It can be so hard to support our loved ones through their struggles with food and body image. We think they are perfect and beautiful. Just the way they are. We wonder why can’t they just eat? Or see themselves the way I see them? You might get frustrated, scared or even angry. These are all normal reactions. Understanding how and why your loved one is struggling can help you understand them better. I’ll also give you some tips about what to say (and not say) to help you support your loved one.
If your loved one is struggling with not liking their body or appearance they may have poor body image. Some people have extreme feelings about how they look or their weight. This can become a disorder called Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This is a real mental health disorder in which people don’t see themselves accurately. Your loved one may think he or she is extremely overweight or ugly despite what they look like. No matter how much you tell them they are beautiful or sexy they will still struggle with feeling unattractive.
Some people who dislike their body or think they are overweight may develop an eating disorder in which they eat very little or don’t eat at all. This is called Anorexia. Anorexia is a serious, sometimes deadly mental health disorder. Telling your loved one to “just eat” or “gain some weight” is a natural but unhelpful response. What you can do is encourage your loved one to get professional support through counseling or a support group. Body image and eating disorder concerns are serious psychiatric issues and they don’t go away on their own. (For more about the causes of eating disorders and poor body image check out my blog post Princess Diana’s public-ish struggle with bulimia).
So what can you do for your loved on that is struggling with poor body image or an eating disorder? Here are some do’s and don’ts;
Do listen to your loved one. Understand that they see themselves differently than you. Rather than shut them down or telling them they’re being ridiculous listen. Really listen. Try to understand their perspective and how they feel in their own skin. Try to not give advice. The more you just listen the more your loved one will feel safe talking to you.
Do reassure them that you think they are beautiful and great just as they are
Do encourage them to seek help. This could include working with a professional counselor or support group. If your relationship is suffering you can even seek out couples counseling.
Do seek your own support. Seeing your loved one struggle is so hard! Make sure you are taking good care of yourself and getting your own support. This could include your own counselor, online support or making time for fun things such as your own hobbies and friends.
Don’t tell them to “just eat” or argue with logic. A person struggling with body image or an eating disorder is terrified of food. They also don’t see their body logically. They fear that eating a cookie or piece of bread will cause them to gain 10 pounds. They may see themselves as extremely overweight or ugly even if they are a healthy weight and attractive. Rather than arguing with their perspective or trying to convince them they are wrong, try reassuring. Let them know you think they’re great.
Do understand that eating disorders & body image are about more than food and body. For your loved one their relationship with their body & food is just the tip of the iceberg. Many people with these struggles are also dealing with anxiety, abuse and/or depression. You don’t have to understand everything your loved one is going through. However, do remember that your loved one is struggling with a complicated illness.
Don’t shame them for eating or not eating. It’s natural to get angry when a loved one won’t eat. Or frustrated with a spouse who wants to go on a diet because they think they’re “fat” then struggles to stick with the diet. Making critical comments about not sticking to a diet or not eating are natural but unhelpful. They won’t motivate your loved one to change their behavior. These comments will result in your loved one feeling upset and misunderstood. Try to understand that your loved one is struggling with an illness. Their eating patterns won’t make sense because they are part of their disease. Hopefully as your loved one seeks help & begins to recovery they will begin to develop healthier eating patterns. Until then, let them know you love & care about them and hold back on the food comments.