What to do when someone you care about might have an eating disorder…

 In Body-Safe

I am the Artistic Director of CCD – NOT an eating disorder specialist. It’s important that you know, as you read what I have to say about healthy body image, that I am not a medical expert. Rather, I have recovered from an eating disorder myself, and I have survived unhealthy body image environments. I have also spent my entire post-professional dancing career working to cultivate a body-safe learning environment for dancers. What follows is just a tiny bit of what I’ve learned on my journey.

For me, this topic begins with how you talk about bodies in your household or within your friendships. If there are a lot of body jokes being thrown around your household, if you’re close to someone who is constantly commenting about the aesthetics of other people’s various bodies or body parts, or maybe a family member is constantly talking about diets or dieting – pay attention. Although body image issues can arise in other kinds of situations, this type of environment is like a petri dish for body dysmorphia and/or eating disorders. 

If you nodded your head to any of these scenarios above, or any similar situations, please get started on the hard road to actively changing that environment. Think of yourself as a role model – regardless of who you’re around or where you think you fall in the pecking order. The way you talk about YOUR body will directly influence the people around you. 

Here is a tiny glance at what I think a healthy body image environment looks and sounds like (there is so much more to this, I know):

  • Rather than talking about your body as a failure, complaining about the parts of your body (or anyone else’s) you’re not happy with, talk about the amazing accomplishments and capabilities of the human body. We’re lucky that we’ve got a physical tool that can jump over puddles, pick up the heavy box, feel emotion, or can envelope someone we love in a big hug. 
  • Talk about food intake as a vital chemical reaction. Vitamin C doesn’t just fight off the common cold, but it helps heal wounds. Turmeric reduces inflammation. Vitamin E can fend off free radicals. The food we put in our body has a valuable job to make our body thrive. Talking about how foods will add pounds is extremely harmful!
  • Remember that the concept of taking care of yourself is a means to mental wellness. Equate fulfilling your nutrition needs with taking care of yourself. 
  • Talk about the physical accomplishments of others by how they pushed off the ground, bent their knees, steeled their eyes, rallied their spirit, or in ballet language…they used the second side of their back, lifted their pelvis, or spotted their head. Don’t equate their accomplishment with the way their body looks.

If someone you care about is:

  • Criticizing their body
  • Not saying anything, but checking out their body in the mirror
  • Changing their eating habits
  • Eating way too little or too much food
  • Often cold or lethargic
  • Avoiding talking about food
  • Talking about food obsessively 
  • Or exhibiting any other behaviors that you think might be caused by body image issues or a potential eating disorder…

First, know that your words matter. Act swiftly. Know that an eating disorder can turn deadly very fast. If this person is your child and a minor, get help from a professional. Children’s Hospital has an amazing eating disorder center. Do not underestimate the damage an eating disorder can do, and know that recovering from an eating disorder can take months or years to do healthily – it’s not just a matter of increasing or decreasing caloric intake, as it damages vital organs, including the heart. 

So, if you need to have a hard conversation with someone you love, or if they come to you for help, here are some over-simplified tips (better resources provided below):

  • Focus on the health, well-being, and happiness of the individual. 
  • Focus on how the person feels, not what behaviors you’ve noticed. Do not focus on the food intake you’ve witnessed, but that they seem unhappy.
  • Be clear, and don’t beat around the bush.
  • Say that you’ve noticed weakness or slow thinking.
  • Do not tell them they don’t need to have body image issues, that they are fine/beautiful/skinny.
  • Acknowledge that there are deeper issues.
  • Tell them there are resources available for help, and make sure they know you will stay by their side no matter what.
  • Do not judge them.
  • Let them tell you anything. And I mean anything. If you can’t say something non-judgmental…just nod and hold their hand. Be an amazing listener, and don’t feel like you have to solve every thought they have.
  • Acknowledge how exhausting and frustrating it is to deal with body image issues and how much pain they must be in.
  • Love them. Unconditionally.
  • Super important: Don’t panic. Be calm. Be kind. Do something.

This is totally not the full list – there is a lot more to know. Recovery from an eating disorder is hard, but possible. It is possible to love yourself. But it starts with swift, loving action from someone who truly cares. 

For more information and more comprehensive advice, my dear friend and former professional dancer Harriet Parsons has an amazing website out of Ireland: bodywhys.ie

Children’s Hospital Eating Disorder Unit: https://www.childrenscolorado.org/doctors-and-departments/departments/psych/programs/eating-disorders/

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