For people trying to recover from eating disorders, the pervasive, socially acceptable increase in diet talk –as spring break and summer vacations approach– can be very stressful and risky. Additionally, listening to the weight loss compliments bestowed upon family and friends who embark on fad diets and quick weight loss can lead them to idealize aspects of these illnesses, minimizing the potentially devastating consequences.
We are all potential helpers and healers. In every interaction and conversation with family, friends, partners, and strangers, we can either increase light or cast shadows. Yet, sometimes we are unaware of the impact of our actions, especially when cultural norms unintentionally lead us to do harm. We have settled into a destructive normalcy around conversations focused on cutting out food groups, weight loss goals and body size & shape comparisons. Complimenting someone’s adherence to strict food rules or weight loss may seem kind and supportive, but it is not.
I am a psychologist and have spent a good portion of the last 20 years of my professional life helping adults, adolescents, and children recover from eating disorders which have among the highest mortality rate of all the mental illnesses we treat. Doing no harm for this group, therefore, is extremely important and cannot be left only to doctors’ offices. We all have a responsibility for how we talk about health, weight, bodies, and food. Our cultural norm is not normal. It is not your fault if you didn’t understand the negative impact of diet talk and weight compliments before now. You may not have known their negative impact.
Let’s say you have a friend who talks about dieting and losing weight. You want to be supportive, but how? If your friend is genetically vulnerable to an eating disorder, encouraging that person’s devotion to dieting may collude with his or her invisible biological vulnerability. If your friend already has an eating disorder, complimenting him or her may increase the normal, expected fears of recovery or become a spoke on the wheel to relapse. Furthermore, if you compliment your friend about her or his weight today, but then next time you don’t, the omission of an anticipated, hoped-for compliment may be experienced as criticism.
We can change this cultural norm. We are the culture. It is our norm. We can all change our conversations. Commit to not talking about dieting. Commit to not talking about your own weight gains or losses. Commit to not commenting on others’ weight. Commit to not treating health and thinness as synonymous. If you have a health problem, discuss it with your doctor.
The eating disorder research is clear that our cultural emphasis on dieting and thinness are contributors to eating disorder onset and the science is clear that health comes in all shapes and sizes. As spring and summer vacations approach, I hope you’ll be part of the solution, not the problem. Stop the diet talk and stop the weight loss compliments.
- Marson, Gia, www.PsychologistSecrets.com (2017). Take Steps To Do No Harm: Stop Weight Compliments, May 31, 2017.
- Mann, T., Tomiyama, A., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer; American Psychologist.
- Peat, C, Von Holle, A, Watson, H., Huang, L., Thornton, L., Zhang, B., Du, A., Kleinman, S., & Bulik, C. (2015). The Association between Internet and Television Access and Disordered Eating in a Chinese Sample, International Journal of Eating Disorders.
- Becker, A., Burwell, R., Gilman, S., Herzog, D. & Hamburg, P. (2002). Eating behaviors and attitudes following prolonged exposure among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls, British Journal of Psychiatry.
- Berge, J. et al (2013) Parent Conversations about Healthful Eating and Weight: Associations with Adolescent Disordered Eating Behaviors. Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics.
- Robison, J. (2005). Health at Every Size: Toward a New Paradigm of Weight and Health; Med. Gen Med.