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I'm in an online support group for people with anxiety, depression and these kinds of things (I already talked about it in this question).

The other day, someone with anorexia (her words) posted a picture of herself, explaining how she feels ugly and fat.

I wanted to tell her something that would improve her view of her body and, in the long run, might help her get out of anorexia.

What I didn't know was what kind of compliment could have that effect and which ones I should absolutely avoid because they could have had the opposite effect.

I finally decided to compliment her on her hair cut and glasses. Both things she can choose and has control over (and changing one of those wouldn't have any negative impact on her health).

She responded positively to these compliments (she engaged in a nice conversation with me). However, I'm still wondering about the long-time benefits of the compliments I gave her.

So, I guess my question is:

On what can I compliment someone with anorexia in order to improve their body image (and self-esteem) in the long run?

(I'm open to frame-challenges that would also improve this person's self-love without relying on complimenting).

A little more about this support group:

People in the support group are here to improve each other's self-confidence, self-love, etc... so complimenting others and sending virtual hugs to them is definitively part of what we do.

When someone is feeling low, we remind them that they have value and that they deserve to be alive, happy, and loved.

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    This question handles a very harsh and complicated psychological matter. I think it can only be answered by someone who has a substantial history with it, be it someone who sufferes/ed from it, or a professional, and I don't think this space is one where you'll find appropriate answers. – MlleMei Jun 26 at 19:37
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    @MlleMei I think you may be interested by this meta post on handling mental health questions where the person already benefits from professional help. Now I know we don't know whether it is the case here indeed, Ælis do you know more about it? – avazula Jun 26 at 20:19
  • @avazula I believe this person is indeed having profesional help (but I'm interest in what small thing I can do to help) – Ælis Jun 26 at 20:49
  • @MlleMei points out something very important. Given that people (primarily women) die from this condition, I personally think that this should be considered for closure. I find OP's desire to help commendable, but worry that the advice from well-meaning but unqualified strangers on the internet could wind up making things worse. – baldPrussian Jun 26 at 21:44
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    Personally, while I agree that a wrong answer could be very problematic, I feel having no answer is also very problematic. As it happens, so far, the question has two answers. While I'm not a psychologist, and I don't have an eating disorder (at least, not of the mental health variety), I used to be in several mental health support groups and knew a number of people who were struggling with this, and the two answers we have seem to me to fit the gist of the therapy they talked about going through. So it seems this space is one where we've found appropriate answers. – Ed Grimm Jun 27 at 4:59
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A person somewhat close to me has an eating disorder, not anorexia or bulimia though. So I'm answering form the perspective of someone who regularly interacts with a person who recognizes their condition and is in treatment.

in order to improve their body image (and self-esteem) in the long run

Be aware up front, you can't actually help with her condition. Anorexia is very serious and requires professional treatment. So, understand your limits.

This person I know is actually quite open about her condition, and will talk about it in context of her therapy sessions. Like "I had this crazy session with my shrink the other day..." Basically, she can talk about it, wink, wink, without actually talking about it. Yes, it's a not so subtle ask for encouragement but that's fine.

On what can I compliment someone with anorexia

What other people can't do is talk directly about her fixation, and since anorexia is about body image, avoiding weight or appearance is likely the same thing. It's good she took the glasses compliment well but it's also possible she was wondering if you really though they make her look fat. To an outsider, that sounds really silly, but these conditions can be quite consuming.

My person also likes to talk about things that distract her from her condition, like things she does while preparing meals but doesn't directly relate it to her condition. If you can determine if your person has a similar coping mechanism, you can engage her on that. Don't relate it to anorexia unless she does so first, and even then just let her vent. (I fell it's necessary to clarify that this is by no means a primary topic, she may not even bring it up for longer periods of time.)

Be very careful though, you can't in any way enable her. Listen, encourage, be supportive, but don't validate her self assessment.

But maybe more important, if she understands you're also seeking support, just chatting with someone else really helps, even if it's just about the weather or how you both hated the end of Game of Thrones. That's the whole point of the group.

Since you both willing participants in a support group, a frame challenge isn't needed.

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Anorexia is an illness. I’ll bet that the person in question wasn’t fat. So the problem is to make her see herself as she is, correctly. If you give her compliments, she may like to hear them, but she “knows” you are just lying to her to make her stop losing her fat, because she “knows” she is fat. The problem is that she looks in the mirror and sees a fat person, while you might see a person that is malnourished.

I’d talk to a psychologist how to handle this, or get some good books about the subject. Improving her self esteem as you did by not talking about anything not weight related is probably a good idea.

But what I learned in Psychology 101 was: Anorexia is often caused by a lack of recognition, by nobody taking much notice of the person. The anorexia makes people take note of her, but for all the wrong reasons. Like you noticed her and made compliments because she doesn’t eat. It’s unreasonable and destructive but your subconscious mind doesn’t care about little details like that. That’s why I recommend talking to a proper professional.

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    Let's assume that this is advice given by a psychologist. what then? – tuskiomi Jun 26 at 17:26
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    Based on having a family member who is anorexic, I'd say that it's not going to be possible to do anything via chat that effects a cure. It's unbelievable how someone can be skin and bones (literally) and still be sure they are "fat". – DaveG Jun 26 at 20:24
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    Since this is a sensitive issue, I think the experience stated here (Psychology 101) is a bit light to provide a good answer. Do you have anymore experience with this kind of issue ? – MlleMei Jun 27 at 8:16
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    Hi gnasher729! @MlleMei raised an interesting point about your backup source. Could you tell us whether you had psychology classes in college, or is studying psychology a hobby of yours? – avazula Jun 28 at 5:39
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    Another point about the Psychology101: If you can remember the relevant course materials and quote them, that would be great! – Tinkeringbell Jun 28 at 7:37
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OP here. I was hoping that someone with anorexia would write an answer, since this hasn't been the case so far, I decided to write an answer based on the external source of someone who had anorexia.

I'm writing this answer based on this external source. It's a blog post written by someone who had an eating disorder.


Here is a summary of what is said in this external source:

Don't comment on the person's body shape.

There really is no right or safe way to do it. Anything you say can and will be misinterpreted.

Especially, don't say:

But you’re already so skinny!

If the person wants to be skinny, then they will be happy about this and it will encourage them to become even more skinny.

On the other hand, if the person is trying to recover from anorexia, they might associate "skinny" with "ill" and this might discourage them.

Also, don't say:

You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.

People who are overweight (according to society standards) can still have an eating disorder. And if people around them don't believe that, then it could be very dangerous for their health, leading them to not be treated for a disorder they do have.

Don't say either:

I wish I looked like you

People with an eating disorder suffer and are constantly fighting against their brain. Telling them "I wish I looked like you" without thinking about all the pain they go through is very insensitive.

You also shouldn't say:

You look so healthy!

More explanations here will come later, but you could still read the blog to know about it.


However, here are some of the things you can do:

Take the focus off of their body. Some of the most thoughtful, kindest, unforgettable compliments I have ever received had nothing to do with my body image.

Here are some compliments examples that the person writing the blog suggest you to use:

  • Compliment on "their refreshing personality"

  • "their witty sense of humor"

  • "their exceptional intelligence"

  • "the sparkle in their eyes"


Some other relevant links:

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