"You look/eat fine!" ... ? Responding to body/eating-disordered talk
March 27, 2016 5:23 PM   Subscribe

A close friend of mine is [in recovery/maybe teetering on the edge of relapse] from an eating disorder. He often makes remarks to me about how he eats too much, hates part of his body, is fat, et cetera. I find myself confused as to how to respond to these remarks in a kind, compassionate way that neither confirms his very negative thoughts, nor feels just completely invalidating. Is this possible? On a more serious note, would it do any good to indicate I'm concerned for him? Advice heavily desired.

Both him and I are mid-20s cis men at varying places on the queer spectrum. Ever since I met him, he pinged a little radar in my head that made me worry he had some struggles with eating and body image. He would make remarks about how he had "gotten fat" from pictures he would show me, fixated a bit too much on the body weight of others, and deprecate himself when he perceived himself as eating too much. Recently, these things seem to have creeped upward in frequency and he's added more to the pot, such as going from casually running to going to the gym nearly every day or every day for intense regimens, to the point that he's distressed when he can't make it in. He's also begun avoiding group social events, and he also seems to be much more irritable than he used to be, though he is always very apologetic when this poses an issue. Another friend recently began privately expressing her worries to me about this as well, noticing some of these patterns and the shift in his behaviors and attitudes recently.

Indeed, he recently confided in me in a heart to heart that, when he was in high school, he struggled with an eating disorder, and was dangerously underweight from the combination of alternately not eating, bingeing, and purging behaviors. He had to receive intensive therapy for this, and his weight increased from there to [high average/low "overweight"], which apparently distressed him a great deal. I validated him genuinely for sharing this painful story with me, and for trusting me enough to tell me about this. I also began to express my notice of some of the above details about what I've observed recently in what felt like a gentle, supportive way. Unfortunately, when it comes to his own problems, he's of the, "Here's this big problem!... wait, what, why are you reacting to this like it's a huge issue, ha ha, you're overreacting, don't worry about it!" problem solving/denying variety. So that... didn't go anywhere. I have kept this all private to myself, and I am apparently the only person in our circle who is aware of this. He's losing weight at a pretty noticeable clip, and I'm worried that he's teetering toward a relapse.

In the near-term, I've been left disarmed as to how to reply to him when he comes to me with negative body- and eating-talk. It can come at any time, off- or online, and I'm always a bit internally disarmed. For example, this came up today when we were casually talking about our Easters, and he had made a remark that he had eaten too much chocolate and "eats too much" (in a way that denoted that he was in fact very serious about expressing this to me). In retrospect thoughtlessly as I was cooking dinner, I had replied that unless he was feeling genuinely sick from the chocolate, that it was no worry by me, it was a holiday, Jesus approves eating however much chocolate today. This seemed to super cool and arrest the conversation down, and I realized that I had quite possibly triggered something for him, or said something that felt invalidating. (Or, on the other hand, I modeled a normal hey-yo-it's-ok-and-I-as-your-friend-am-not-judging-you-for-this-at-all response? I'm of two minds on this...). The difficulty level is that he's really hinky about talking about this on a feelings level (e.g., "Did I do something hurtful when I said X?"), which I understand especially as I think he's in the middle of something rough inside him, but makes it hard for me to calibrate my behavior. It also makes it difficult that he's at best "hot and cold" about the fact that there's anything to be worried about to begin with. He's a really lovely person who has earnestly "been there" for me through some rough times, and it breaks my heart to see him like this and I would feel terrible about even accidentally saying something triggering to him.

I'd love your thoughts on both:
(1) what I can do in the short-term to reply to self-deprecating remarks about his eating habits or body in as kind a way as I can, perhaps even some relatively stock phrases to use when he comes to me seeming to want me to agree with him about [body/eating thing]; and
(2) at what point does it behoove a friend to more strongly speak up about this kind of thing, and how?

This is a bit jumbled, and I think I realize writing this how worried I've been. I'd like to be the best friend I can be to someone who is perhaps struggling with some really hard things right now. Any direct responses, private messages, or resources would be much appreciated. Thanks, all!
posted by The Sock Puppet Sentience Movement to Human Relations (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you're capable of having open conversations with this friend. Can you ask him some questions about what things trigger his feelings, what words bother him, etc? For example, my sister is bulimic, and she won't talk a lot about it but I at least know some foods that trigger binges for her so I make sure they're not around if she visits.

That said, I haven't heard a lot of positive stories unfortunately about a loved one speaking up, though I'm sure it has helped some people. No matter what I've said to my sister or how I've said it, she's how she is, which means she hit the gym the day after surgery last week. But I do think it's important to recognize that eating disorders are, in part, coping mechanisms, and reducing the general stress in one's life can be helpful.

Finally , many people with eating disorders blame someone for them, often a parent. If your friend blames someone, it could help to help be a buffer in that relationship to minimize contact. To rely on my own example again, my sister blames my mother so much that my mother can't even say that she (my mother) ate ice cream without my sister reading into it.
posted by mermaidcafe at 5:33 PM on March 27, 2016

I think you need to free yourself from the idea that there is some magic set of responses that will fix his disordered relationship with food. I'd just concentrate on expressing my own beliefs gently. ("I find all types of bodies beautiful." "etc.) He may choose to take that as an attack even if you're only expressing your own opinion, not criticizing his, but the danger of just saying nothing is that he becomes increasingly isolated in a world where his views are normalized because no one responds to them with anything but agreement. I think you can offer once to be there to help him in any way you can if he'd ever like to discuss the issue with you, but I think that's really as much as you can do other than provide an example of someone who doesn't value others based on how heavy or thin they are.
posted by MsMolly at 5:53 PM on March 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

I have a similar dynamic going on with someone in my life.

(1) what I can do in the short-term to reply to self-deprecating remarks about his eating habits or body in as kind a way as I can, perhaps even some relatively stock phrases to use when he comes to me seeming to want me to agree with him about [body/eating thing]; and

I don't really respond because nothing I say is really going to change his mind about how he feels. If I say "no, you look great" he is going to think I'm being patronizing. So if he says "God I feel so fat" I say "huh," in tone that conveys "I physically heard the words you said but I neither agree nor disagree." If I can change the subject, I do. This is how I've heard professionals recommend dealing with other delusional disorders - they don't give the delusions validity, but don't try to talk the person out of them either. The CIA installed a camera in your shower? Huh, interesting.

(2) at what point does it behoove a friend to more strongly speak up about this kind of thing, and how?

Don't address individual behaviors at all, you are not equipped for that. I'd say something like, you seem very unhappy and you deserve to be happy. I believe that you can be happy. Keep saying that, in different ways. At some point he may ask for help, and you should know what you're prepared to give (help finding a therapist, taking care of his cats while he goes to inpatient clinic, etc.)
posted by desjardins at 5:55 PM on March 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

I don't know for sure if this "helps" the other person exactly, but my stock reply is something like "I try not to talk to myself like that, it just makes everything harder." This has the merit of being true, at least. And if he's been in therapy, it should ring a bell or two.
posted by SMPA at 6:10 PM on March 27, 2016 [12 favorites]

I am not at all sure how you should respond, but I'm pretty sure that you should not spend a lot of time worrying about how your best-intentioned responses may not be good enough, not only because there are no magic words but because it's a way of taking too much responsibility on yourself. It's good to be thoughtful and compassionate, and it's important to respond to emergency situations at full steam, but we really can't get into headspaces where we worry all the time about our word choice around friends.

I also want to say that he is going to experience anything you say short of "yes, you're right, you're kind of fat, it's a good thing you're going to the gym all the time" as invalidating. I've been through this a bit with a friend, and I feel like validating/invalidating isn't a useful axis. I've gotten to the point of listening (about a friend's problem that is not food-related) and mirroring in the "I hear what you're saying" way, but then when they say something they know I disagree with, I just say "you know that's not how I feel about this issue". I'm not going to argue with them, but I'm not going to pretend to agree.
posted by Frowner at 6:12 PM on March 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I wonder if it might be best to get your feelings out in the open rather than skirt around the issue.

"Friend, I feel really disarmed and unsure of what to say when you say things like, 'X' and 'Y'. You've talked about having had an eating disorder in the past. The way you're talking about yourself and your feelings about food is often so negative that I worry about you, ESPECIALLY when you tell me NOT to worry! How can I support you better when I hear you being so negative about yourself, your body, and your eating habits?"

Then it might be time to say, "I care about you. Your weight's been dropping. Your negative self talk and preoccupation with food is increasing. I want you to be happy -- and I also want you to be healthy. Can I be real with you about how this all looks and feels? "

Yeah, it might alienate him. Yeah, he might push away from you/hide/start doing stuff in secret. Eating disorders are shame-heavy and it sucks. But you calling him out might be the first step in the next phase of recovery for him. I hope he hears you if you decide to go this route.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:59 PM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Eating disorders create self absorbed thoughts. It just does.

Fat is not a feeling.

Affirmation away gently and don't worry to much about your responses. As long as you are not enabling him, you are doing okay.
And ask him to tell you when a comment triggers him.
Listen to that
Be gentle with yourself, and be honest with him.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:01 PM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just be honest. No need to walk on eggshells.

"I'm a big fat pig."

"It worries me and makes me sad when you say those things about yourself."

"I ate too much Easter candy."

"How does that make you feel?"

"I didn't make it to the gym today. I'll need firemen to roll me into work tomorrow."

"What are you looking for when you say things like that? How can I help you?"
posted by xyzzy at 7:02 PM on March 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Here are some things you can say,

"You seem really down on yourself lately, why is that?"

"I know you have an eating disorder and some of the things you're saying concern me. Is that something you might want to talk about?"

"I love you and I worry about you. What can I do to help."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:33 AM on March 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just chiming in to agree with the comments above about being authentic and not walking on eggshells. I have had a few friends with similar problems in the past and I know that it is very easy to fall into a dynamic where you feel like you are the one responsible for their feelings and behaviours. This is of course not the case--your friend is an adult and needs to recognize that other people will not necessarily agree with him or share his perceptions. If you are responding in a way that feels true to you, and you are not actively enabling his behaviour, you are doing the best anyone can do.
posted by rpfields at 6:07 AM on March 28, 2016

When I find myself doing this around my husband, he stops me, looks me in the eye and says, "hey -- do me a favor? Please be nice to my wife today." Somehow putting it in the context of making me think about how I would treat someone else instead of addressing my own negative self-talk internally is enough to break me out of that mindset in the moment, and very difficult to respond to dismissively or negatively.

So the next time, maybe you can try it: "hey, do me a favor -- please be nice to my friend $NAME today?" It's really hard to dismiss concern and love like that when it's looking you directly in the eye.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 7:11 AM on March 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

One thing that is helpful for me (in his position, but at a healthier place right now), is when people are able to acknowledge that I believe what I'm saying, but make it clear that it doesn't accord with their perception, and do so without objectifying me. That means that saying any variation on "but you're so hot!" is right out, but saying some version of "I hope you know I don't see you that way" is a helpful reminder that perception is personal. For me, at least, this isn't invalidating, because rather than telling me I'm wrong, the person saying this is reminding me that they see something different than I do. It doesn't invalidate my feelings, but it does alert me to the way those feelings may not match up with what the rest of the world sees. Then again, I'm well aware that my body dysmorphia is dysmorphia, so this is--like all things--not necessarily a universal solution.

Nthing, too, that it isn't your responsibility to fix him. It's (so, so, so) great that you're trying to be supportive and find a way to respond to these statements carefully, but he has to learn to take care of himself.
posted by dizziest at 11:53 AM on March 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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