Wednesday, 2 November 2011

10 things *NOT* to say to a mum with an eating disorder


Over the past year or so I've had some great friends offer me wonderful advice and support. From people who have freely admitted they don't know anything about eating disorders but will listen anytime I need to talk, to people who have seen it all or lived through it all.

But every now and then I have encountered people, often through no fault of their own, who have said just the wrong things. Things that have set me back. Things that have confused me. And things that have hurt me more than I could ever tell you.

So here's my top ten list of things I have really hated having said to me (in no particular order). Don't get me wrong though - I still actually really appreciate the fact that they said something (mostly) - it is far worse when a friend or loved one suspects or knows you have an eating disorder and chooses not to say anything.

1. I wish I had your problem
Having an eating disorder does not just mean someone is really good at dieting. An eating disorder is not a diet gone wrong. You may wish you were slimmer - but would you wish to have autism or cancer? An eating disorder is an illness, it is not a quick fix to get into your bikini by summer, and nothing will minimise someone's very real pain and suffering faster than if you assume it is.

2. You should recover for your kids.
Now if you are a trained healthcare professional ready to support someone through the fallout of this statement feel free to disagree with me on this one - but it's my list so I'm adding it here. I've had this said to me more times than I care to count, by people thinking it would motivate me. But what I hear is: "You are a lazy bad and worthless mother because you can't even fix this for those beautiful children of yours who you say you'd do anything for". ouch.

3. Surely you're too old to have an eating disorder.
Surprisingly there is no such thing, so just don't say that.

4. You're setting a really bad example for your children.
At the end of the day this may be true. But no one chooses to have an eating disorder, and guilt and blame have no place in recovery or in the support of those trying to recover. You cannot guilt someone into getting better. The guilt only makes it so so much worse.

5. It's just the baby blues, it happens to everyone these days.
Ah, the ubiquitous "stop making a fuss, you're nothing special, get over it" comment. Again, adding guilt is not helpful.

6. You're just bored. You'll get over it once you go back to work.
No, an eating disorder is an illness. Taking up a hobby will not fix this. Someone with an eating disorder may find work really rewarding, but for so many reasons more valuable than just they need a distraction. Building up self-esteem is one of those valuable reasons, but proper treatment is also absolutely necessary.

7. It's the fault of the media.
This implies that firstly that the person with the eating disorder has been sucked in by the media because they're so gullible and easily manipulated. And secondly that once again, it's just a diet gone wrong and they really just want to look like those chicks from Desperate Housewives.

8. Oh man not you too! Does everybody have an eating disorder these days or what?
See #5 if you can't figure out why you shouldn't say this one!

9. Is it just that being a mother is so much harder than you thought, dear?
Well firstly, der, it's much harder than anyone thought. If we all knew how hard it was going to be before we started it, we'd never becomes mums! But seriously, that kind of condescending "I sound like I'm concerned but I'm really just putting you down" comment is not helpful.

10. For heavens sake don't tell anyone!!
And this one I'm not even going to justify with an explanation. If you say this to anyone with an eating disorder then you are worse than a fool, because you are a dangerous fool.

Any more to add? What's the least helpful thing that has ever been said to you by someone trying to offer support? And what advice would you like to give them now?

published by:

EDIT: I've published the flipside - 10 things you *should* say to a mum with an eating disorder


Rosie Molinary said...

Oh, PJ, this is so fabulously, clearly said. What a gift you've given to everyone by calling these comments out. It could be really interesting to do a companion post (if the material is there)-- perhaps 10 of the most helpful things you've heard during your recovery? Perhaps that would really help educate really well-meaning people on what a better thing to say is. Thank you, as always, for your honesty. You are a gift.

_katesome_ said...

This is fantastic. I have posted it to facebook and Pinterest. People need to be more aware of how what they say can effect others, but also it shows a general lack of understanding of eating disorders. SO much ignorance and you shouldn't have to deal with that. It's terrible that people have said ANY of these things to you!! :(

I have a pretty long list of stupid things said to me. Like when I was weeping uncontrollably from shattering post natal depression : "But you ASKED for this! YOU wanted another baby! So what's the problem!!??" That was nice.

I get the 'you couldn't have been very good at your eating disorder if you're still fat.' That's a classic.

Or the 'but you looked AMAZING' referring to how I looked after I stopped eating for 12 months.

Ahhh.... good times.

Thanks for this blog PJ.


Anonymous said...

I do think (#7) that the media has an IMPACT on disordered eating. This is not to say that you or anyone else is gullible. Healthy eating is inspired by supportive environments including range and types of food available, opinions, images etc. It would be great if there was some accountability in the media and marketing but we know that will never happen. Keep being strong and good luck. Listen to your health professionals and remember that criticisms and nasty comments are made by people who cant be honest with themselves and confront their demons like you have.

PJ said...

@RosieMolinary I think this is a brilliant idea. I will get onto it pronto :)

@_katesome_ The "but you looked AMAZING" comment ranks up there with the "I wish I had your problem" one doesn't it. It assumes that weightloss is the only symptom of the ED. It completely overlooks the emotionally agony that goes hand-in-hand with the physical agony that someone with an ED goes through everyday (oh and all through the night too if you are blessed with insomnia to boot!)

But "Ahhh... good times" did make me LOL!! :)

PJ said...

@Anonymous Thanks so much for your comment. I think what you say is a fair point regarding the impact of media on disordered eating. But I think that firstly you are confusing disordered eating with an eating disorder. And secondly there is a very big difference between causation and influence/perpetuation.
The media does not CAUSE an eating disorder. It may provide triggers for eating disorder symptoms, but that would not explain why the majority of the population can read glossy mags without becoming anorexic, or why someone living on a remote dairy farm can still develop anorexia without having ever seen a glossy mag.
My point is these are things you should never say to someone you are trying to support. And I am in no way saying that I think I am gullible - but rather my ED would tell me that is what you were saying to me.
It is not always what the support person actually says that does the harm, but rather the interpretation of those words by the person with the ED.

HikerRD said...

What a great job listing the generally unintentionally damaging and triggering comments people make all too often!
Here's the but you were anticipating...

-Re #2: All too often, moms struggling with eating disorders are challenged to push for change for their own sake; they feel unworthy, not-deserving, hopeless, better off not in this world--I could go on. Often, in my experience, it helps to focus on their kids to help shift from their distorted view that all would be better because they are not a good mom anyway (their view) to reality checking the impact that staying stuck really will have on their kids. The spin of "lazy, bad mom.." is ED's talk; no one who knows anything about you or others struggling with an eating disorder believes that about you or others.

People say the stupidest things. But ED does too. So let's be careful about what we/our eating disorder projects onto others.

PJ said...

@HikerRD now how did I know you would disagree with me on that one :)
But I thoroughly agree with your other point - like I said in my response to @Anonymous (above) "it is not always what the support person actually says that does the harm, but rather the interpretation of those words by the person with the ED" And I know this makes it a mine field for anyone trying to help, but that's the nature of the beast.

I am going to follow up with a list of things I have found helpful for anyone who is interested in my opinion on the flipside of this post.

Anonymous said...

I just came across your site and this was perfect. ED has unfortunately gotten quite the hold on me again and just yesterday I heard a few of those comments. My personal favorite was when someone actually rubbed their arm against mine to "catch" my ED.

PJ said...

@Anonymous (2) - um, oh dear. What the heck do you say to that?! Maybe ewww.
But I think it's just fair to say they were *not* trying to be a support to you.
Perhaps you could give them the name of a good counsellor??

Emily said...

Oh, PJ, how infuriating!! I can't pick out just one that stands out because all of them, if said to me, would hurt me deeply. I guess you can't put too much value in something someone says who doesn't truly know about eating disorders or who doesn't know about YOU.


PJ said...

@Emily Hi lovely!! Thanks for dropping by :) The trouble with these comments though is they were *all* said by people who do love and care for me, but just didn't know the right thing to say - and I was too unwell to understand that at the time.
99% of my friends and loved ones know nothing about eating disorders, but still want to help.
I'm just hoping that anyone trying to say the right thing can now avoid some of these clangers!

And I will post a list of things I think would be good things to say soon as well :)

Sarah Robertson said...

Amazing post PJ, and all of them are so true.

Even NOT being a mother I can relate to a lot of them and can see the triggering effects (and have felt a lot of them too!)

I agree with Kateness too one of the most destructive things said to me was from an ex-work collegue who said to me (after losing a substantial amount of weight)

"Wow, you look amazing, you were pretty before but you look all model-like and skinny! Good going!" Talk about giving Ana a pat of the back.

I despise the need for people to say 'Ohhh give us some tips, I need to drop some weight'

and the 'You were fine before, why did you do this'

OR 'you didn't look like you had an ED before, so why are you doing this now?'

The list is endless isn't it. It seems we all agree though, people don't realise what they are saying and how destructive 'joking' about any ED is.

Chantell said...

Hi Pj, thankyou for this post! As a single mum with an eating disorder, I can relate to all of these points, and I've had similar comments said to me over the years too! As you said, mostly it comes from people genuinely trying to help, but they just don't understand the mindset of ED, and of course, thanks to ED, I would feel hurt very easily and internalise the comments to mean I was the worst mother on earth ~ thereby 'punishing' myself by not eating! It is a vicious circle, really... Some of the worst comments I've had said to me are 'Surely you realize you are setting your daughter up for an eating disorder too?'(which just increased my self-hatred and guilt!), 'You should just be thankful you have a body that is healthy and functioning instead of being so vain' (Yes, more guilt!) and, the most upsetting... "Tell Mum if she doesn't eat, then you won't either" ~ this one being said to my daughter, who was 10yr at the time! (completely irresponsible to draw her attention to the issue that I was trying so hard to protect her from!)

There is alot of misunderstanding out there, and it can be very isolating as a mum when you can't talk to anyone about ED...So thankyou so much for your bravery and for your encouraging posts!

BlueEyedBarbie said...

Ugh! Some people are just plain ignorant.

Anonymous said...

Don't you just hate it when people say things like this!?! #1 gets to me especially, i cannot stand it.

That is why, for me, it is so awesome to have everyone supporting me on here, who I know understand :)

Hope this week has been good so far!


PJ said...

@Chantell - that is so awful, not just for you, but for your daughter to. Fancy putting that kind of responsibility on her little shoulders - that is just disgusting. I am so sorry to hear that anyone could be so insensitive to your child's welfare like that.

@Scottrecovered - the web is such a supportive place when you find the right people. I feel blessed everytime I find that someone else out there 'gets it'