**Please note, EROC is NOT a mental health organization, and intends in no way to provide medical advice. The intention of this blog is to inform friends and allies of vetted & widely accepted practices for supporting survivors and those recovering from an eating disorder**
Sexual assault and eating disorders are independently devastating and life-altering. Survivors face significant challenges in navigating recovery both from trauma and from disordered eating/exercise. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) states:
“Treatment of individuals suffering from an eating disorder should receive care for both his/her eating disorder as well as his/her traumatic experiences. If the trauma is not addressed during the treatment of an eating disorder, successful recovery will be extremely difficult, since the eating disorder may have developed as a method of self-defense for the victim. Important factors contributing to the success of treatment can include positive reactions to disclosure about a traumatic event, as well as strong support from family and friends.” (source: NEDA)
While most people cannot serve as a doctor, therapist, nutritionist, or social worker — we can serve in a vital role: that of a friend. Friends are essential in the recovery process, both in helping survivors secure and access treatment teams and providing emotional support.
Even those with the best of intentions can make missteps in supporting a friend navigating these complex issues. EROC has compiled resources from leading organizations in eating disorders recovery and survivor support to help you serve as an informed, supportive ally to your friends.
1. Know the Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder
While it is NEVER your responsibility or within your ability as a friend to diagnose an eating disorder, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder/disordered eating. Eating disorders are life-threatening conditions, and it’s important to detect the warning signs and remain aware of them. Remember that eating disorders take many physical forms — you can’t tell someone has an eating disorder simply by looking at them.
Below are two resources providing comprehensive lists of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders:
2. Validate the experience of your friends, and thank them for trusting you
If your friend comes forward to you concerned that they have an eating disorder, validate their experience. Just as it is important to tell survivors of sexua assault that you believe them, that they’re not alone, and that it’s not their fault — it is important for those facing eating disorders to know that you appreciate them trusting and coming to you, that you’re there to support them, and that their experience is important and worthy of recovery — period.
3. Avoid blaming/aesthetic language
Let’s state the obvious — victim blaming is the worst. Similarly, language that diminishes the experience of someone with an eating disorder or suggests that there’s an “easy fix” is highly problematic. Eating Disorders are mental illnesses — they are not a choice.
Here are examples of language to avoid:
- Aesthetic focused language:
- You look so skinny/thin/healthy/good
- You don’t look like you have an eating disorder
- Wow, you’ve lost/gained a lot of weight
WHY: When you tell someone they look “good/healthy” the disorder often skews that to mean “you’ve gained weight” — this can trigger anxiety and/or lapses. Similarly, saying you look so “skinny/thin” can cue to the disorder that its behaviors are “effective” and may reinforce problematic behaviors. Disorders take many forms — and suggesting that someone “doesn’t look like they have a disorder” is invalidating and triggering.
Examples of Simple Solution Language:
- “Well why don’t you just…?”
- “If you would just eat”
- “Can’t you just get over this?”
- “My friend did XX and it worked for them”
WHY: You are not a health professional. You do not have the right or authority to tell someone what they need to do to heal. You are there to provide support. Eating disorders are exceptionally complex and can be even more complicated when coupled with trauma from sexual violence. Simplifying them, and reducing them to being solvable with one “simple” solution is invalidating and misinformed. Everyone’s treatment trajectory is different. There is no “one size fits all” in recovery.
Below are important guides on other types of language to avoid:
4. Provide professional resources
As we’ve said a MILLION TIMES (maybe 3…), you are not a health professional. Don’t try to be.
While it is ALWAYS the right of the survivor to choose their treatment path, when it comes to eating disorders, it is exceptionally important to encourage medical intervention and provide resources because eating disorders are the #1 most fatal psychological illness. Along with physical ramifications, the emotional and mental toll of eating disorders can be improved with comprehensive medical treatment.
Below are some professional resources to consider:
The National Eating Disorders Association has an FREE online and telephone helpline for those that need assistance
RAINN has a comprehensive list of support specific to survivors of sexual assault
While sexual assault and eating disorders are horrible circumstances, your presence as a friend and ally can mean the world to a survivor and/or someone in recovery. Be present. Be supportive. Reinforce positive thinking. Check in on your friend. Create a safe and open space for your friend to come to. Ask how you can assist with assignments given by your friend’s treatment team (eat “scare foods” together, exercise time accountability partner, etc).
Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant gesture can mean the world to a friend.
Embody Carolina is an organization, founded at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that trains students to serve as supportive and effective allies for those struggling with eating disorders.
COLLEEN DALY is the Director of Media & Strategic Communications at EROC. She is a Co-Founder of Embody Carolina, an organization dedicated to preparing students to serve as compassionate and effective allies for those facing eating disorders. During her time at Northwestern University, Colleen conducted research with the Northwestern Body and Media Lab. She has presented her work on eating disorders advocacy and body positivity at the National Eating Disorders Association Conference, the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association Conference, and the Southeastern Collegiate Fitness Exposition.