Author’s note: This article discusses disordered eating.
Many of us—including myself—struggle with eating disorders. The biggest thing that I’ve noticed as I’ve dealt with disordered eating is how toxic the common narratives around food, bodies, and exercise are. In order to be sensitive to people who struggle with eating disorders, and in order to foster healthful conversations around these subjects, we need to change this narrative. But how?
Primarily, changing the narrative means eliminating a lot of the normalized ways that we talk about food. With the support and mutual accountability of my friends and community, I have begun the project of eliminating “body talk” from my own conversations, and it has made a hugely positive impact. This shift has been incredibly important to me in recovery—and generally has helped to create supportive and inclusive conversation environments.
What should we focus on when we are being mindful of body talk? Here’s a list of some places to start.
1. Body Insults/Commentary
We’ve all heard it: “Ugh, these jeans make me look fat.” “Wow, she’s gained so much weight.” “I hate my thighs.” Whether you are rejecting someone else’s appearance or your own, these kinds of statements reinforce the idea that there is only one way that is acceptable to look, and creates anxiety around needing to fit into a very specific body aesthetic. These kinds of comments also centralize body aesthetic to be a hyper-focus (for women, especially, but also men!).
Instead of focusing on the way that we or others look, what if we shifted the conversation to one of creation, of acceptance, of critical thinking? How can we as women come together to fight the social pressures to conform to one body type? (See the Confidence Walk, hosted by Brette Baughman, for inspiration!)
2. Statements About Someone Else’s Food
For someone with an eating disorder, it can be really difficult to form a healthy relationship with food. Whether it is a comment about how little or how much someone is eating, it can be triggering. Saying something like, “Ooh, that’s piggie!” or “Wow, someone’s hungry today!” can send someone with an ED into a tailspin.
And although it might feel as though you are helping someone along in the right direction by asking them “Aren’t you going to finish your food?” it can actually be anxiety-provoking and push that person further into disordered eating. (If you are concerned that someone you know has an eating disorder and needs support, check out this guide from the National Eating Disorder Collaboration’s website on how to make that person feel safe.)
3. Food Guilt
“Food guilt” is feeling guilty after eating a meal—guilty for the contents of the food, or the quantity. Food guilt happens. It just does. And it’s important to recognize when you feel it, and to check in about how to take care of yourself if you feel like it may trigger disordered eating. What is not productive or constructive, however, is to share food guilt with a group of people—especially with those whom you just shared a meal. In my experience, food guilt is contagious, and can trigger anxious, cyclical thoughts—potentially leading to disordered eating.
4. Justifications for Eating
Justifications for eating include saying things like, “I can eat this dessert because I ran today!” These kinds of statements encourage the idea that you only deserve to eat if you have done something to “earn” it. They can also reinforce this toxic system of rules for eating, which is something that many people struggle with.
Numbers can also be triggering. Counting calories, steps, miles, pounds, and more are obsessive behaviors that are associated with EDs, and hearing how many calories are in a meal, how many miles you ran, or how many pounds you lost or gained can also launch a person into anxious thoughts and dangerous habits.
There is so much work to be done around how we talk about bodies, food, and exercise, but I hope that these few starting points will help you to reflect on the ways that you can become more mindful of the ways in which you can change the conversation. Identifying the different ways that I have been engaging in toxic social narratives and proactively working to uproot them has been a wonderful journey, and, in my opinion, is incredibly important in creating a supportive, encouraging, and kind community.