast.

Three stems of broccoli later, Jade is in bed and my friend Jess is wailing at me: “Did you see that? I can’t believe she did that!” I agree with a nod. “What a weirdo.”

But Jade isn’t a weirdo. She had an eating disorder. And although she hadn’t yet been diagnosed at this point (she was later), it was obvious to anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of mental health. So why were we bitching about her?

“One of the many myths about eating disorders is that they are choices, not serious, biologically-based illnesses,” says Dr Stacey Rosenfeld, a clinical psychologist and eating disorder specialist, when I ask her this very question.

“If we erroneously see something as a choice, we tend to be more likely to judge and criticise versus approaching the issue with empathy and compassion.”

But just why exactly do we see someone starving themselves as a choice? Surely we know that not many people willingly and freely choose sweaty green trees over the glorious golden arches? Dr Rosenfeld argues in her book Does Every Woman Have An Eating Disorder? that it’s something to do with society’s “thin ideal”.

“Despite widely acknowledged natural – and healthy – body diversity, our society has established that only thin is in, and we are all held hostage to this ideal,” she says. “[This] sets us up to all be working toward a similar goal. It’s possible that part of the gossip results from jealousy or competition.”

And considering anorexia is a life-threatening, time-consuming, energy-draining, hair-thinning, stomach-twisting monster of a disease, a surprising number of people are jealous of its sufferers.

“I know this is not a healthy or logical thought, but I genuinely envy anorexics for their self-control,” wrote an anonymous Reddit user who makes up just one of the 565,000 Google results for the search “jealous of anorexics”.

But jealousy and competition only go some way to explaining why we might bitch or gossip about people we know are suffering, especially if they’re our friends. Dr Rosenfeld explains that we may resent anorexics not just because of jealousy, but because the disorder can mean sufferers withdraw from their friendships.

“I lost so many friends because of my anorexia,” says Catherine, an 18-year-old college student whose disorder began when she was in Year 11. “When I saw my friends I had nothing to say, or I didn't have the energy.”

But it wasn’t just Catherine who struggled with what to say. Her friends themselves said hurtful things to and about her “all the time”.
“I found out a good friend of mine said, 'I don't want to go to London with her because she doesn't eat and it will make me not eat’. [The trip] was meant to be for one of our close friend’s birthdays,” Catherine told me.

The fact Catherine’s friend worried about her own eating goes some way to explain some of her hurtful comments. Dr Rosenfeld explains that being around sufferers can trigger disordered thoughts and behaviours in other people, so bitching “might occur as a result of being triggered in this way.”

“Despite the question my book poses, most women do not have eating disorders. Yet most women do struggle with body dissatisfaction,” says Dr Rosenfeld. “I think it might be hard for those who are chronic dieters or struggle with some body image concerns to understand the gravity of a diagnosable eating disorder.”

Yet even when friends do understand the gravity of the situation, it can be very difficult to say the right thing.

“When someone used to say something like 'Oh, you're looking healthy', I used to stop eating as I thought that implied I was fat,” admits Catherine. “And the whole ‘You're too skinny' thing made me feel like I could be skinnier and people were always judging me.”

Dr Rosenfeld explains that when we make snide remarks like these directly to sufferers, we “might be trying to communicate awareness of the problem – albeit ineffectively – yet frustration, competitiveness, and helplessness seep in.”

But Catherine’s friends weren’t necessarily trying to be hurtful. Telling a person who is dealing with anorexia that they’re skinny might feel like a harmless comment, or even a compliment, but it is one among a whole host of seemingly-innocent comments that can be twisted by a suffering brain.

Mary George, a senior spokesperson for eating disorder charity Beat explains that well-intentioned comments like, ”Shouldn’t you eat a bit more?” “Haven’t you done well eating that meal?” and “Wow, you have put on weight” are extremely unhelpful.

That doesn’t mean you should say nothing. “Everyone we speak to who has recovered says how grateful they were someone noticed, spoke to them and felt they were worth helping, even if at the time their reaction gave a different impression,” says Mary.

Beat’s tips include preparing what you want to say, choosing the right time and place, and being ready for the sufferer to react angrily. Instead of being accusatory, you should explain you’ve noticed changes in their behaviour and are concerned and want to help.

Christine agrees. “Just listen and don’t judge,” she says. “I found I was really angry and aggressive verbally so it was best for people to just hear me out, let me cry, and give me a hug.”
It’s clear that having a friend with an eating disorder isn’t easy. Confusion, helplessness, frustration, and jealousy are all natural responses. But although it can be cathartic to talk about sufferers, it’s always important to remember to talk to them as well.


For professional help with eating disorders contact Beat on 0345 634 1414
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