How to be an ally
1. Use the correct pronouns and names and correct yourself if you slip up
Using a person’s correct name and pronouns is a simple way to show a friend or family member that you love and respect them. If you mess up, apologize without defensiveness, correct yourself, and move on. Don’t make a big deal about it and avoid centering yourself.
2. Take the initiative to educate yourself
Actively seek out LGBTQIA+ and eating disorder learning resources and guides. It’s important not to put the onus on your loved one to educate you as that can be emotionally exhausting and distressing. Familiarize yourself with the factors which increase the likelihood of LGBTQIA+ folks developing an eating disorder and barriers that make it harder for members of this community to access treatment.
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3. Listen with an open mind and heart
If your loved one feels comfortable enough to approach you about something, make sure to receive them and their comments from a non-judgmental and compassionate place. Avoid getting defensive or avoiding accountability.
4. Avoid making assumptions
Never assume any person’s gender, pronouns, or sexuality. If you aren’t sure what terms to use for someone, ask in a respectful way. In the same way, you never want to make assumptions about your loved one’s eating disorder, how it affects them, and the nature of their recovery. It is also important not to make assumptions about what type of eating disorder a person has, or how well they are doing in recovery, based on their body size, shape, or weight.
5. View the term ally as an action, not a label
The importance of being an ally lies in taking action to fight stigma, promote change, provide support, and speak out against oppression. This means speaking out when you hear people making offensive or ignorant comments. It means correcting others if they use the wrong name or pronouns for trans and nonbinary people. And it means being consistent in your support and allyship.
6. Challenge your own biases
Nobody’s perfect. Everyone is going to have their own prejudices, even people within the LGBTQIA+ community, which is why it’s so important to assess and challenge your own biases, assumptions, and stereotyping behavior. Understand that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are not a monolith—it’s important to recognize that everyone is unique, with different backgrounds, challenges, opinions, and beyond.
7. Accept that you may make mistakes
Allyship is an ongoing learning and unlearning process. And along the way, you’ll likely make mistakes, whether that involves accidentally deadnaming someone or saying or doing something that could trigger your loved one’s disordered eating behaviors. Accept that you are going to slip up from time to time and focus on what you can control: how you apologize, respond, and move forward.
8. Stop making body-related comments
Do your best to not use body–and appearance-related comments. Whether you are discussing a celebrity’s weight loss, talking about a family member’s eating habits, or bringing up your own diet, these types of comments can be triggering for your family member or friend in recovery. Plus, emphasizing a person’s appearance and body promotes diet culture, anti-fat bias, body shaming, and weight stigma while devaluing who they are as a person.
If your loved one is trans, nonbinary, or gender expansive, you will also want to avoid making unsolicited comments about their body, appearance, medical history, or intentions for medical transitioning (e.g. will they take hormones?). Not only is this an invasion of privacy but it also may draw attention to unwanted parts of the person’s body or communicate to them that they need to medically transition to be “trans enough.” Trans and nonbinary people often feel pressure to engage in eating disorder behaviors to make their bodiess more closely conform to narrow gender ideals, so comments about their body and gender can be especially harmful. If your friend or family member brings these topics up with you, listen respectfully without giving your opinion and ask them what you can do to be supportive.
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9. Avoid labeling food as good or bad
Diet culture has made many of us believe that certain foods are “good” or “clean” while other foods are “bad” or “toxic.” This dichotomy is not only an unhealthy way to view food, since food is fuel and provides us with life-giving energy, but it is also classist and doesn’t take into account inequity and all of the systemic issues that contribute to it, such as transphobia, homophobia, anti-Blackness, racism, ableism, and more. There is also a pervasive problem with diet and wellness culture demonizing many cultural foods traditionally eaten by people of color.
10. Fight stigma
Eating disorders, queerness, and transness are all extremely stigmatized in our society. Fighting mental health stigma involves educating yourself, speaking positively about seeking mental health treatment and support, being conscious of language, and advocating for access to care for both mental health and physical conditions. When you hear someone making toxic or stigmatizing jokes or comments about eating disorders or LGBTQIA+ identities, you must consistently speak out and correct people.
11. Make food considerations when hosting
When you are having a get-together at your house, you’ll want to ask your loved one what types of foods they’d prefer and if there are any types of food that may be triggering for them. You’ll also want to shut down any negative talk about portion sizes, food shaming, or dieting, and encourage all of your guests to engage with food however works best for them. It’s also a good idea to make sure the focus of the gathering or meal is that of enjoying each other’s company, rather than the food itself.
12. Ask how you can support them
No one expects you to be a mind reader. When in doubt, ask your loved one what you can do to support, encourage, and empower them. This may change over time as they discover more about their needs and what does and doesn’t work for them. Be flexible and willing to take feedback.
13. Understand that an eating disorder is a multifaceted illness
There are many persisting myths about eating disorders that stigmatize these mental health conditions, with one of the major ones being that eating disorders are simply extreme versions of diets that can be started or stopped at any time. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Eating disorders, much like other mental health disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), develop due to a combination of environmental and genetic influences. By understanding the complex nature of eating disorder development, progression, and recovery, you can offer compassion and kindness.
14. Avoid self-criticism and diet talk
Along the same lines of avoiding body talk, you’ll also want to avoid talking about yourself in a negative manner. Criticizing your weight, size, shape, or eating behaviors can trigger your loved one to return to disordered eating behaviors. You may also find that when you cut out this harmful self-talk, you’ll feel better about yourself.
15. Recognize your own relationship with diet culture
For many of us, even if we don’t have an eating disorder, our relationship with food has been negatively impacted by diet culture messaging encouraging restriction and glorifying the thin ideal. We may unconsciously feel we should be striving to eat less of certain foods or verbally justify our decision to eat a larger portion or a food that has been labeled “unhealthy.” Challenging these thoughts and behaviors can help improve our own relationships with food and help us to create a safer and more supportive environment for those in our lives struggling with eating disorders.
16. Familiarize yourself with HAES
HAES, which stands for Health at Every Size, is a public health approach that challenges weight-related assumptions, celebrates body diversity, and approaches health care without pathologizing weight or making assumptions about the relationship between weight and health. (1) This approach can help you change how you speak about yourself and those around you as well as combat weight stigma and discrimination.
17. Don’t out them without their permission
Never out your friend or family member without their explicit permission. This goes for their gender, sexuality, and eating disorder. Even if they trusted you enough to tell you, that doesn’t mean they feel the same way about others. Just like sexuality and gender are a spectrum, so is coming out. Some people may be out at work while others are not. Some may feel comfortable telling a group of strangers while others may not. In these times, let your loved one lead the conversation and you should follow their cues. You can also ask them what their comfort level is. Eating disorders are personal health information and may be a sensitive topic for many people because they are both stigmatized and sensationalized in the media. It’s important not to disclose that your loved one has an eating disorder or is in recovery to anyone else without their explicit permission.
18. If you are cisgender or heterosexual, recognize your privilege
If you are cisgender, heterosexual, or both, you hold a certain amount of privilege and power compared to queer and transgender people. A good ally recognizes the privilege they have that allows them to move through the world while facing less oppression, as well as have access to opportunities and resources. Recognizing and owning your privilege helps you to contextualize the inequity of our society as well as the systemic issues that contribute to various mental illnesses, such as eating disorders.
Ultimately, being an ally involves acting in such a way that other people, namely LGBTQIA+ folks and those in eating disorder recovery, recognize your allyship and consider you a supportive friend or relative, rather than you giving it to yourself. It’s less about being able to call yourself an ally and more about what your allyship does to help support queer and trans people, destigmatize eating disorders and queer and trans identities, and make our communities safer for marginalized people.
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