I have a friend I met during the summer on the East Coast, and she has a pretty serious eating disorder. I do my best to support her and try to get her to stop forcing herself to skip meals, but it’s harder for me to control her eating habits now because I’m no longer there with her. Her parents know about her problem and don’t seem to be helping in a positive way, and I’m really starting to worry about her. What can I do?
-DISTANT BUT CONCERNED FRIEND
DEAR DISTANT BUT CONCERNED FRIEND,
First of all, thank you for caring this deeply about a friend. It takes a lot to not only be there for your friend during the good times, but to stay just as caring during the bad ones. You are trying to help and support her even though you’re so many miles away from her and it is admirable that you are such a genuine friend.
Eating disorders have unfortunately been becoming increasingly common and difficult to spot. It is incredibly hard for someone else to notice when something is wrong, while the problem is there hiding in plain sight. Society doesn’t tend to recognize these problems as actual problems since there is a certain level of pressure to possess an “ideal body” because that is what is seen to be “perfect” or “beautiful” like many celebrities and models.
I think it is important to know that the term “model” does not correlate directly with “role model”. Fashion models’ job are to sell clothes by making themselves look good in pictures, not to be idols.
It’s easy and almost inevitable to see these public people’s measurements as favorable body proportions, and so often they are simply astronomically unrealistic. You don’t have to be half a foot above the average height and ten sizes below the average clothing or dress size to look good.
Many things tend to stem from insecurity — in the quest of trying to become more secure in your sense of self, you tell yourself that you must try to appear to the world as perfect so society can praise and validate you since you are unsuccessful at doing that for yourself.
Teenagers and adolescents are notoriously insecure, and it is helpful to know that insecurity is not a character flaw or some debilitating disease — rather, you are in the vast majority of teenagers if you are insecure in all or some aspects of yourself.
Looking at your body and telling yourself that it is imperfect the way it is could just be a way of trying to be perfect to mask that underlying insecurity.
Instead of trying new ways to have other people look at you and say that you’re perfect, one must truly prioritize self-care. The most loving and caring people in the world who are so kind to their peers and everyone else around them are sometimes not as kind to themselves. You yourself are someone to look after just as much so as a best friend or significant other. You cannot take care of other people unless you take care of yourself first — it is a fundamental step towards being healthy.
My advice to you is to continue supporting your friend. Be there for her, but please realize you cannot control her food intake and watch over her constantly, especially as you are physically so far away. Even if you could be right there all the time, it’s not your job as a friend and fellow teenager to be her conscience, psychiatrist or her doctor.
Encourage her to take care of herself. If she continues to worsen or stays the same, give her the support and strength to seek help. It is not something to be ashamed or insecure of. School counselors are a valuable resource one can turn to and they can help connect students to appropriate mental health and medical resources. They are also equipped and willing to work with your friend’s parents and help give them more psycho education.
There may be many excuses to not seek help such as believing it is not necessary, or that the help won’t be beneficial but if the condition is serious these are simply excuses. A mental illness is just as serious, and sometimes gravely more so, as a physical ailment.
When you’re physically hurt, you grab a band-aid and let the wound heal, unless the wound is much deeper — then, you require attention from professionals, because that hurt will not go away without help and can even worsen.
It is the same concept for mental diseases — if you let the hurt sit there and fester it could turn even more serious than it already is.
I know you probably want to fix it yourself because you care deeply for your friend, but the most helpful thing to do right now it to give her the strength to reach out to therapists and mentors who are trained to help with long-term solutions. I genuinely hope that her situation improves — sending lots of love to both of you.
No one should feel that they aren’t cared for or worthy of being loved, because they are, and you’ve heard that countless times before but I cannot begin to stress its importance.
It’s our job to improve the standards for what is “healthy”, and that doesn’t mean we have to change much, just being open to changing our outlook on ourselves and those around us and making a little effort to love a little more.
Dr. Moira Kessler, a child psychiatrist at the Stanford University Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, offers feedback to the column writer. She is not providing any clinical services.
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