Written by Chloe Kersh.
Though eating disorders are visibly connected to body weight, recovery from these mental illnesses is an invisible process. Maintenance of a “healthy” weight and a return to “normal” eating habits are the ostensible signs of recovery, but it is cognition that drives change. Despite the internal nature of recovery, external stimuli, such as the words and actions of others, profoundly affect those in recovery.
“Despite the internal nature of recovery, external stimuli, such as the words and actions of others, profoundly affect those in recovery.”
The following is an educative list of words and actions that trigger those in recovery. These responses were provided by those, including the author, in varied stages of recovery from restrictive and binge eating disorders. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it universally applicable to all in recovery; however, it is meant to provide insight for those who have not experienced an eating disorder, such that they may be sensible to the difficulties of those who have. Furthermore, I hope that, with the knowledge that they are not alone, this work provides comfort to those in recovery.
“I hope that, with the knowledge that they are not alone, this work provides comfort to those in recovery.”
- “I wish I had an eating disorder.”
Why is this triggering? Those witness to someone suffering from an eating disorder often see fat loss, muscle tone, thin arms and flat stomachs. These physical traits are socially desired, but eating disorders aren’t a weight-loss plan: they’re mental illnesses. Those in recovery are in a daily battle to accept their bodies and eliminate negative self-talk. Hearing someone desirous of an eating disorder reignites feelings of self-hate and is a reminder of the societal importance of one’s appearance; encouraging disordered eating.
- Engaging in a competition of “who ate the least?”
Why is this triggering? “I have only had a granola bar to eat today.” “I haven’t eaten since 8 a.m.” These comments, frequently passed around social settings, at restaurants before eating, in buffet lines; incite competitiveness. There is a perverted social glory attached to eating less than the person next to you. Those recovering from restrictive eating disorders were once accustomed to ‘winning’ those competitions. Peer rivalry of this sort launches those in recovery back to the path of self-hate as connected to eating.
- Sharing food: control and judgement.
Why is this triggering? Imagine you and a friend, who is recovering from an eating disorder, are both eating from a big bag of chips. You are finished eating, and close the bag without asking your friend if they are finished. This action, this subtle control of your friend’s diet, confers the judgement that they have had enough and should stop eating. This judgement contributes to eating disorder thoughts. The simple fix is to ask if they are done eating.
In a second scenario, imagine you and the same friend are at a restaurant. You walk in, sit down, and you immediately ask if your friend would like to share an entrée. This too confers the judgement that they should not eat a full meal, and further contributes to eating disorder thoughts.
- “You’re wearing that again?”
Why is this triggering? Clothing is a source of stability. Because the emotions of those in recovery are intimately connected to the body, familiarity with fit is essential to emotional and physical comfort. Feeling uncomfortable with how an item shapes the look of one’s body is an upsetting experience that can sour an entire day. Shopping is governed by the same principle. For many in recovery, shopping is an acutely distressing experience. It necessitates wearing unfamiliar clothing, looking at your body for extended periods of time, and inevitably trying on things that don’t flatter one’s figure.
- “You look so good!”
Why is this triggering? During, and in recovery from, an eating disorder, compliment correlation is causation. If “you look so good” falls on a day that someone in recovery weighed in two pounds lighter, or has eaten less, the correlation will encourage disordered eating thoughts. Compliments that address the body reinforce the ‘need’ to look a certain way. The fix: change your compliment-vocabulary. Eliminate “good,” “healthy,” “thin,” and “curvy,” from your vernacular and replace them with “happy,” “confident,” “radiant,” and “fierce.” Disconnect the body and the compliment; focus instead on how someone makes you feel, the energy they have, the support they give, the laughter they encourage.