The canny ability of eating disorders to twist even the most kindly meant words is something that is experienced by almost all our patients. We originally published this post back in the summer of 2011 and have decided to share it again because an awareness of of this facet of ED is so valuable to patients, families and care providers at every stage of recovery.

I find myself explaining this many times to parents and friends of our patients: there is a secret language to eating disorders, one our patients have taught us. Unlike many other languages, however, this language consists mostly of an internal translator that takes what you say in English and translates it, transforms it, into something quite different.

These “translations” can be very distressing to the person speaking as well as to the person being spoken to, and the only good thing is that it is more or less predictable. Of course, it varies a bit from person to person, as language use does.

Example: (Said to a child who has been in the hospital for weight restoration, very ill and who now begins to look like there is life in them)  “You look wonderful!”  

Translation:  "You look fatter."

Example:  “You look more like my child again.”            

Translation:  "I will not be satisfied until you are fat again"

Example: (Said by a grandmother in desperation and deep concern)  “I wish you would eat a bit for the sake of your mother, honey.”    

Translation:  "You are ruining your parents’ lives."

Example: (Said by unwitting, inexperienced doctor)  “Great job with your food today!”

Translation:  "You ate like a pig."

Example: (Said by a father to portray sympathy with the child’s dilemma when given dinner)  “That is a lot of food.”       

Translation:  “You are being fattened up and if you eat it all you are a pig.”

Example: (Said by a desperate husband who loves his wife who restricts and purges)  “I love you no matter what size you are. I think you look great!”

Translation: “You like me at this size which I maintain with purging - let’s see if you would like me if I stopped!”

Example: (Said by a parent to a family friend)  “I am so proud of her/him. She/he is doing everything the doctors ask without a problem.”

Translation: "You are being disloyal to your eating disorder; you give in too easily; you are making it easy for them to fatten you up. You are weak."

Example: (Said by a proud parent to the doctor) “I am proud of how she is cooperating so well with you”.

Translation: "She is weak. She doesn’t really have an eating disorder."

Example: (Said by parent in family session)  “I never eat breakfast myself.”

Translation: "Only fat people eat breakfast."

Example:  (said by a parent in family session)  “We love our child no matter what size she/he is”

Translation:  "Even though she/he is fat we love her/him. Because we are her/his parents and we have to."

You might imagine that parents, friends and providers could feel that they “can’t win for losing” - but over time, given an understanding of this “secret language”, we can all learn to be careful. This is one of the things that makes navigating social settings so hard, especially in the beginning of treatment.  

The pitfalls are many. Learn the language. If your child looks stricken at an innocent comment, don’t let it pass. Gently explore what the internal translator said (or save it for family session).

Originally posted on July 30, 2011.