How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder or Body Image Issues

Body image is defined as both the mental picture you form of your own body and the attitude you have towards its characteristics. Eating disorders, which often stem from problematic body image, are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions around controlled eating that can affect every organ system in the body.

Those who struggle with negative body image — a deep feeling that their bodies are inferior to others — are significantly at risk of developing an eating disorder. Not everyone who has an eating disorder struggles with negative body image, and vice versa, but the two are often linked because many people with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa disproportionately connect their body shape or weight to their self-worth. If you or someone you know is struggling with either, help is available.

How to differentiate an eating disorder from issues with body image

Because of beauty standards in the media, and/or pressure from family and peers, body image issues are so common amongst women (and specifically adolescent girls) that they’ve become quite normalized in mainstream culture. Having an issue with our body image doesn’t directly cause, but does significantly increase, the risk of developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders involve abnormal eating habits, and become serious when they impair our normal social and/or physiological functioning. Oftentimes eating disorders occur in conjunction with deeper psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety.

Tips for supporting a friend with an eating disorder or struggling with body image issues

Whether you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder or with negative body image, there are things you can do.

Supporting a friend with body image issues

  • Avoid comments about your own body or other peoples’ bodies that reinforce beauty standards of thinness, or comments that might cause comparisons and negative feelings about a person’s body.
  • Compliment your friend on qualities not related to physical appearance such as a recent academic accomplishment or a kindness they offered someone.
  • Ask your friend what’s going on that might be contributing to negative self-image. Sometimes the very act of asking will invite new realizations and conversation.

Supporting a friend you think may struggle with an eating disorder

  • If you recognize that someone you know is struggling, reach out for help sooner rather than later (most eating disorders get worse over time).
  • Try not to enable or encourage unhealthy eating patterns, or negative body image, by catering to their desire to avoid food-related situations, talking about weight loss, or evaluating bodies.
  • Stay engaged and involved. Often, people use eating disorders as coping mechanisms in the face of difficult emotional problems. Controlling food is a way to exercise control. A crucial part of recovery is learning to rely on friends and family for emotional support instead of the eating disorder.
  • Approach your friend with empathy and acceptance. Eating disorders tend to be stigmatized and often induce shame in their victims.

How to know when to get outside support, advice, or help?

Early intervention with any issue is always preferable, and in the case of an eating disorder it could become chronic, so it’s important to seek help as soon as you notice any warning signs or symptoms. Even if you think it’s under control or your friend downplays the severity, it’s always better to take action and be wrong than to do nothing and have the issue become life threatening.

When to get help for yourself

It’s difficult to admit you need help, but if you recognize any signs of an eating disorder in yourself, reach out immediately. There is no shame in coming forward and it could save your life. We suggest talking to your doctor, a friend or family member, or calling a crisis help line. If you’re not sure where to begin, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.