The One Sentence You Should Never Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder

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The One Sentence You Should Never Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder

By Lindsey Hall 03/03/16

Be careful what you say to someone. Be gentle. Eating disorders are quick to manifest and hard to unshackle.

The One Sentence You Should Never Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder

“I can’t even tell that you have one.”

This sentence helped take away eight years and 40 lbs of my life. Such simple, few words that we say all the time.

“Oh, you’ve gained weight? Couldn’t tell.”

“You have a pimple? Couldn’t tell.”

“You got a haircut? Couldn’t tell.”

We’re human and our sensors are overloaded by stigma. We don’t always notice much outside of our peripheral. However, to someone with an eating disorder, that sentence continues to breakdown conversation for someone who may need the professional help that our country can provide.

For the better half of my young adult life, I struggled with disordered eating. I have a great family, loyal friends, and a slew of loving partners mixed in throughout those years, but I could never find the voice to tell them the reality of my life behind the closed doors of anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and over-exercise. After a few years I was miserable, lonely, and absolutely terrified that my body would never be able to recover from the damage I was inflicting, but on I thrashed for another three years before someone finally stepped in.


Because I never felt thin enough.

I was scared of hearing that exact sentence of which I’m writing about now. At 5’3", I am a short person. I have never been classified as overweight. The opposite actually—I grew up underweight. For someone like me, losing weight is never drastic when you're on the thin side.

For years, I heard people compliment my weight. I watched as girls rolled their eyes in high school when I could fit into certain sized jeans, and I relied on my frame to stroke my ego when for two years, I needed to wear a back brace for 18 hours a day due to scoliosis. 

Naturally, as I hit puberty and started college, I gained weight, and it quickly became the end of the security in my world. I had gained no more than 10 lbs, which was exactly what a normal weight looks like, but to my body dysmorphia, it was unmanageable. I had lost my “thin” childhood identity, and immediately all the shame of wearing a back brace to parties and the other various insecurities festering inside of me emerged. For the rest of college, I spent every day attempting, and failing, to lose that weight. Restricting turned to binging, binging turned to purging, and purging turned to exercise addiction—my weight fluctuated up and down those 10-15 lbs no matter what I did.

In other words, it was mostly unnoticeable to the naked eye.

Eating disorders are often still associated with emaciation, but the reality is that most people with eating disorders fluctuate rapidly in their weight—and often. If you think about it, it makes sense. It’s hard to keep off weight for a “normal” person on a diet. Now take that and think about someone who is limiting his or her caloric intake to a handful of grapes and a slice of cheese.

It’s unmanageable.

Likely, someone who is struggling with restricting will break at times and eat (or overeat) like a healthy person would simply because they’re famished or maybe even attempting to just be “normal.” There are countless weeks I can remember running excessively and eating like a rabbit, but inevitably I’d break and eat an entire family-size bag of Doritos in my bed.

Eating disorders become a chore, much like making the bed every morning—and sometimes you don’t make the bed, or make it lazily right? That’s often how someone with an ED operates. Some days, you’re diligent at your job. Other days, you’re bored and clicking around on the Internet.

Regardless, eating disorders are a constant mental struggle, and it wasn’t until eight years into mine that I finally had pushed myself to the brink.

At 23, I was severely underweight from running for hours a day—I’d finally “won.” Caressing my back bones in the mirror, I’d stare at them in the bathroom and think, “You’ve finally done it. You’ve broken the ED cycle.”

But, I began to realize, what was I actually winning? I was finally validated, I thought. And yet I was still absolutely bloody miserable.

Still unsure whether or not my eating disorder was “severe enough,” it wasn’t until I visited a friend in California that I finally knew I was sick. As I bounded off the airplane—my shorts hanging loosely off my hips—I watched as his face froze in horror, and I smiled. I knew then that people could tell I had an eating disorder.

I gleefully observed a text exchange between he and my friends back home and thought, “Yes! Now maybe someone will help me.” I had yet to find my own voice and develop the self-respect to reach out for myself, so I took a backseat to my life, waiting for someone to put me back together.

It took six more months—six more months of trying to maintain an underweight frame, six more months of struggles and fluctuations. And in the end, it was two boxes of cereal that finally got me that help I so desperately needed.

Aware of my rapidly deteriorating frame, my parents were secretly watching my food intake, and took heed when they saw I’d cleaned out the pantry of two boxes of cereal in one day. After eight years, someone finally said to me, “I can tell you have an eating disorder.”

And from there, my life changed.

In treatment, I came to understand that eating disorders starve you of all self-worth. I had lied and deceived for so long that I no longer trusted myself, and so I became dependent on the words and reflections of other people. The truth is that I knew I was sick all those years. I knew that no matter what my weight read on a scale, I was suffering, and yet I couldn’t voice it because I relied so heavily on the validation of others.

In short, be careful what you say to someone. Be gentle. Eating disorders are quick to manifest and hard to unshackle. The sentence, “I can’t even tell that you have one,” serves no purpose other than to send the message that one must “work harder” in order to really “have” an eating disorder that validates any consideration. And that, I’m afraid, is truly the most dangerous game.

A misplaced Texan living in NYC, Lindsey Hall is a book publicist by day and eating disorder recovery activist by night. In recovery for nearly two years, you can find more insight into the eating disorder recovery process on her blog, or Instagram and Facebook.

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