I am no doubt an introvert by nature. Quiet-time is a sacred gem that I store securely for a special moment in each day. Specifically, quiet moments alone with my words. Words have always created a “safe space” for me, and have served as a wonderful outlet for self-expression and reflection. I received my first journal when I was in the first grade, and ever since then I have made an attempt to recollect my thoughts and feelings around every pivotal event in my lifetime thus far. While in grade school, I discovered a love for writing short stories and memoirs. Every Christmas, I would write a new adventurous tale or thoughtful poem for my parents in lieu of the money required for a tangible gift.
Words always seemed to flow easily into my curious little mind, sometimes so feasibly that my writing hand couldn’t keep up with the sentences forming rapidly inside my head. I never enjoyed being pressured to write, though. In fact, it was mere torture trying to force the words to flow, while adhering to a random writing prompt posted on the classroom blackboard. Yet even so, I viewed writing as a gift. I saw words as a gift. It was because of this significance what words held in my own heart, that I sought to give to others this magical gift of words.
In Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, “Words of Affirmation” ranked right next to “Quality Time,” as my two best methods for giving and receiving love. In today’s world of fast-paced work life, tight deadlines, and a continuous mantra screaming “go-go-go”—words act as a clever vessel that force us slow down. It takes time to stop our frantic running around to read a collection of meaningful letters, yet the resulting words can be so meaningful, empowering, encouraging, and majestic. Even on the loneliest of days, words almost always seem to evoke a feeling of comfort (if applied in the right manner.)
Beautiful words can be precious as they make their way into our hearts. But words can also be harmful; they can bite, scathe, and scar. Choosing the right words when communicating with others, and with ourselves, can be crucial for our relationships, self-development, and well-being. And for someone who is stepping out onto the fringes of eating disorder recovery, words can either assist in the pulling towards a liberating life of renewal, or in the pushing backwards into the fiery pit of hell.
I will quickly note that I am currently speaking from a position of stable eating disorder recovery, therefore, my ability to passively discern and dismiss certain words or phrases has indeed grown stronger over time. Yet, even so, there are some thoughts and words which still make me cringe, even to this day. The following words and phrases are particular ones which I consider to be “curse words” for those who have ever severely struggled with such a severely dominating mental disorder. I am asking that as a reader, you would please take each of these notices to heart, especially when communicating with anyone whom you suspect may be struggling, or who has previously struggled with any kind of eating disorder or poor body image. My hopes are that you would be able to carefully consider your individual circumstance when interacting with your loved one who may be riding the recovery seesaw, and you would become empowered to pause and think before you speak. Your words matter, and your words can also heal. Make your communication thoughtful, and make it a priority.
1. Weight. Inches. Pounds. Size—[or any quantifying measurable words of any kind.]
This includes talking about yourself, your own body, and your own eating habits. Words like “calories, dress size, grams of protein, hours of exercise, etc,” are all words which dictate a specific number, and can actually serve as motivation to fall back underneath the eating disorder voice of betrayal; they are what therapists refer to as “trigger words.” Essentially, these words pull the trigger for a pre-existing perfectionist and obsessive nature. They trigger comparison and tempting thoughts. They can cause the individual to compare themselves to a previous version of themselves, or to compare their current habits to the habits of someone who holds a physique which they admire. These words place a value behind a specific numerical figure; they hint that our own value lies behind a symbol or number.
During my own treatment, the worst part of each session was the required weigh-in. I dreaded stepping up on that rocky metal scale, watching anxiously as the vile numbers climbed to reveal my new weight. I remember that when I was approaching the end of professional care with my treatment team, I was ordered to turn around and face away from the device, while they weighed me standing backwards (preventing me from seeing the number of pounds displayed.) Even the trained team of professionals understood that the numbers game was a mental battle, and that seeing them could send me physically spiraling backwards. Yet even still, so much of my treatment progress was centered around the scale.
From then on, that was where I found my worth. I still didn’t want to gain “weight”—that dreaded word that really no female ever wants to hear. I soon became very good at manipulating my awful relationship with that cold device of numbers. I knew where every single scale was in every gym and public restroom. Even though I hated the action of weighing in, the lying box still managed to temptingly call my name. I still found a sense of pride by standing up on the deceiving balance device and seeing a lower number. Yet, while I thought I was the one in control of all the numbers, the scale was the one that had gained control of me.
I remember the day I graduated to a shirt-size ‘Medium.’ For the last twelve years of my life, I had always been complimented by my petite size. “How do you stay so skinny??” People would ask. I will admit that even this politely-intended question is the wrong use of words for a recovering anorexic, because it places the emphasis on an outward perception of size and figure. I remember when even size XS was sagging on my poor emaciated little body, even though I preferred the snug fit of clothing around my malnourished bony frame. Now I shudder even thinking about those times, as I can proudly lift the tag titled “M” from the clothing wrack; allowing my new muscular back and naturally broad shoulders to finally settle in.
The fact is, numbers and sizes are all relative. One scale may be 5-10 pounds off from another. A size 6 dress in one brand of clothing may be a size 2 in a competitor’s style. One person’s nutritional needs and daily caloric intake may be different from their own identical twin. It just depends. But one thing is for certain: our value does not depend on a number, size, or quantifiable figure. We are so much more than a measurement on a screen.
2. “You look so healthy!”
I will say that I ABSOLUTELY LOVE these words now. But take me back 5-10 years ago, and these words would have pierced my ears. I understand that this type of comment only comes with good intentions, but lurking behind the complementing words themselves come the lying words of “you’ve gained weight.” While under professional care, it was all about getting to that “goal weight”— that “healthy” weight. Thus, the newly-recovering eating disorder victim associates this word “healthy” (when referring to themselves) as looking “heavier.”
Again, I will explain that with recovery, eyes and perceptions do change. Therefore, I now embrace this comment with wide open arms. “Healthy” is now my desired resting place, but it wasn’t always this way. In the past, I thought I was already healthy, though my eyes were sickly skewed. I thought my body could function in its starving brittle state, and I didn’t believe anyone else could rightfully judge whether I looked healthy or not. Though I was aware of the good intentions when others would say something like this, back when I was a new explorer along the recovery road, these words would actually serve as another backsliding trigger.
Even the words “You look so good!” were perceived as backwards motivation in my eating disorder brain—at least when I heard this from people who knew my history. Sometimes, when I would hear these words from a stranger who I knew admired thinness, this served as a compliment. But it is still a compliment which only feeds the little distorted thinking, creating an incentive to return to a restrictive lifestyle.
As I said before, I now take all of these associated words as genuinely positive compliments. In fact, I highly appreciate it when people notice the progress I’ve intentionally made in my personal health journey. So please, do tell me I look healthy. Please tell me I look “good.” Take the time to notice my new strength—it sincerely means the world to me. I am mentally in a place where I recognize these words for their true meaning, and I would agree with you about my own transformation. But when communicating with someone who has a recovery status of which you are uncertain, be respectful and sensitive to your observant language. Instead, try and use words which focus on other deeper qualities, rather than merely “looks”—use lines such as:
“I love your smile!”
“You seem so happy!”
“You sound so passionate!”
“You ARE so pretty!”
3. “Go eat a cheeseburger!!”
Just so we are clear, to this day I do not particularly enjoy cheeseburgers. Nor do I really enjoy sandwiches for the exact same reason. While scrambling in the initial treatment phase, both of these food types were considered “dense” foods, and perhaps easier forms of getting ‘more for your buck’, so to speak. The layered ingredients packed together are also mentally easier to accept, over an intimidating plate full of multiple separate menu items.
However, there was a time when I did choose to consume cheeseburgers while under strict supervision with my meal plans. But it was still my choice; I actually wanted the variety in my diet. The difference was simply this: I chose to order a bacon cheddar burger because the taste sounded appealing. I didn’t order it because my pediatrician (who was extremely uneducated on how to properly communicate to an anorexic teenager, I might add) told me I should, along with a ‘big chocolate milkshake.’
I didn’t order it because “everyone else was doing it”—frankly, “everyone else’s habits” were exactly what I was initially trying to avoid. Ignorant (and often inconsiderate) comments about why we are unable to “just eat a cheeseburger!” is utterly insulting. It makes the victim feel properly victimized. It makes them feel misunderstood. I never chose to be taken over by an eating disorder. It’s not simply a matter of fixing by “just going and eating something.”
When I finally comprehended the fact that my family and the doctors actually were trying to help me, I agreed to their care when I made them promise to help me by a healthy means. One of my motives for increasing my exercise in the first place was to improve my athletic ability—I had absolutely no concept of nutrition and calories. In my mind, I had given foods a label as either “good” or “bad,” and a cheeseburger was put on the “bad” list. In my weakest state physically and mentally, chained by my eating disorder mindset, I agreed to try and gain weight back the healthy way—through adequate and wholesome nutrition.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t eat a cheeseburger today if it were placed in front of me as the only menu option, but it’s just not something I would choose over so many other healthy dishes I consider to be fabulously delicious. I LOVE food, truly, I do!!! But I love it even more when it makes me feel good, and when it makes my body and mind thrive. Being forced to eat something that doesn’t necessarily satisfy my taste buds ruins the whole food experience. And unfortunately, the sly suggestion from my doctor to “go eat a cheeseburger,” sadly ruined my entire experience with the precious patty.
Instead, try understanding the difficulty of allowing certain formally “forbidden” foods back onto your plate. Invite us to lunch, but don’t be offended if we turn you down. Share a meal with us, but don’t make judgmental remarks if we decide to order a grilled chicken breast (which may be, to us, just as tasty as a juicy double whopper, if prepared appropriately.)
4. Eating Disorders. Anorexia Nervosa. Bulimia Nervosa. Binge Eating Disorder. OSFED.
You might be thinking, why did the specific diagnosis titles make this list? Weren’t these particular words used in this very same document? You are correct, my friend. But what some souls may fail to realize is that these words are quite debilitating. For years, these words filled our intuitive ears. These words were permanently printed on all of our medical records, and embedded into our suffocating brains as the essence of our existence. There was a time when these labels became our reality; they became our identity. These words soon took the place of our own very names. They were not names that we chose for ourselves, but somehow had woven their way into our monograms, while overpowering our individual sense of self.
Ever since my diagnosis, I have hated the word “anorexia.” Maybe it’s the deadly letter “X” boldly beaming in the middle, or maybe it’s the fact that the word also begins with the same letter as my first name. Regardless, I rarely use the word unless I have to. Heck, I still have trouble saying it out loud. This is one reason why writing is so much easier sometimes, because it takes the stabbing audible pain away. I remember when I first recognized this inner sensitivity: I was driving in the car, and as painful as it was, I began saying the crippling word out loud, repeating it over and over again.
“Anorexia”… “An-or-ex-ia…” Louder each time……”ANOREXIA…”
After saying this diagnosis label over and over to myself, I realized just how silly it was. Any word can be played off that way…try it sometime. Pick one word and repeat it out loud to yourself until it starts to sound…well, funny. It’s oddly hilarious and will force you to abruptly stop verbally repeating it. I share this exercise, because I am trying to make an important point here…yes, I was diagnosed with anorexia. As a matter of fact, I was diagnosed with anorexia, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder when I was a mere 12-years old. But for the next decade of my life, I let these words rule me. They manipulated my being, and told me I couldn’t have a life of freedom. They spoke false promises to me, yet I still fell for their trap— Every. Single. Time.
I understand that these words are necessary for a clinical diagnosis, and for intervention purposes. However, these words are just a cluster of letters, which are given way more power than they deserve. This simply highlights my point in the beginning, about how words can hold exceptional meaning. Choose them wisely, and think of other descriptions when describing the point you are trying to make.
“…My past mental condition does not define who I am today”
When referring to my past, I often like to resort, instead, to the following collection of words, creating possible sentences such as: “Yes, I suffered from extremely poor body image and fell into unhealthy behaviors as a teen, which then led to a difficult cycle of health complications. But now, I am FREE”—(or something along those lines.)
The bottom line is simply this: my past mental condition does not define who I am today. I no longer have an ‘eating disorder.’ I am no longer ‘anorexic.’ I am no longer ‘depressed.’ Sure, I still experience difficult moments, anxious thoughts, lonely days, and need to keep an extra eye on my nutrition. But none of those things define who I am inside.
Recovery is a journey, just like life is a journey. I no longer travel these roads alone as “Amanda, the anorexic.” Instead, I now hike these mountains with fellow veterans as “Amanda, a daughter of the King.”
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
~1 John 3:1