How To Talk About Eating Disorders, Because You Never Know Who Might Be Struggling

You know those nails-on-a-chalkboard conversations you overhear in passing, the kind where someone foolishly drops a line that is so blatantly offensive, you can't help but cringe? Well, I’m sure anyone who's kept up with the Kardashian-Jenner family over the past several days has been gritting their teeth. But as major a faux-pas as Kim Kardashian’s positive response was to being called "anorexic" by her sisters Khloé and Kendall in a recent series of Instagram videos, it’s jump-started a discussion exploring how to talk about eating disorders — a conversation that obviously needs to be had, considering it’s never OK to use anorexia or any eating disorder to describe a person’s appearance. Elite Daily has reached out to Kim, Khloé, and Kendall's teams for comment on the backlash, but did not hear back at the time of publication.

It would be naive to brush off these types of comments with a shrug, no matter what context they were said in or who actually said them. Anorexia, per the Mayo Clinic’s definition, is "an eating disorder characterized by an abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted perception of weight." It is a disease, both mentally and physically, and using anorexia to describe a person’s appearance, especially as an apparent "compliment," is extremely insensitive. However, there is a right way to talk about eating disorders, though it is certainly not in the context of humor or flattery.

"You wouldn’t joke about diabetes, would you? Or about alcohol addiction. Why would you joke about an eating disorder? Why would anyone’s suffering be funny?" These are the types of questions Yara Zgheib, author of the novel The Girls at 17 Swann Street, brought to my attention in an interview with Elite Daily when asked if it was ever appropriate to joke about an eating disorder. And she's right — why would you joke about someone else's suffering or, in the Kardashians' case, use it as a "compliment"?

According to Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the only time it’s really appropriate to discuss the topic of eating disorders is if you’re a) offering support to someone who's experiencing such a condition, or b) discussing the topic intellectually and factually, with concern, not with judgment or humor. If you hear anorexia or any other eating disorder alluded to in casual conversation or brought up with a kind of neutral tone, Derocha tells Elite Daily, it’s best to shoot it down because, in reality, there’s nothing “casual” about an eating disorder. Additionally, she says, trying to make the subject matter feel casual can sometimes have the opposite effect, because a relaxed attitude "could imply the person does not take eating disorders seriously, which may be taken offensively," she explains.

It's also worth noting, though, that just because you shouldn't joke about eating disorders, doesn't necessarily mean the conversations you have with someone about an eating disorder have to be heavy. "It’s fine to keep it lighthearted and positive," vice president of clinical outreach for teen rehabilitation center Newport Academy, Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC tells Elite Daily, because sometimes, people experiencing an eating disorder will use humor as a defense mechanism for themselves. Still, you're probably better off steering clear of jokes and casual comments regardless, Wilson warns, because your words could affect the person "more deeply than they let on."

If you find yourself confronting a loved one or friend who you think might be experiencing an eating disorder, approaching the subject with a certain level of sensitivity is especially important. Katie Willcox, model, author, creator of the social movement Healthy Is The New Skinny, and CEO of Natural Model Management, tells Elite Daily it's best to start what could become a very serious, heavy conversation on a positive note by sharing what you love and how much you care about this person right off the bat, before mentioning what it is about their behavior that has you feeling concerned for their well-being. Your focus, Willcox says, is to frame the conversation so the other person can discuss their eating disorder, and you can respond in a way that’s non-judgmental, from a place of love, and in a context that’s comfortable for your loved one based on how they respond to your concerns.

See, the reason why it's so important to know how to talk about eating disorders in a sensitive and appropriate way, is because you never really know who's suffering, and how your words can affect them. The next time you hear the topic of eating disorders brought up in conversation — be it casual or just an inappropriate context entirely — Robert Glatter, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, strongly suggests thinking before you speak. "Words can have powerful effects on people, and potentially lead to negative downstream consequences," he tells Elite Daily. And because you never really know what someone else is going through behind the scenes, he adds, it's better to be mindful than offensive.

Another good rule of thumb to keep in mind is this: When you find yourself in a restaurant with friends, or anywhere that food is present or people are eating, Glatter says it's best to avoid any and all conversations that focus on eating or not eating, eating habits, diets, and/or outwardly shaming yourself or others for the way they are eating. Going out to eat or eating in front of others can be stressful enough for someone currently experiencing or recovering from an eating disorder, Glatter explains, so being mindful of theses topics could save a loved one from feeling uncomfortable, or worse, from potentially feeling triggered and relapsing.

It's also worth noting that the way you approach the subject of eating disorders IRL should carry over to any similar discussions you might have on social media. One of the most proactive ways to go about doing this, Willcox suggests, is to unfollow any account that supports photoshopping women's bodies, objectifies women's bodies, or encourages women to aspire to look a certain way. On the flip side, Willcox recommends following accounts that do support body positivity, because the more you internalize posts that talk about women's bodies in a healthy, loving way, she says, the more likely it is that your own approach to the subject will change for the better, too. And, should you choose to post about eating disorders, Willcox says you should do so by sharing educational resources (such as National Eating Disorders Association, Eating Disorder Hope, and the Eating Recovery Center) on the subject and spreading awareness and support for those who are suffering.

Keep in mind that while, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States — with 0.9 percent of all American women experiencing anorexia nervosa during their lifetime — not all who are suffering are open about it. Anorexia, bulimia, and all other eating disorders are very serious medical conditions that should not be celebrated, but instead, supported and treated. It's best to be educated on the matter so you don't find yourself in a similar situation to the Kardashians, where you make a serious mistake in the language you're using in a way that could hurt others more than you think.

If you or a loved one needs help, or if you'd like additional information about Eating Recovery Center, call 877-789-5758, email info@eatingrecoverycenter.com, or visit eatingrecoverycenter.com to speak with a Masters-level clinician.