One of the key steps in recovery from eating disorders, ranging from binge eating to anorexia, is stopping dieting behaviors and the dieting mindset. Often, the choice to not engage in dieting, fat talk, and unhealthy behavioral patterns is a difficult one to make—and the other important people in your world may not be on the same page. Reconnection with other people after the isolation of an eating disorder is important, and the compassion and intimacy of close relationships can support eating disorder recovery. However, we also know that certain kinds of behaviors by friends or family—including comments on eating, dieting, or weight—can make recovery more difficult. What should you do if your friends or family are obsessed with dieting and weight?
Comments about weight—whether seemingly positive or negative—often create a social pressure towards thinness that can worsen eating disorder symptoms. The comments don’t even have to be targeted towards you for them to be upsetting. When a friend, roommate, or family member talks about how “fat” they feel or some new diet they’re on, it can stir up negative feelings of social comparison. You might wonder whether others are having the same negative feelings about your weight, shape, or current eating patterns. Anything that turns the attention away from the nourishing and enjoyable properties of eating and towards calories or weight control can make interactions with others challenging.
When you find yourself engaged with someone whose behavior or comments are triggering, you have three fundamental choices: get out of the situation, disengage internally, or assert your needs. These strategies are useful for different types of situations and for relationships with different degrees of closeness.
Get Out: Often, the best option is to not spend time with people or in situations where there are likely to be lots of triggering comments and behaviors. If you have a friend who you know is prone to making negative comments about her own body, try not to go clothes shopping with her. If there are co-workers or family members whose dieting or binge eating creates tension for you, try to spend time with them in other healthier ways, like going for a walk or sharing a favorite TV show. This strategy works best with people with whom you have more limited contact and in situations where you have control of who is around you. Importantly, this option doesn’t mean that you should try to always eat alone; choose instead to share meals with people who you know model a positive, healthy relationship with food. You might also want to think about “getting out” of social media, or at least limiting your use. Research has found that social media use is associated with a greater idealization of excessively thin body types, body dissatisfaction, and more eating disorder symptoms. This might be a good time to dial down your social media use, or to intentionally connect with sources that promote recovery and health at every size.
Disengage: This strategy refers to tuning out the negative information around you when you can’t get away from it. You might use cognitive restructuring strategies from cognitive behavioral therapy to reframe your reaction to someone else’s behavior. For example, if someone else’s comment that they put on “so much weight over the Christmas holiday” leads to wondering whether they’re also judging your body, catch and check that thought. It’s more likely that their comments are only about them, and that your body and eating habits are not something that they give a lot of thought. Alternatively, you can use mindfulness strategies to turn your attention away from the negative parts of the interaction and towards other, more pleasant parts of your experience. For example, if you find yourself noticing how little a friend is eating over lunch, reorient your attention to the physical sensation of your feet on the ground, listen attentively to the story she’s telling, or notice in detail the taste of your own food. Reorienting away from the problematic triggers and towards thoughts and behaviors that support your recovery is a good choice for situations that you can’t get out of in the moment, or when leaving a situation would get in the way of an experience that is important to you.
Assert Your Needs: If your closest or most important connections are the ones who engage in dieting behaviors and negative body talk, you will most likely need to address that problem head on. Borrowing a skill from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, DEAR MAN, provides an outline for one effective way to ask for change. DEAR MAN is an acronym that provides instructions for effectively asserting one’s needs. First describe the facts of the situation, something like “I notice that you make a lot of negative comments about your body” or “When we’re eating together, you sometimes comment on the calories in the food we’re eating.” Then express your feelings about the situation: “When you talk that way, even when it’s not about me, it stirs up negative feelings about my own body that I’m working really hard to overcome.” Assert what it is that you want “I’m hoping that we can make a pact to not engage in “fat talk” with each other” or “I’d like for us not to talk about calories when we eat.” And then reinforce your request by telling them what the positive effects of that change will be: “I think we’ll both be in a better mood and more able to enjoy our time together if we keep body positive.”
Although it can feel challenging to navigate relationships while in recovery from an eating disorder, you can think of this change as an opportunity to cultivate the healthy, supportive relationships that you want to have for the rest of your life.
ASDAH, Health at Every Size® (HAES®) Principles.
Linehan, M.M. (2014). DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.
Linville, D., Brown, T., Sturm, K., & McDougal, T. (2012). Eating disorders and social support: Perspectives of Recovered Individuals. Eating Disorders, 20, 216-231. DOI: 10.1080/10640266.2012.668480
Mabe, A.G., Froney, K.J., Keel, P.K., (2014). Do you “like” my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47, 516-523.
Meno, C.A., Hannum, J., Espelage, D.E., Low, K.S.D. (2008). Familial and individual variables as predictors of dieting concerns and binge eating in college females. Eating Behaviors, 9, 91-101. doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2007.06.002
Shomaker, L.B., Furman, W. (2009). Interpersonal influences on late adolescent girls’ and boys’ disordered eating. Eating Behaviors, 10, 97-106. DOI: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2009.02.003
About The Author:
Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D., is a psychological scientist, teacher, and therapist. She is the Director of the UCLA Psychology Clinic, has authored more than a dozen scientific articles, and is on the editorial board of The Counseling Psychologist. She also has a private practice in Los Angeles focused on evidence-based treatments.
Written – 2017