Months ago, I got an interesting email from a newsletter reader (subscribe here!) about how to deal with friends who think about food and body differently than you do, and I thought it was worth exploring. Here’s what the original email said (edited for brevity and clarity):
I’m subscribed to your newsletter and enjoy reading it, like I do your articles too. I’m writing you like this because I have a suggestion/problem. I’ll try to be a concise as I can:
My friend and I bonded over our disordered eating, which was basically orthorexia that grew from fear of regaining weight that we had lost. There were numerous food restrictions and rules. I managed to come clean to myself about it a year ago about it—I still have bad days, but now I know to acknowledge them as such, thanks to you and many more who have been debunking diets and all the food nonsense we’re surrounded with.
The problem is, my friend is still engaging in the same disordered behaviors. She had a big revelatory experience last year (like I did), came to terms of eating intuitively after years of gluten restrictions and other disordered behaviors, and then started to question intuitive eating because she started to gain weight and wanted her thinner body back.
I tried to talk to her about it many times. Now, it feels like I’ve hit a wall—how to help her to continue this (lifelong) journey, to come to terms of self appreciation and love for herself no matter what she looks like?
My suggestion and plea to you would is: Could you write about helping others to come to be at peace with their body, weight and looks for us non-expert folks? What are some things that I can do to help someone with disordered eating?
First of all, thank you to the reader who sent this—I so appreciate you sharing, and I have so much empathy for what you’re feeling. (I think many people reading feel the same way!)
Second, I need to warn you that my response to your query likely isn’t what you’re looking for.
(Disclaimer: My writing is NEVER meant as individual medical advice or therapy—it’s meant to help people learn and think about health and their bodies in a kinder way. But if you’re struggling, the best move is to seek individualized guidance from a credentialed professional.)
The truth is, someone else’s relationship with food and their body is out of your control.
It sounds, from your email, like you really care and worry about your friend. It sounds like you’ve found peace in intuitive eating and body acceptance, and that you want to help her find that same peace. That’s understandable!
The thing is, you can’t strong-arm your friend into doing or believing anything that she doesn’t want to do or believe. I’m not sure what behaviors your friend is engaging in. You say that you bonded over disordered eating behaviors in the past, and it seems from your email that she’s tempted to go back to those behaviors.
If you worry that her behaviors are causing serious harm, the best thing you can do is encourage her to seek help by expressing that you care, and that you ‘re worried. Eating Disorder Hope has some great advice about how to do that here. They suggest using “I” statements in the conversation—”I’ve noticed X,” “I’m worried about Y.” They also recommend avoiding overly simplistic statements like “you should stop doing this!’, and preparing yourself for a negative response. Your friend may not see things the way you do, or may minimize the situation and insist that it isn’t a big deal. If your concern isn’t well received, know that at least you let this person know that you care, and that you’ll be there to support her if and when she decides to get back on the journey to recovery.
Diet and fat talk are absolutely normalized in our culture.
Your friend’s thoughts and behaviors are out of your control. You can’t tell her how to eat, or how to feel about her body. We all have the autonomy to decide these things for ourselves.
We’ll talk about boundaries in a moment, but first I want to remind you that, unfortunately, disordered eating behaviors and the constant desire to lose weight at all costs are extremely normalized in our culture. It’s easy to fall back into these thoughts and behaviors because they’re everywhere.
A few years ago, I interviewed Dr. Joy Cox , a researcher whose work focuses on weight stigma and fat liberation, for a SELF Magazine story with a title so relevant to this conversation: How to Live Your Anti-Diet Values in a Weight-Obsessed World (Without Being a Jerk) . Here’s part of the interview that didn’t get published, but that I think you should read:
“I’ve done research into how women deal with matters of fat talk—how we” talk about our bodies, and how we talk about other people’s bodies. Fat talk is something that’s normalized among women. Someone says, ‘my thighs are so fat,’ and the person next to them is conditioned to say, ‘oh no, your thighs aren’t fat, but my thighs are fat.’ We have these conversations, and it’s kind of seen as endearing. It’s not until somebody raises a flag and says, ‘Hey, OK, we have big thighs, but it doesn’t mean that they’re bad,’ that anyone even thinks to question all of this.”
All of this to say: Give your friend some grace. It’s really hard to break free from the restrictive eating patterns and the fear of fatness that are all around us.
Here’s how to set boundaries around diet culture topics.
So, OK. We’ve established that 1) what your friend does and how she thinks is not up to you and 2) it’s understandable that she would backslide into disordered behaviors given how normalized they are.
Now, some good news for you: You’re allowed to set boundaries. It seems like listening to her mourn her thin body and her old disordered eating behaviors is really bothering you. Which makes sense—you’ve been working hard to change your own thinking and behaviors around these things!
For the story I mentioned above, I also interviewed Amee Severson, a non-diet dietitian whose work focuses on intuitive eating and ending fatphobia. She described an experience similar to yours:
“I had a friend who was really interested in ant-diet for a while, and wanted to hear what I had to say. And then started to feel very drawn into diet culture, and really got pulled back into it for a lot of reasons. Then, they didn’t want to talk to me because they didn’t want to hear the anti-diet things anymore, even though I’m willing to not talk about it. So I felt obligated to be like, ‘I’m not your dietitian, I’m not here to police you, I’m your friend first.’”
When someone feels drawn into diet culture, lecturing them about anti-diet stuff is almost definitely going to strain your friendship. A better approach is to set boundaries. Tell your friend that you’re not willing to talk about food, diets, or weight loss with her, because you know that the two of you have very different feelings on those topics.
Here’s what Cox says about boundaries: “I think that sometimes by just looking at someone and saying, ‘I’m not going to participate in this, we’re not having this conversation,’ the reaction in and of itself may spark somebody to say, ‘OK hey, what’s the big deal?’” You saying that you’re not willing to talk about diets and weight loss might be more effective in getting your friend to question these things than trying to talk her out of them.
How to go about setting boundaries? That’s up to you, really. You can bring it up, by asking your friend not to talk about her weight or her eating behaviors around you. Or, Severson says:
“You can respond to weight and diet talk by saying things like, ‘I don’t believe in talking badly about my body.’ ‘I think it’s better when I get to eat whatever I want.’ ‘I feel like I should be able to trust my body.’ Use a lot of “I” statements. Be honest. Tell people that it took you a while to get to where you are, but then tell them how great it is now that you’re here. Planting a seed, in that moment it can lead to a larger conversation while allowing them space to say, ‘nah, I’m going to diet,’ or, ‘cool, sounds like it works for you.’ But they’re also going to remember what you’re saying, and they might come back to it and feel differently someday.”
Seek out a community that makes you feel supported.
I hope that you’ll take all of this to heart when thinking about how to maintain your relationship with your friend without compromising your own values OR trying to impose them on her. That’s really the bottom line: You have to learn how to live your values while also coming to terms with the fact that others might disagree with them.
But there’s another thing I want to add before I go: It sounds like you and your friend were supporting each other on the intuitive eating journey at the beginning, and now it’s time for you to find that support elsewhere. Your email asks about how to support your friend, but don’t forget that YOU need support, too! Perhaps there are other people in your life that are intuitive eaters, and that accept their bodies at any size. You could talk about your journey with these people. Or, you could find this support with a therapist or a dietitian. (I’m thrilled that my writing has helped you, but it likely isn’t enough support.) Many offer virtual support groups that are relatively inexpensive, if you’d prefer that to one-on-one counseling. There are so many ways to connect with people who can guide you on your intuitive eating journey, or who are in the same spot as you and can make you feel like you’re not alone.
Thank you again, reader, for reaching out with your struggle. I’m sure many others reading have been in the same position, and I hope that I’ve given you some things to think about.
If you’re struggling with anorexia (or any eating disorder!), reach out as soon as possible. The sooner you begin treatment, the more likely you are to recover.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, we can help! We’re a group of dietitians who takes an anti-diet, body-positive, identity-affirming approach to recovery and healing your relationship with food. . Learn more about nutrition counseling, offered in Raleigh, NC, and virtually to clients in several states. Not ready to commit to counseling but want more information about the anti-diet approach? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.