Eating disorders are profoundly complex and they vary a great deal from person to person, but there are some common themes in the stories of people who struggle with them. Often there is some kind of negative affect – depression or anxiety or rage or grief, etc – that the person wants to be able to control. They may also have internalization of the "thin ideal", along with strong body dissatisfaction. They may feel that everything else in their life is out of control, but one thing they can control is food and fat. And so they begin to manage their negative affect with dangerous behavior around food.
So disordered eating isn't really about the food, it's about the underlying feelings; and recovery often involves learning more positive ways to manage those feelings, as well as healthy ways to manage food and physical activity. People recover from eating disorders! It takes time and patience, but recovery happens!
There are three basic patterns to disordered eating:
In all three cases, the key is that the person is using food to manage their feelings.
Disordered eating isn't ultimately about the food so talking about what a person is eating or what a person looks like isn't really going to help. And change doesn't happen all at once, like flicking a light switch, it's a gradual process, so your job is not to change your friend, it's to support them in moving gradually along the continuum of change with three tools:
If you are worried that a friend's health might be at risk, tell someone like your Res Life staff, who'll be able to pass the info on to the professional staff.
University Counseling Center
Developed by Dayton Walsh, Ph.D., University Counseling Center, updated August 26, 2016
585-275-3113 * University Counseling Center Website * University Counseling Center Facebook
* Adapted from "She's Eating That?" Ending Fat-talk and promoting a body-positive house community. Smith College Wellness Office