Opinion The Aib Issue

How NOT to behave when your guest has an eating disorder

"If you think that your dinner guest is suffering from an eating disorder it’s important to make them feel loved and welcomed."

By Fatima Al Jarman

Illustration by Bahraini artist Halal Al Abbasi.

Collectivism may be one of the most prominent features of Arab culture. As an Emirati, Friday family gatherings, myriads of weddings and extravagant parties every other week are of the convention. As ashy child, I had hoped that as I grew older, attending such occasions would become less terrifying. But, I was unaware that my anxiety would grow as Idid. 

It is tough to engage with others, to effortlessly discuss this and that when you are surrounded by a legion of plates of colorful rice, glistening chicken and other traditional foods your mind assesses as ‘forbidden’. It is tough to indulge in the presence of others when the presence of food is far more conspicuous. It is tough when you have an eating disorder.

“Eating disorders are highly stigmatised in our societies.”

And your avoidance of food will not go unnoticed. Not when gossip and the scrutinising gazes of family and friends is as principal as collectivism is in modern Arab societies.

The aunt you have not seen in two months is guaranteed to give you a bewildered look when you reject the dessert being passed around. She will scoff when you say you are not hungry, turn to your mother and say with a laugh, “Why doesn’t your daughter eat?”

It is tough when the others at the table turn their attention towards you, as if the anxiety consuming you at the notion of consumption was not enough. Whispers will be shared, looks of distaste will be passed in your direction, your mother will nudge you to eat rather forcefully and you will begrudgingly comply. You will consume the closest dish to you, knowing full well that you won’t be able to sleep that night because you ate.

When someone has an eating disorder, it is not uncommon for them to feel incredible shame towards themselves, and they will often try their best to hide their disordered eating habits from the eyes of any onlooker. Being around others who commented on my eating, who said that I never ate, who questioned my actions and  who thought they had the right to say something about my body shape, made that shame intensify, and caused me to stop attending any family event in an attempt to avoid the comments from those I was meant to love and cherish.

“When someone has an eating disorder, it is not uncommon for them to feel incredible shame towards themselves.”

To anyone going through this, know that you are not responsible for the comments made about you. These words usually come from a good place, but also one of ignorance. Eating disorders are highly stigmatised in our societies, in addition to others around the world, but that does not excuse comments that make others uncomfortable.

As a community, we value collectivism, familial ties and bonds dearly, so why do we comment on others in a manner that might push them away?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when you are a spectator to a situation like the one I have mentioned above:

1) You’re never going to be completely sure as to whether or not someone has an eating disorder, so do not jump to conclusions. There are times when people are simply shy and so reject food.

2) To make others more comfortable, it is of good manners to ask them to eat. Just make sure that you address them directly, and try to avoid the attention of others.

3) If they reject once more, don’t push it —that would make anyone uneasy. Instead, change the subject completely.

4) If the person you are addressing does, in fact, have an eating disorder, know that there won’t be a single individual they despise more than themselves. Make them feel loved and welcomed. Make sure your words do not push them further away.

The opinions and perspectives of this storyteller are shared to provide a general perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Sekka nor are they the views of a medical professional. If you, or someone you know and care about, are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek urgent professional help.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees, and affiliates.

Fatima Al Jarman is a writer and student from the United Arab Emirates. As well as actively working to obliterate the stigma against mental health, she is the founder and editor of Unootha Magazine.