The woman at the gym

There’s this woman who goes to my gym. She’s always a few ellipticals down from me. She is very tall, and all of her bones stick out. I try not to look at her more than twice or three times. I don’t want to be rude. She is wearing a tank top that flops. It billows. Her arms pump back and forth, the sinew stringy and sharp, her wrists like glass stems. Her face is gaunt, the skin pulled back.

It’s a little like watching someone cutting herself. Like watching a diabetic, like Bear, eat a bucketful of maple syrup. Except maybe if someone was sitting there with a knife, slicing their own arm open, we could say something.


We don’t say anything to each other anyway. We walk past homeless people on the street. It becomes easier and easier, the longer you live in the city. Someone is crying on the subway, but it feels too awkward to ask if they are OK.

Part of the problem is that we’ve learned that saying something is almost always offensive. It’s presumptuous. The people who say something are guys on the street who yell things at women. They’re casual acquaintances who make an inappropriate remark about how much weight we’ve been gaining. They are people without tact or sensitivity. We have learned to be very careful, because we don’t know the whole story. Because we know that everyone makes different decisions. Because we’re supposed to respect everyone’s decisions. Because we don’t want to step on any toes.

When I write about weight I have to be careful not to say anything insulting about skinny women. When I write about feeling unattractive, I have to be careful not to say something that might offend people who are very comfortable with their looks, or very stereotypically hot. A few people got offended when I wrote disparagingly about applicator tampons, because they use them.


I was close with a girl who had been hospitalized with an eating disorder. She became a vegan, and seemed to use veganism as an excuse to not eat much of anything. But no one wants to have that conversation with me, it seems. Because it’s insulting to vegans. Because I shouldn’t suggest that all women who are vegans have eating disorders.

I don’t want to suggest that. But I want to talk about this girl. And a few other girls I’ve known, actually, who were quietly wasting away as everyone around them politely respected their right to be vegans.

There is a point when political correctness hurts us. It prevents us from being honest with one another. It makes honesty synonymous with inappropriateness. It doesn’t even leave much room for careful, caring, thoughtful openness.

I don’t know that if I, or anyone else, approached the woman on the elliptical and expressed concern she would be anything except horrified and offended. She probably would be. Or maybe she’d tell me, “I have cancer!” as if I should have known. There definitely isn’t a convenient answer.

But to the extent that we still tiptoe nervously around eating disorders and pretend we don’t see them when they are right in front of us, something needs to change. Otherwise, how can we keep going back to the gym, and watching women fade around us? And won’t it be that much easier to quietly start skipping meals ourselves? Knowing that first people will say, “Oh, you’ve lost some weight! Good for you!” And then a few of our mothers and best friends will say, “I’m worried about you.” And after that,  no one will say anything at all.


*  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love the way you can see the currents in my hair, flowing different directions, when I look in the mirror after waking up.

New post at Un-schooled, about laziness.


Kate on February 8th 2011 in body, life

61 Responses to “The woman at the gym”

  1. Phoebe responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:08 pm #

    I love what you have to say. Sometimes I think people are so afraid of brushing anyone the wrong way, or saying something that could be taken offensively. I know I am am, and I wish I wasn’t afraid of being honest but It’s part of the society we have been brought up in, to tip-toe around never really looking too close.

    But in another way you have to respect individuals choices, but when does it get to the point when their choices are not right? and who am I to tell them there not right?

    Love this post :)

  2. Erin Block responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:12 pm #

    Wow…your post hit home…once, I was kind of like that vegan girl you speak of. Here is a bit of my story…

    I’m gaining weight, and loving it! :)

  3. Autumn responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:18 pm #

    Oooh, the veganism thing. I know not all women who are vegan or raw have eating disorders by ANY means. I also know that many ED patients have hidden behind restricted diets that have political attachments as a way of going unseen. The fact is, when you cut out entire food groups from your diet, you are restricting your diet, and restricting your diet has a lot of implications for a lot of women. But, exactly: I can’t say a damn thing.

    And a lot of times it really isn’t my place to say something–but I’ve lost one friend already when I gently questioned whether her raw foodism might be connected in some way to the bulimia she suffered from as a teen. Was it my place? If not mine–as a longtime friend and someone who had herself used vegetarianism/raw foods as a smokescreen for an eating disorder–then whose place is it? Should I have believed her without question when she said that raw foods actually prevented her from slipping back into worse behavior (which I do think is true, actually, but neither do I see raw foods as being a substitute for eating disorder therapy and counseling)?

    And don’t even get me started on the whole “Skinny Bitch” phenomenon.

  4. LIT responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:19 pm #

    When I was in high school, one of my friends was hospitalized with anorexia. I’d heard rumors- but everytime I saw her- she was drinking a sprite and eating starburst- surely what they were saying was wrong! She was eating!
    When she was released, we had a talk, and I told her I’d heard rumors. I will never forget how mortified I was when she asked me, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

  5. Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    All I would do is wish that the woman at the gym has someone in her life that is close to her and can help her with her problem.
    I understand that there is something about political correctness getting in the way of us helping people these days but I only think that applies to people who are actually a part of our lives. It’s not our place to offer help to strangers because, like you said, we don’t know the whole story. It may do more harm than good to assume that we know their background.

  6. Kate responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    What a powerful post, and so gorgeously written. Thank you so much for linking to it! I’m so glad to see the second photo of you. You look so full of life!

  7. Kate responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    @Phoebe and Samantha
    That’s always the struggle, isn’t it? It isn’t really our business. We have to hope someone else says something, and does something. It’s totally true, but really frustrating.

  8. Erin Block responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    Kate – Thank you so much — and thank you for writing this blog and its topic. It is much needed in today’s culture. I get so much out of reading your posts…I always feel pounds more empowered afterward! Cheers!

  9. poet responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    You’ve perfectly captured the problem. It’s worse with people we know (a lot or a little) than with perfect strangers, because we get more hints that there could be a problem, and we care more about them, but we still want to respect their autonomy, their choices. I don’t really know what I’d do in either situation… I do know, however, that pointing out how some people (inadvertently, subconsciously) use veganism as a camouflage for their eating disorder does not insult veganism… I do, however, think that implying that begin vegan will make you skinny and more beautiful and that’s why you should become vegan (like PETA once did, I think) is an insult to veganism, because that’s not the point of it! But in the end there is no connection at all between your weight and the meat-less-ness of your food.

  10. Jess responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    Beautifully said! I think you do a great job on here in general of saying things honestly, yet tactfully. :)

  11. Greta responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    I don’t feel that political correctness and concern have to be mutually exclusive, but I do think that respecting an individual’s right to treat hir own body the way zie desires needs to come first. Not to mention, it’s potentially dangerous to offer opinions and unofficial diagnoses to anyone.

    I’m also curious: would you feel inclined to approach an overweight person behaving in a way that seemed to reinforce hir weight?

  12. Carol Adams responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    I have been where you are..
    We are the “truth tellers”.
    Many times it pisses people off, which many times does hurt me in return, but I can’t help but calling them like I see them. (in a kind way)
    I say it because I care, and quite possibly care way too much for my own good.
    I think when the reaction is anger it says way more about them than you.
    Just remember that Ms. Bones is invested in her disease and knows no other appropriate coping right now. This is just as serious as alcoholism in that they need professional help desperately.
    Just thought I’d put my 2 cents worth in the table here.
    I enjoy your brave comments!

  13. Kate responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    Great question! It should be the same, shouldn’t it? I think this when I see another article about “the fattest mom in the world,” who is eating as much as she possibly can, trying to get heavier and heavier. I mean, clearly, after a point, it’s going to kill you.

    Of course, this is complicated by the way we view fatness and thinness, culturally. Fat is almost always perceived as dangerous, whereas skinniness is often perceived as healthy. But when either reaches an extreme that has obvious medical consequences, then shouldn’t they both be viewed as life-threatening on the same level?

  14. Frances responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Back in college I would see this particular girl come at the gym. She was literally skin and bones and painful to look at. She was there running when i came in and still running when i left. There were so many times when i wanted to walk up to her and introduce myself…but I always got stuck on what to say. There are a lot of times when i think about this person and hope that they managed to find the help that I was unable to provide. Thank you for posting this!

  15. Mandy responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    Whe I was a teenager, I watched a television show about the young woman who was murdered in her apartment complex over the course of hours. She screamed, begged for help, and almost the entire building knew what was going on, but no one did anything about it–didn’t even call the police. I’m ashamed to say, I don’t remember her name.
    I couldn’t understand why no one helped her. They seemed to have various reasons, from assuming someone else had surely called the police, to being afraid that the attacker would return and target them!
    I swore to myself, at that point, that I would never be one of those people who sat and watched, and did nothing. I would not assume someone else had called the police. I would not stand by and let someone be brutalized right in front of me! I would DO something!
    But, as I go older, I realized that these situations aren’t always so cut and dried. As you said, someone violently harming themselves or someone else is pretty easy to figure out, and the appropriate response is easy to determine.
    What do you do when you aren’t sure what’s going on? It takes an entirely different kind of courage to intervene–even just to ask if someone is okay–if you don’t know the facts.
    It’s something I’m still struggling with.

    Unroast: Today, I love my ability to admit that I’m not as wise and brave as I’d like to be.

  16. Gaby responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    As always, you’re brilliant Kate! This is such a painful reality and one I’ve become so familiar with now that I can recognize it so well. I can see it in small jokes, in actions, and in minuscule habits and choices because I was them. I was that skeleton on the elliptical (and sometimes fear I still look that way to others even though I’m mentally in a much better place) I thought I could use food allergies or veganism as excuses. And now I know just how much that all hurts. Not the stupid choices, yes, those suck, but deep down, the things you are covering up or ignoring or stuffing down, the self loathing, and my heart always aches for these people but I feel powerless to help because I know what my reaction would have been back then too, or even my reaction when someone tells me what to do now. Only we can make our own decisions to change. I never and still don’t like to listen to other people’s opinions of what I should or should not do. I know now after years of learning and becoming more self aware that I can take care of myself and do what’s best but it took a long time to get here and as much as I wish it could have worked, nothing anyone said could have sped up that process, it only made me angrier and made me feel like more of a failure.
    Sorry that was rambly, I just went off on a stream of consciousness, hope I explained myself well! I really also hope that girl does have people in her life who will help her through this!

    On another note, veganism: I actually used it to help me because it was something I had wanted to do for so long, way before any eating issues arose, and it was because of the ethical reasons behind it, so I decided to rearrange my priorities. If I was going to make ethical choices, they would be based on just that and not on my health concerns. If I was vegan out of concern for animals then I could eat all the vegan cookies I wanted! Because that was more important to me. If my choices at a restaurant were oily pasta vs lean chicken and veggies, I would choose the one that was vegan not the one I felt would be “healthier”. It helped me to shift the importance that food had in my life to something larger and outside of myself. It also got me excited to try new cuisines, meet new people who were also into going to new restaurants and baking vegan cakes and sharing and it wasn’t so much about the food anymore but the enjoyment of it with others. I was determined, if I was going to be vegan it would be for the right reasons, the ones that have always meant something to me, and were a part of my personality before the disorder. That personality had been almost entirely lost during the darkest of times so it was good for me to get a part of that old self back. So I’m not saying that there are not dozens of ways to recover that sense of self and peace but that’s my story with veganism :)

  17. Lucy responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    It seems to me that the stranger’s role is to assume that whoever the woman in the gym is, whatever her story, she needs love (we all do). If you see her a lot, it might be possible to strike up a friendship with her…or at least elliptical next to her to start.

    I feel like the very fat, the very thin, the stereotypically very hot, and celebrities are often completely alone in public — they don’t get the benefit of the shared looks, touches, laughs that the rest of us participate in. Instead they get alienating glances. So I try really hard just to include them in the everyday community…I think it makes a difference.

    Anyway, if your intention towards this woman can be to love her the best way you can (instead of saving her), that might clarify the appropriate role for you.

  18. Erin responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    At first I was offended that it was implied that eating disorders of any kind are choices but then I realized that I am taking the power away from anyone who suffers. While it is true that disorders are mental diseases, it also comes to the choice of getting help or not that is in sufferers hands. I don’t think there is much constructive talk about eating disorders and even when there is talk people tend to focus on just anorexia or bulimia when there are several others out there: binge eating disorder, compulsive eating, orthorexia, EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified).

    The real scary thing are the people who you would not think to have an ED because they are so well at hiding it. I think that’s especially true for those who suffer from EDNOS because they don’t fit the criteria for anorexia or bulimia or any other eating disorder out there.

    Sometimes it offends me when my dad says that someone looks anorexic because that implies that only skinny people are presumed to suffer from eating disorders. Even those who are large we might pass judgement and think that they need to just stop eating so much when it could be an eating disorder as well.

    But if we were more open and honest about our bodies then we would be better off. But the subject of the body is so taboo and some people assume that even mentioning certain parts of the body implies that we are only talking about sex (and that’s a subject that can be an elephant in the room). I think there should be more discussion about the beauty of the human body and being proud to show it off. Now, I’m not advocating we all start walking around in bikinis, but I am passionate about empowering young women to see their true beauty and not let society dictate what beauty/sexy/gorgeous looks like.

    Wow! Sorry for the long comment guys. Kate, I love your blog!

  19. Lilli responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    It’s amazing to see how many people believe themselves to be that woman, the one who has starved herself, and i’m afraid to say, i could be. I’m sixteen, and i’m by no means underweight, but i face a constant struggle with my weight, i’ve always been slightly overweight, pretty much for as long as i remember, my father is severely overweight, and my mother is severely underweight. However, i’ve found in recent years, if there is a major stress (recently is it my father’s impending blindness, and the fact that he is turning seventy, and may not accompany me into adulthood) i tend to ration my food, almost, as Erin said in her blog, doing a science experiment with herself, seeing how long i can go without food.
    I don’t know why, but i find that level of control comforting, like there’s always one thing i have control over.
    However, this has recently got worse, i’ve lost about thirty pounds, my blood pressure has crashed, my ability to focus has gone, and i have become obsessive. BUT, i have a very strong circle of friends, people who have been able to say to me point blank that they think i should eat more, who haven’t felt the need to tiptoe, and yes, i have bitten their heads off for saying so, but i am more and more seeing what they mean, and i am glad they feel strongly enough to want to help me.
    Your point about veganism is interesting though, i’ve always hidden behind vegitarianism as a reason for not eating as much…
    Anyway Kate, a hugely insightful article :)

    Unroast: Today i love the way my fringe contrasts with my eyes :)

  20. AlisonM responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    I’ve got a friend who has had an eating disorder for as long as I’ve known her. I’ve talked to our other friends about it; I’ve talked to her about my own disordered history; I’ve talked to people about whether I should talk to her. But I’ve never actually talked to *her* about *her* eating disorder.

    I recently asked a group of (separate) friends about this. Should I force the issue with her, even though she has never shown any willingness to open up about it? They all said no; that she had to be ready to hear someone say “anorexic” before she could talk about it. Otherwise I’ll push her away, and she’ll lose the support I can otherwise offer her in other areas of her life.

    But how do I know when she’s ready to hear it? How do I know when the right moment to apply pressure is?

    Of course I wish people would speak up more. If you offer someone help of public transport in London they are downright shocked you’ve even spoken out loud, let alone with an offer of help. It’s sad how we avert our eyes, literally and metaphorically, from the crap that’s going on around us. But there’s a way of stepping in and breaking up the fight, and a way of stepping in that just escalates the brawl. Right now I don’t know how to discern between the two..

  21. Ashley responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:18 pm #

    I think we should treat people the way we would like to be treated. If one person doesn’t want random people coming up to them commenting on their weight (whether they be fat, skinny, or anywhere in between) then they should also not be commenting on other peoples’ weight. It’s no one business bu their own. I didn’t ever like it when concerned trolls would come up to me and comment on my skinniness, so I would never dream of commenting on someone else’s weight unless they opened themselves up for discussion. That’s the only time I find it appropriate.

  22. Ellen responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    What a thought-provoking post! And Greta’s question was really insightful, too.
    @Mandy: I think you’re talking about Kitty Genovese
    ( and the bystander effect.

  23. Kate responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:22 pm #

    I think the problem is it’s easy to think about the issue in terms of commenting only on someone’s weight, as opposed to being there for someone who needs help.

    If you see someone about to jump off a bridge, you wouldn’t think, “Well, that’s their business and their body”, would you? Maybe you would. Which would be an interesting argument.

  24. Meredith responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    Wonderful post, Kate.

    I don’t think vegans would be offended by your comments. I know that vegans can be very touchy about people who make comments that the diet is not “healthy” but I think most of us recognize that there is a subset of people in our culture who have started to use the term “vegan” in order to distract others from eating disorders, which is entirely separate from veganism. There is definitely this perception that anyone vegan = thin, but that is definitely not the case! (Isn’t Oprah going vegan now, and isn’t losing weight her reason?)

    Speaking out these days is often not rewarded. You are right. Everyone takes everything personally, and blogging seems to attract this especially since commenters can be relatively anonymous. Bravo to you for being brave enough to speak your mind.

  25. Raven responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    I think Lucy has the right of it. Whatever is happening in Ms. Bone’s life–and in the lives of those we might want to “save”–love and friendship might be far better healers than the observations of a stranger.

  26. Erin Block responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    @Greta – “I’m also curious: would you feel inclined to approach an overweight person behaving in a way that seemed to reinforce her weight?”


    This issue aggravated the hell outta me when I was struggling with eating…people DID say things to me (thank God!) but, wouldn’t say anything to the 250 lbs. woman next to me eating Twinkies.

    I know it is a sensitive subject all around, on both sides, but both anorexia AND obesity are eating disorders…

  27. Liz responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    After starting the Plus-Size Models Unite blog, I have heard many stories that are seered into my brain. Stories of women who have binged, purged, starved themselves, lost teeth from years of throwing up (acid), and I even know a woman whose daughter died from disordered eating. This is serious business that needs to be discussed openely, but it’s hard to talk about–especially with some random woman who we don’t know who seems to be harming themselves, but is marching on like it’s just another Monday.

    I recently saw a woman who had bruises on one side of her face. I know her. I’m pretty sure I know what happend, but she told me she fell off her bike and landed on her face. It broke my heart. I wanted to hug her and tell her to leave him, but she turned away from me. She is not ready to talk. Does that make me an enabler? Should I have pushed it? Is it my business? I know I’m rambling, but this topic is so big to me and I see myself not taking action with the women “who fell off her bike” and I wonder, “What should I have said/done” differently?

  28. Alex responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    I have a friend who is vegan. The other day in class my friend she was eating a vegan PoP-Tart. When did this happen? I respect my friend for her opinion and I respect her for wanting to save animals. I do. But what I am wondering is why do women use veganism as an excuse to be skinny? When did eating go out of style? Eating happens to be one of my favorite hobby. I am not over weight. I weight about 120 pounds. There is nothing better to me then eating great food. It dosen’t matter what it is. Steak, cheese (especially cheese), nachos. I love all food and love them all equally. I would probably not go up to a random stanger and tell them they are extremely thin, but I would go out of my way to tell my friend she/he is to skinny. I would do it because I care for them.

  29. Ashley responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    @Kate, no I would probably try to help the person about the jump off the bridge. I don’t know, I just can’t seem to think how it could be ok to walk up to a random women who you think is too skinny and in danger of her health if it’s not okay in the eyes of that same person to do the same to a fat woman in public, or even, say, on her blog. Now maybe if you were close to the individuals as a family member or friend, but even then it can easily be offensive.

    This is a good topic because it’s like, where do we draw the line on either end?

  30. Jen responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    Do we go to the same gym?! Or maybe this is just a sad commentary on how common these elliptical-skeleton women are. Thanks for an amazing article. I’ve often wondered if the trainers at the gym have any obligation to say anything to members like this… or at least more of a perceived “right” to? But perhaps I’m just wondering this so I can put the burden on someone else and relieve my guilt for remaining silent and staring…

  31. Kate responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    I hear you. I mean, I CAN’T approach the woman at the gym. I would have no idea how to do it. I’d feel like I was being completely offensive. I’m just thinking about how unfortunate it is that we can see someone hurting her/himself and do nothing. And I think it should be OK to do the same thing to someone who is dangerously overweight. Just like it should be the same for someone who looks terrified, or someone who is crying in public, or someone who has bruises all over her face. I guess I’m just saying I wish we lived in a world where people could help each other more. And it’s interesting that one of the things that prevents us from getting involved is politeness, especially where bodies are concerned.

  32. Kate responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    That’s a really interesting point, about trainers. Now I want to find out if that’s at all the case.

  33. Miriam Martin responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:32 pm #

    Wow Kate, yes, you deal with a few really challenging questions (and truths) here. We know a lot these days about healthy balanced eating and it is possible to eat all kinds of diets (including vegan, vegetarian and ominvore,) in a healthy way. But it requires a lot of care and effort. Any time a dietary approach gets “picked up” by young people as part of a style/lifestyle trend, there’s reason to be concerned, because jumping on the bandwagon doesn’t always include careful planning. Definitely there are youth who are using veganism as an excuse to starve themselves. In the early 2000s, my work connected me with some young men who considered themselves dedicated members of the “straight edge” scene. Their “vegan” diet was part of a larger quest to fit into Women’s size-1 jeans (which many of them did).
    Concern can be expressed in many ways, including, as other commenters have mentioned, just trying to connect. Thanks Erin for sharing your story too.

  34. Jen responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    I would contact a clinic that deals with eating disorders and ask their opinion. Because while you might offend someone, isn’t it way better to risk that than to not risk helping them?
    Not saying I’m jumping around helping people all the time. I would just wish myself to be brave in this sort of situation. If someone is being abused, they need support and help but never judgment. The best policy always seems to be to offer that and nothing more. Don’t say, “I think you need help” but instead “There is a clinic here that offers help.”

  35. Jen responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    I would contact a clinic that deals with eating disorders and ask their opinion. Because while you might offend someone, isn’t it way better to risk that than to not risk helping them?
    Not saying I’m jumping around helping people all the time. I would just wish myself to be brave in this sort of situation.

  36. Ashley responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    Kate, I also hear you as well on the other side of things. Wouldn’t it be unfortunate to hear that someone died, even the girl at the gym that you don’t really even know, you would still be sad to find out that she died from malnutrition and that *someone* could have said something and ultimately help save her life. It’s hard. Some people wouldn’t want you to say anything, and like we have heard in comments already, some people wish someone would speak up.

    This reminds me of several years ago when my sister was 14, she was going through some insecurities at school (not really body related, but boys) I suspected something was going on because she suddenly lost weight and I noticed she took an awful long time in the bathroom so I thought about saying something but I was scared to death of upsetting her and making her hate me. Instead, I quietly monitored her behaviors for a couple weeks and I realized that she didn’t have any ED. I think it’s more acceptable to say something if there are multiple signs. But in any case, take a while to think of how to say it.

  37. Deanna responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    I had an eating disorder as a teen and I don’t think someone coming over to me to tell me how terrible I looked would have helped. I needed to come to terms with my illness and begin the long process of healing. I’m not sure it’s our place to discuss these things because unless we are medically trained to help those with an eating disorder, we can’t be of much help.

    However, I am in the fitness business now and I feel it is ‘our’ business…those of us in this business…to have these discussions with clients. At one place where I worked, we had to dismiss a young lady who was working out 6 hours a day and weighed barely 100 lbs. We felt it was too much of a liability. Odds are she went elsewhere or just ran outside, but the gym did not want that on their hands.

    I don’t have time now to write what I want to, but eating disorders are more than just limiting food. It goes very deep. With my anorexia in my mid teens I was so deeply unhappy and felt so inferior that I think I just wanted to disappear. I was cured when I no longer felt that way.

    There are others who I call the Type As who tend to follow trendy diets, over-exercise and then want to compare their stories with other Type As who inevitably try to out do them. That’s also a sickness that is much harder to diagnose since so many of these people are highly successful and over-achieving.

    Okay…more later…

  38. AlisonM responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    @Alex (responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:11 pm)
    I accept a lot of what has been said, both in the post, and in the comments about veganism. But you just assume that eating vegan is synonymous with not liking food. This is just patently untrue. There are plenty of vegans, myself included, who love food. Who savour it and take care over it, and maintain a healthy, mid-level BMI on it. I absolutely accept that those with eating disorders can hide behind food ethics in order to restrict their disorders, and that veganism is a common point of focus. But I’m afraid you stretch the connection to breaking point.

  39. darryn responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    You’re right. A few months ago I overheard a girl in the women’s bathroom at school throwing up in the toilet stall right outside the cafeteria. It wasn’t “I have food poisoning” retching, it was “I just ate a big piece of pizza and I don’t want to get fat”, induced kind of gagging. It was painful to listen to and when she emerged, I asked her if she was OK.

    “Oh, yeah, haha.” She smiled, and walked out.

    I wanted to say: “You don’t need to do that. You are enough.”

  40. Alex responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    I didnt mean to say that you, as a vegan, do not enjoy food. I’m sure you love food as much I do. I was eluding more to the eating diorder issue and how women and girl use veganism as a coverup. I have plenty of vegan friends who I go out to lunch with and they eat every vegan item on the menu. I’m happy you are healthy. I was just saying that some women aren’t as healthy and that I don’t understand why our society has such a big problem with food and weight. I didn’t mean to offend you in any way. Sorry for the confusion :(

  41. Cameo responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    Thank you for this post. I have thought about all of this as well. I often see women in my locker room who are clearly underweight go straight from class to the scale…and I want to make a light-hearted joke, “don’t worry, you haven’t disappeared yet!” or something so that they snap out of it! But there really is nothing funny about it. And that would probably be a terrible thing to say…but the thought has crossed my mind.

  42. C responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 6:40 pm #

    I know that the sight of someone clearly in pain is difficult, and the urge to say something strong. However, take the thought to its logical conclusion–what would you say? In your mind, walk up to the individual, and visualize what, exactly, you would say to help her.

    Then keep in mind that eating disorders come in various forms, and that they can be difficult to recognize. Two girls on adjacent ellipticals, one bone-thin, the other slightly chubby–you might be surprised by finding out who, exactly, is the one starving herself.

    Also keep in mind that eating disorders are individual experiences. You can’t know why someone is hurting himself or herself, and thus you can’t be sure that what you have to say would be at all helpful. During a bout of inpatient treatment, I once heard a male intern say during a meal, “I had a friend in high school who was anorexic. I just told her she was hot all the time!” Telling that girl at the gym that she is “beautiful the way she is” would probably have little effect on her illness because eating disorders are rarely about looks, contrary to popular belief. Additionally, telling someone to “snap out of it,” as the above comment suggests, would be an absolutely worthless statement; you can’t “snap out of” an eating disorder any more than you can “snap out of” cancer or diabetes.

    I don’t want to get off track; however, I feel like the problem of whether or not addressing a stranger about self harm is productive is very much tied to the problem of what is at the heart of an eating disorder. If you don’t know the person intimately, anything you say could do more harm than good, or, more realistically, won’t do anything at all except make yourself feel better.

  43. Angela Jones responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 8:03 pm #

    I wish I had an answer, I really do. As I have been that girl, I was in her shoes, and it is such a lonely place to be. It truly breaks my heart. I also have been on the other end where others have asked my advice about health, marriage, relationships, etc. and until they are ready to hear what others think or admit that there might be a problem, I don’t know if any good comes out of giving your opinion, unless you are family. I do have to say that if I were you, and I saw her everyday, I would try to make a point to walk by her and give her a smile. A smile goes a long way. :)

  44. Mere responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    Wow, I totally agree with everyone and that’s half of the problem isn’t is. We all see both sides and can feel it from inside out and outside in. I like Liz have a friend who is in an awful relationship and I want her to get out of it but feel so powerless..I can’t say anything but then I feel sick not saying anything. Sometimes I feel like I’m partly to blame for it going on for so long because I have always been there for her and picked up pieces and wiped tears etc, but then I feel if I walk away then there will be no-one to pick up pieces and wipe tears. What’s worse? Where are we more helpful?
    I would have no problem if i saw someone crying on the street asking if they are’s simple and at least they will see that someone cares, but some things are so much deeper and what level are you allowed to go to is a really tricky one.
    I do like what someone said though about just making a connection. We all wish that people cared so surely we can’t ruffle to many feathers by at least doing that.
    I’m going to try this Unroast thing now – I love that while I am very opinionated I can see two sides to a story. I think this at least helps me to feel even just a fraction of what others are feeling. Empathy is something that is often lost in our ME ME society.

  45. rachel responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    I want to echo some of the previous comments that eating disorders are not really about image or thinness, even when people who suffer from them will say it’s about looking good. Eating disorders are about control, pushing the body to its limits, enduring pain. Many people who cut themselves (interesting that you said if we say someone cutting themselves we’d intervene) trade that for ED, because it’s more manageable, or go on starving themselves when they cut. With that in mind, if saying something would make the person feel out of control, doing so might actually motivate more self-destruction.

  46. Tweets that mention Eat the Damn Cake » The woman at the gym -- responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 10:05 pm #

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  47. Meow responded on 08 Feb 2011 at 10:15 pm #

    Ugh, there are so many women like that in NYC. I think I wrote about this on your blog before. I used to go to Jivamukti Yoga in Union Square. There was this woman who took class with me who was ana. She was all skin and bones and had that tell-tell fur anorexics get. My size 10-12 ass used to make it a point to put next to her’s, whip off my tank top and practice in my sports bra (buddha belly, DDs, etc). I thought that somehow sent her the message of body positivism. I wanted to model body acceptance for her.

  48. Candice responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 12:43 am #

    I can totally relate, I had a girl like that at my gym to, she even carried around her sparkling calorie free carbonated water can with her.. It is sad to watch but really, when do you say something without offending her.. It should be someone in her family to do it.. but after so long when is enough enough?

  49. Mandy responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 1:33 am #

    @Liz and Mere
    I understand exactly what you’re talking about: I have a friend who had an emotionally abusive husband. I lost count of the times I had to bite my tongue, because I knew that if I said anything to him, he would try to use that as an excuse to tell her to stay away from me. And, shredding him to her in private was out, because I didn’t want to put her in the position of feeling duty-bound to defend him, even if she agreed with me. ESPECIALLY if she agreed with me.
    It was one of the toughest lessons I’ve ever had to learn–you can’t help someone if they’re not ready to accept it. If you try to push things, and they’re not ready, you will only push them away.
    The only advice I can offer you, would be to continue to be there for your friend, to listen to her. Abusers will try to isolate their victim from any type of potential support. Ultimately, she’ll have be the one to decide she wants help.
    My friend’s story has a happy ending: she left her selfish excuse for a husband, got a divorce (she moved in with me in the meantime), and ultimately remarried a great guy.
    I hope and pray your friends will also recognize that they deserve better.

  50. Wei-Wei responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 3:34 am #

    God, I don’t know. Disordered behaviour is so widespread now that it’s hard to tell whether it’s serious, or just a “minor symptom”. I hate to assume things, because I know I’m ignorant; it’s just as bad as accusing an obese person of having binge-eating syndrome because, “Hey, you don’t exercise and you eat a lot and you’re fat! You need help for binge-eating disorder!” doesn’t go over well, with anyone.

  51. Dawn responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 6:45 am #

    @Meow…I love your idea of body acceptance.

    I love life-after-eating-disorder stories like Erin’s.

    I wish there was a good answer.

    I also wish people could/would talk. When we experience a “talking” moment in a public place, we always say “that was a New Orleans moment.”

  52. jean responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 10:05 am #

    This is such an interesting discussion. I understand the desire to say something to a person who seems to need help, but I don’t think you can compare the skinny gym woman’s situation with that of a person ready to jump off a bridge. The difference is that the woman at the gym is very well aware that she’s skinny. She doesn’t need you to tell her that. The same goes for people who are obese. I think Melissa McEwen over at Shakesville put it best in her post on the subject:

    Obese people get “concerned” comments from apparently well-meaning strangers all the time. But pointing out the obvious to someone–”hey, you’re hurting yourself by eating those twinkies. Please think about your health”–is an insult to that person’s intelligence. He or she has almost certainly seen the gazillion articles about the dangers of obesity, just as an anorexic person living in America can’t have missed the news that starving yourself will eventually lead to death. As someone above mentioned, one comment from a stranger repeating what the person in question already knows almost certainly won’t be helpful. In my opinion it might even be harmful, because each random comment could reinforce the feeling that being in public while being underweight or overweight is like walking through a minefield of other people’s opinions and judgments. The only person who benefits from such an interaction is the “helpful” commenter who can walk away feeling she did the right thing by speaking up.

    Here’s what I think. If you want to help the woman, smile in a friendly way. Look into her eyes. Get to know her. Giving her your opinion without earning her trust will just make her feel even more self-conscious about her body.

  53. MWN responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I think it can be hard to say something, and you worry about offending a stranger or losing a friend, but it’s better than the alternative, which is staying silent and keeping it taboo. Lots of people have eating disorders, and lots of people engage in other destructive behavior like cutting, for example, and by addressing it, we take it out of the closet. At first the person may feel extremely defensive and lash out, but if we all keep talking about it and showing that it doesn’t have to be this horrifying secret, then it will be that much easier for people to seek help.

    At the same time, I know there are definitely body types and health conditions that are super skinny and look ED, and it must be frustrating for those people to have to deal with ED rumors and stuff all the time. But again, it’s better than the alternative. If the price we pay for talking about and addressing ED and other destructive behavior is that some skinny people are going to get annoyed with the gentle, supportive, non-judgemental concerns people are finally voicing, so be it.

    Unroast–A roommate just moved out and left behind a lot of stuff to suggest she has issues with cutting and other harmful behaviors. I didn’t know while she lived with us, and I wasn’t sure if/how I should approach it, as we aren’t close. But I decided to let her know that I knew and that she deserved to be happy and get help, and I’m really proud of myself of the way that I acknowledged it, when it would have been so easy to not say anything at all.

  54. Mere responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    @ Jean

    I loved the way you put that. :-)

  55. Meredith (Pursuing Balance) responded on 09 Feb 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    It is so difficult when you see someone so ill . . . when I worked at Starbucks, there was a similar girl who would come in and ask for 2 venti ice waters and then proceed to spend like 20 minutes at the condiment bar dumping about 100 splendas into them. I always wanted to say something to her, to tell her I had been there and that recovery can be difficult but it is possible and it is worth it . . . but I was behind the counter, and it wasn’t my position :( That was a few years ago, and I still think about her and wonder how she is.

  56. Tabs responded on 10 Feb 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    I’ve waited a while before commenting, because I have so many thoughts running around my head when it comes to things like this. I am definitely with you – and agree, that in a perfect world, we would SAY something. We would smile, become friends, develop trust, and change, help, grow. But it’s hard to talk when it’s only considered offensive. And it’s hard to be on the receiving end, when you just want to be left alone (whether that’s “healthier” for you or not). I feel like it comes down to timing. It has to be the perfect moment for one’s words to be heard – or to hear the words, as they are meant, coming from someone else.

    A few years ago, when I was abroad in Germany, I was going through one of the worst depressive episodes in my life. I *felt* like I was crazy, whatever that means. I would walk around with pieces of glasses and smash glasses & cups on my bedroom floor, walk all over them, all kinds of obvious disordered behavior. I wandered around at night, lost weight, and pretty much just cried. – This was also a point in my life when I had what I considered one of the best, closest, most open & honest groups of friends. Not very many of them said anything to me. They listened to me talk. They tried to make me feel better, but mostly, I was treated as if I was fine.

    The only person who would call out to me if he saw me wandering, ask me if I wanted a hug, or to lie down, was the guy I’m now living with. He would cry when he saw that I cut myself – granted, that there were a few times he avoided me (for understandable reasons) and that it was a heavy burden on him to care for me. But I’m grateful, because I know that if he hadn’t been there, it’s very likely that I wouldn’t be either.

    One night, after seeing 1984 at the city theater, I went over to sit by this statue, while my friends gathered, preparing to go to a Sommerfest at my apartment/dorm. Then, they left without me. I sat at the foot of this statue, in the middle of Germany, feeling very lost, without my medicine – and I just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I had tried crawling around (literally), one woman asked if I was okay. I said yes. But then, when I realized I wasn’t and wanted to find her to have her help me, she was gone. So I cried by this statue. And people just walked by. So many people just walked by. – Then a man, himself a foreigner, came up to me and asked me in English what was wrong. And he would NOT leave me alone. I kept telling him I was okay, but he sat by me, got me water, and used my phone to contact someone to come get me. I doubt he understood most of what I was saying, when I was crying to him, but it meant SO much to me. I know that I, personally, needed this kind of …attention – this kind of show or acknowledgment that I existed, mattered, and that SOMEONE – even a stranger – cared about me enough to want to make sure I was okay. It was what I needed (so I’m perhaps biased on how/whether or not to approach people who look like they’re desperate or in need). — I took this experience to heart. Whenever I see someone crying or someone looking hurt or lost, even though I feel shy or scared, I approach them and I try to talk to them. I think it’s too easy to feel alone, and sometimes, even just someone coming up and asking, hey, are you sure you’re okay? Do you need some help? reminds you that you’re not floating, without any kind of tether, to the world around you.

  57. Nadja responded on 14 Feb 2011 at 2:36 am #

    It gets touchy, walking up to and talking to someone about a visible thing like weight, because on one hand, we don’t want them to suffer in silence, but on the other hand, concern!trolling is one of the most offensive things you can do… If one more stranger strikes up a conversation about my weight and how I should lose some, I think I’m going to utterly lose my mind in public. I keep “Health at Every Size” in my purse to whip out as needed and I’ll happily go head-to-head with someone who feels that my weight is a matter of their concern. Smiling, saying hello, and striking up a conversation, even asking if one is okay, is about as far as I will go, because if one more person slips a piece of paper with Weight Watchers’ info on it to me…

  58. Kate H responded on 22 Feb 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    If it’s any consolation, having said something might have done more harm than good. Your concern is touching and well-placed, and as a recovering sufferer of an eating disorder I’ll be the first to say that the sincere concern of others can save your life, but it can have a nasty back swing. There have been days when I have felt good about myself; sublimely happy with my body and taking real, un-ashamed joy in nourishing it that have been ruined by a well meant comment about how thin I am. Just being reminded about my body in that way sometimes can bring a good moment crashing down- I suddenly feel guilty for liking myself as I am (which is truly paradoxical, considering that these people probably want very much to feel a healthy sense of self acceptance), and in some cases, that feeling of emotional discomfort can put me off my food entirely. Suddenly, what had been a pleasant snack or relaxing lunch break feels like being on stage in my underwear, with everyone judging.

    I always told my parents (and my therapist backs me up) “If you want to help me, support me. Don’t yell at me or guilt trip me or scare me with medical statistics. I’m as scared as you are, believe me, but if I look at it that way, I’ll panic. And when I panic, I relapse. It’s a control thing. So don’t make me feel ad about it- just be here for me. If I feel safe and happy and cared for during all this, it will be much less threatening and much more successful.” And I stand by that- when I’m feeling happy, safe and peaceful, I eat. I don’t worry so much.

    It’s when something or someone butts in- whether it’s the perfect stanger in the bread aisle who felt the need to comment on my grocery choices (that happened and I felt awful for hours) or the relatives who didn’t believe I was full and fed me my fifth dessert nearly against my will (Yes, it was delicious, but did it warrant the debilitating stomach ache? Not so much.)- that trouble starts.

  59. Eat the Damn Cake » The Evil Voice in The Gym responded on 22 Mar 2011 at 11:45 am #

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  60. Tamara responded on 28 Mar 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    @tabs specifically and everyone else too

    This is not a new phenomenon. It was addressed long ago, during a discussion that included this synopsis of God’s law: Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. That last part was challenged by a lawyer who was present: “so…WHO, exactly, is my neighbor?”
    The following answer was given:

    A guy was traveling from one town to another and along the way a gang jumped him, beat him up and took everything he had. They left him half dead and naked on the highway. No car, no cellphone, no money, no clothes…and bleeding.

    It was late at night and the highway was pretty deserted, but a car did come along. The driver, a self-improvement guru who regularly told others how to live “good” lives and was supposed to be “good” himself, saw him and slowed down. He got a good look at him, naked and bleeding in the road, changed lanes and sped by.

    Another car happened along. This driver, a man with widely publicised good intentions, slowed, got a good look, and also changed lanes and sped by.

    Who knows what these guys were thinking. Self-preservation (what if that gang was still around?)… they were late already… it wasn’t their business… someone else would surely stop and help…? Endless, understandable reasons, but the man is still dying naked on the highway.

    Another car eventually came along. The driver, just a normal human guy, not outstanding in any other way, saw the man and had compassion. He pulled over, got his first-aid kit from the trunk and stopped the bleeding, called 911, and went with the man to the emergency room. This guy even paid all the co-pays for the man’s medical treatment since the man had nothing on him. Before he went on his way, he left his name and address in case any other medical bills needed to be paid.

    A question was asked at the end of all this: Which guy was a neighbor to the robbed, beaten, and left for dead man? “The last guy, of course!” was the answer. Yes.
    So…go and live that way.

  61. Eat the Damn Cake » the upper middle class made me eat it responded on 06 Feb 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    [...] minds, at every moment. I am always the only one in the room who doesn’t belong to a gym (I tried it briefly). I am usually the only one to take a second helping of [...]