Eating disorders

Social life and public places

Having a social life can be difficult for people with an eating disorder. When people develop eating disorders they can become more distant and start to spend more time alone. This can make their harmful thoughts or low self-esteem worse. Socialising often involves eating with others, often in public places and this can be difficult. When people were ill they were often unable to spend time with their friends and take part in social activities. As they started to get better, getting back in contact with friends and doing more activities could be extremely rewarding and boost confidence.

As an eating disorder developed, people we talked with noticed that they became more isolated, withdrawn and avoided social situations. Looking back, people felt that they had “missed out” on social life or had been “held back” by their eating disorder, sometimes for years. Becoming isolated was often linked to low self-esteem, anxiety and obsessive thoughts. Some said that, for them, becoming isolated was a direct cause of depression, rather than because of their eating disorder. (For more see  Depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts).
Eating disorders often involved developing habits and routines for eating. For some, socialising could be difficult as different activities disrupted their routines and situations weren’t always within their control. When people were ill, they could feel just too tired to go out. People tended to avoid crowded places and often described themselves as “shy” and “self-conscious”.
People tried to avoid social situations by constantly “making up excuses” to not go out, spending as little time out with their friends as possible or just simply avoiding going. Hannah O said sometimes she would just “force” herself to go out on special occasions. Many felt it was easier to just stay at home. Emily used to enjoy doing sport, going out and clubbing but could not even leave her room as the eating disorder and depression got worse.
Food and eating in public

Socialising often revolves around sharing food and eating with others, usually in public places. People often described this as the biggest challenge in their social lives. They often associated eating with feeling unworthy or “lazy”. When eating in public, people felt self-conscious and like they were observed or judged by others.
Student life in particular was organised around food and eating. Accommodation was often shared and involved eating and/or cooking together .Many events at university involved a meal out with friends or a date and people said it became noticeable if they continually missed these occasions. Eva said that school lunchtimes were “key social time” and Katherine described how socialising with other students at university takes place over meals:
“A lot happens at dinner time and everyone chills out and everyone chats. And so a lot of kind of the news gets spread around dinnertime, so I have missed out on that to some extent.” -Katherine
When ill, it could be hard to eat around other people. The disruption to eating and food routines caused by social events/eating out could cause anxiety. People often organised their days around eating and ate at set times every day. Felicity described how she had felt particularly uncomfortable about “unstructured eating” during movie nights, for example. Some people had particular foods they wanted to eat. Not being able to fully control when or what to eat could be challenging. Lauren used to worry that if she broke from her routine she might end up eating too much and feel guilty afterwards. Some said they had felt the urge to compensate, or make up for what they had eaten after a social meal and this had been unhelpful to recovery.
People commonly described feeling “self-conscious”, “embarrassed” and “uncomfortable” eating in front of others. They felt “stared” at or “judged”. Hannah used to feel that if people saw her eating they would think she didn’t “deserve to eat”. Some people had developed rituals around eating and were worried that people would judge them for eating “a funny way”. People could also feel unsure of “normal” portion sizes and thought that others would think they were eating “too much” or “too little”. While ill, some worried that if they ate with other people they’d be “found out” as someone with an eating disorder.
“I’ve got really strange ideas and like you’re kind of convinced that everyone’s watching you eat, I was convinced that everyone was watching me eat, and watching what I ate, and I felt quite uncomfortable, or that I ate too slow.” Annabelle
People with bulimia nervosa described feeling panicky or anxious when eating out, as they might be unable to purge. Nico used this to help stop himself purging, and would purposefully go out to a public place.
Some people tended to avoid eating in front of strangers and felt more comfortable with friends but others felt particularly awkward around people who knew they had (had) an eating disorder. Even at home they would eat alone in their room. There was pressure around mealtimes and people felt even more like they were being watched.
People could try to manage public eating in advance. They researched restaurants and their menus online in advance so they could avoid surprises and minimise any uncertainty on the day. Katie felt more comfortable if she decided beforehand what she would eat. Sarah-May found it helpful to prepare herself mentally for a meal out.
Eating with others could be a positive thing because people could experience eating “in a normal way” and see normal portion sizes.
Drinking alcohol

Social life, particularly as a student, often involves alcohol. Many people we spoke with said they rarely drank alcohol and were careful when they did. Some were concerned about the calories in alcohol and chose low-calorie drinks. Elizabeth said that as she was making progress with recovery, she preferred to “eat her calories” not drink them. Jasmin said calories didn’t concern her much as she drank so little.
Eating disorders are often motivated by a need for control and drinking alcohol can have the opposite effect. Feeling out of control was often why people chose to drink very little or not at all. Georgia stopped drinking because she couldn’t “cope” with feeling so out of control. Elizabeth described how she wanted to be “in utter control” over her life so “letting go” with alcohol made her feel uncomfortable.
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Often people weren’t bothered about the social pressure to drink. Elizabeth said she could make a glass of wine last a long time. During particular times, for example during Freshers’ week at uni, people were more likely to binge-drink (drink alcohol excessively).  A few people said they either drank nothing or binged. In recovery, some wanted to avoid alcohol to “look after” their bodies as best as they could after the damage caused by the eating disorder.
For more links and information about alcohol see our section on young people 'Drugs and Alcohol'.
Learning to enjoy social life again

As people started recovering, they began to re-discover social activities and gradually started to enjoy eating out. Eva described how she started to enjoy life again; going shopping and spending time with her friends. Hannah Z said once she was better she was “out all the time”. Katherine described how she started to get “the old Katie back” and was able to take part in college meals and social events with friends.
For many, it was important to get the right balance between social life and work. When they were well, they found it easier to manage this balance. When unwell, people saw less of their friends,  became work driven and spent more time alone. Felicity used to be very work driven and neglect her social life. As she was recovering, she learnt to balance her time better and went out of her way to become more socially active. Katherine described how recovery gave her the flexibility to be able to do things “on a whim” and to have a choice.

(For more see ‘Friendships and relationships’.)

Last reviewed October 2018.


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