Well, you may have noticed that this system is not restricted just to animals – humans are not immune from the effects of reinforcement and punishment, and it affects us regardless of how old or how intelligent we are and regardless of how much we know about it.
This can make eating disorders difficult to manage, because our society is set up in a way that rewards and reinforces disordered eating in a way that it rarely does when it comes to other mental health conditions. If we spend all day in bed because of a depressed mood, other people don’t tend to encourage us to keep doing exactly what we’re doing. They might respond with concern or assistance, and that’s fine. But no-one walks up to you and compliments you on the outcome. When it comes to eating, however, it’s a very different story. If someone loses 20 kilograms in three months because they’re restricting their food intake, exercising excessively, and their body is experiencing the effects of starvation, they’re often showered with praise. They seem like they’re making progress towards that perfect, societal ideal of shape and fitness and beauty that few can ever obtain.
“You look amazing”. “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up”. “You look so much healthier”. This kind of praise can be especially damaging when it comes from health professionals themselves, whose opinions we trust above all. The reality is that often in the early stages of an eating disorder, it can appear like a health-positive behaviour, and not even health professionals – psychologists, physiotherapists, and doctors included – are immune from misinterpreting signs.
Reinforcement, however, is not the only way in which our language around food and eating can contribute to a disordered eating mindset. Many of us are routinely told to eat fewer carbohydrates, reduce caloric intake, and shrink portion size. The language is subtractive – reduce, and limit, and abstain – and for an individual already vulnerable to developing disordered eating behaviours, it can be interpreted as encouragement to restrict. None of this is to say that these comments are malicious – often, the intent is quite benevolent, to make someone feel good about themselves and reward their hard work, or to encourage them to be more concerned about their health. Most of the time, we probably don’t think about it at all. But language matters – the language we use can affect how we perceive ourselves, and others, and the world around us. Sometimes, the language we use be harmful even if the intent is pure, or benign.
As a result, it’s best to avoid making appearance-based comments, particularly around matters such as shape and weight. We can never be sure the comments which might be tossed aside, and the comments upon which someone might ruminate for years to come. If we do make comments, it’s best to limit them to positive comments about things over which someone has control. Complimenting someone on the choice of colours in their outfit is different to complimenting them on their weight – one is likely harmless, while the other, despite often being made with the best of intentions, can result in long-term damage. We can also change the type of language we use when discussing food and weight in order to use more additive rather than subtractive terms. Consider language such as “I want to improve my fitness” or “I’d like to be able to run farther without getting tired” instead of “I need to lose weight”, or language like “I want to increase the proportion of fruits and vegetables in my diet” instead of “I need to cut out carbs”. The language we use affects how we think, and even small changes like this can have a powerful and beneficial effect. When we use our words to accept those around for who they are and how they look, we may be that lone voice of acceptance in a world which bombards them with messages that they are not enough, or too much, or simply not OK the way that they are.