There was a time in my life where, despite having a BMI below 15, I was completely convinced that I was too fat. My mind would wander to thoughts about food and weight the moment something else was not distracting me. I was obsessed with being thin and attaining my definition of perfection.
Throughout my battle with anorexia nervosa, I continued to go to church. Many friends at church were aware of my struggle. I can’t tell you how many times I was told that I was “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms 139:14) and therefore I should be satisfied with my body. Or that my body was “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19) and, therefore, I should honor my body and treat it well.
These things are true, and were well meant, but let me tell you a secret: All a person with anorexia nervosa hears when you tell them those things is that they are failing God and that they are unacceptable.
So the question is this: What are some helpful things you can say to a person who is suffering from the crippling condition of anorexia nervosa? Below, I humbly offer four suggestions. I know they would have helped me.
1. You are acceptable to me.
A person with anorexia does not believe that they are acceptable to anyone in their present physical state. This mindset needs to be challenged. Let your friend with anorexia know that even in the midst of their struggle you still love them and want to be with them. Let them know that they are not an outsider, but welcome in the community of believers. Accept their battle, don’t reject it.
2. You are acceptable to God.
Although it may seem to make no impact, it is important that Truth is spoken over the lives of people with anorexia because they believe so many lies about themselves. The most important truth in my view is that they are loved and accepted by God while they are struggling, not just when they are victorious over their urges.
God is close to them on the days when they win and on the days when anorexia wins.
3. It’s a mental health condition, not a sin condition.
A mental health condition such as anorexia nervosa may in the larger scheme of things exist because we live in a fallen and sinful world. However, it is important to remind your friend who has anorexia that every time they struggle to eat they are not being sinful. Anorexia often manifests as a voice in the individual’s head that berates them all day, telling them that they are not good enough and often that they are sinful too.
Counteract this negative voice with the reassurance that they are acceptable to God in their sickness, and that having a mental health condition does not make you more sinful than someone else who does not struggle with food and weight.
4. The pain will end in heaven.
The truth about anorexia nervosa is that for many sufferers it is a lifelong battle. The anorexic voice in one’s head may not always be shouting, but it is likely to continue whispering for many years. Don’t tell your anorexic friend you are sure they will get better soon, because your friend knows that this may well be a long struggle.
Instead, I suggest encouraging them to cast their eyes towards eternity, towards a time where there will be no more psychological pain. That is the only hope you can be sure in giving. Encourage them to hold onto that, and hold onto it yourself as you also pray for their healing while on this earth.
is a Rhodes Scholar studying for a MSc in Social Intervention at the University of Oxford. She also holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Cape Town. She is passionate about opening conversations about mental health in the church and society in general.