A-Z

Eating disorders (young people)

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As an eating disorder developed, people we talked with noticed that they became more isolated, withdrawn and avoided social situations.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).
 

Jamie was happy to stay at home to avoid the stress and anxiety he experienced when going out.

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 14
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I’m just happy to stay at home. I just don’t, like because people will go out with their friends and I just don’t, it’s just like a lot of hassle like to arrange it and stuff like that, I just prefer to sit at home. It’s just so much less stressful and I get stressed like, ‘cos it’s like if you’re sitting in a restaurant and someone’s looking at you and looking what you’re eating, it’s just like, if I’m with a group of friends like my college friends, we went out on like our last day of college and it was just like we just sat there talking, it was just like, ‘cos they know what I’m like, they just, it just was like, it wasn’t really an effect on it.
 
And it just like I just find, like I will, like sometimes people will like say, “Oh do you want to go out?” And I’ll like make up an excuse ‘cos I just don’t, I just don’t like to. Like I just prefer, I’m just happy, I’ll just sit at home, watch TV in my own little world, just me going out, it’s just, I just don’t, can’t be bothered with the stress.
 
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.
 

Katherine said that university dinners could be fun for anyone without an eating disorder, but...

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 11
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So coming here and having kind of formal meals, or you know formal meals, where they are literally like four course banquets, and it’s obvious to people if you don’t attend them, that is you know something that will get flagged up if you never go to formal hall. Because it’s a big, you know it’s a big fun thing for everyone who’s not got a problem with food. Whereas for someone who has it’s an absolute nightmare. And so like for me that was a bit like at first I was absolutely terrified, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is just horrific.” You know there was literally just like wallowing in calories, and then you know, but even in the kind of the six months or so that I’ve been here, that’s not a problem for me anymore. 
 
We had one last week, it was a Harry Potter Charity Formal, and so, and you know we had, I went down there and just, I’m able to kind of disassociate myself from having to count calories for one evening, and I can just be like, “No I’m just going to have fun.”
 
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.
 

Eva describes how planning ahead was the key to enjoying social life and eating out.

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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The first time I went out for a meal since I got ill was a disaster. I didn’t know anything that was on the menu and when I got there nothing I felt comfortable with having, so afterwards I really panicked and was upset for a few days. But when I did find a place, I looked at the menu and I was happy to go there, and I went and I had a good time. And I did feel guilty afterwards, but after a few times of doing it I stopped feeling guilty which was great, because I could go with my friends and not feel bad and it’d be wonderful to not have that voice in my head saying, “Oh you’ve been so greedy eating all that.” It was like lovely to get that experience. 
 
Would you want to go to the same place, to the same restaurant again?
 
I go quite often. Yeah.
 
Because you know the menu and the food?
 
Yeah. I do need to try going to other places as well. Which is still something, that’s one of my goals to try exploring different restaurants and stuff. Like I was on holiday a few weeks ago and we went to a new place which I enjoyed, so I was proud of myself for doing that. I’d had a look at the menu there and thought, you know planned what I was going to have which is, I think, when you’re trying to recover I think planning is the key. It can, you know, make sure you, can help you to make sure you’re eating enough, can help you to make sure you not eating too much, like if you have binging problems and stuff, if you plan what you’re gonna eat then you don’t leave yourself the opportunity to binge. I’ve never actually had like binging difficulties myself, but I know of people that have had and they’ve always said that planning has really helped them. Like especially with like festive periods, like with Christmas and stuff, planning has really helped me this year.
 
Eating with others could be a positive thing because people could experience eating “in a normal way” and see normal portion sizes.
 

Jasmin describes how eating with others helped her feel more relaxed about portion sizes and...

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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If anything it can be easier eating with people cos I feel more in control, even though I’m not more in control now anyway it’s, a lot better, you know. It’s, it’s more if I’m on my own that it’s harder but, like as in completely alone but, you know, if I’m with people then, I don’t, I feel, I kind of feel safe with what I’m eating I can think, you know, ‘this is okay, I’m out” and cos that was always a bit of an issue, you know, portion sizes and, mixing foods and things I always struggled with. But having, if I’m with people and, I can see what other people are eating I think that then I think, can think ‘okay this is the, I’m doing the right thing’.

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.
 

Elizabeth didn’t like the feeling of being out of control when drunk.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 12
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I can always like, you can make, one glass like if you forced into those situations where there’s, everyone is holding a glass of wine, you can make one glass like last a long time. And you can like, yeah I find it quite hard to kind of, getting drunk it’s kind of letting go of your body and I find that really hard. Because I’m so used to like utter control over my body, and so getting drunk is quite hard. I feel really disgusting like in, most people feel pretty awful when they’re hungover, but I feel like gross with myself. I feel disgusted by myself. Which I find quite hard, and I’m genuinely not very good at coping with alcohol either because I, for a long time like if I wasn’t eating much then that would be really hard. But even if I have a good meal now I’m just not very used to it. Somehow I’m not very good at coping with the alcohol.

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.
 
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Katie didn't really like the taste of alcohol but the main reason she didn't drink much was...

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 13
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I was on fluoxetine as well which, I mean, you, I think you probably can drink a bit when you’re on it but it’s probably not a great idea to drink loads. And then obviously initially there were the calories in alcohol and stuff and so I suppose that perhaps played a role as well. But just also I don’t really like the taste of alcohol that much because I remember my friend my male friend took me out for a drink and I thought, and he was a bit older than me so I thought, “Oh well, you know, I should try and look mature,” but I didn’t actually like the taste at all, like any time I’ve had alcohol I don’t like the taste of it. And also, yeah, I think that I’ve probably I have wrecked my body enough without wrecking my liver as well.

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.
 

Before, Katherine couldn’t go on dates that involved eating but it’s not a problem for her...

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 11
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And so kind of going out for meals and things, which is totally you know quite like a big element, particularly when you’re here and like the guy who I’m seeing is also at the Uni, so sometimes the only time that we do have to go and see each other of an evening is if we go out for a meal. And whereas beforehand that would be a really big issue for me, there is no chance of me being able to kind of pursue a relationship if it meant going out for eating then, it’s not an issue now. And I just kind of, he has very bizarre tastes, so he’ll take me to all these random restaurants and I just go with it, now it’s just not an issue. So yeah, not that’s kind of helping me rather than being an inhibitor.

 

Eva used to be scared of people looking and commenting on her eating at school. She’s now...

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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But I thought well if I want to actually make friends and stuff I’m going to have to start, because lunchtime’s like a key social time for people at my school. So I thought, “Oh, I’m going to have to start trying to have lunch with them.” So I took it with me and I sat with a friend that I was quite, quite close to, sort of comfortable with and had it. The first few times sort of sort of had it on my own with her, or with a few other people that didn’t know, because then they wouldn’t be staring at me thinking, “Oh she’s eating,” sort of thing. 
 
But now I just have it in the sort of common room with everybody else and nobody ever says anything to me, which is good because I was expecting people to make comments and stuff. But that’s all in your head really, oh yeah everyone’s gonna be saying to me, “Oh I can’t believe you’re eating.” But nobody was like that, they haven’t got the guts to say it for a start, and it’s what everybody else is doing so it’s not unusual. It’s more unusual to sit there and not have anything. That’s when people are gonna notice.
 
Was that why you were uncomfortable eating in public? The sort of fear of people’s comments?
 
I was scared of people making comments on me and I was scared of them looking at me and thinking I was being greedy, or “Why is she eating that? She’s so fat.” But I’ve started to think well you know I just, everybody else is eating they’re not all looking at each other thinking that, “Why are they having chips? They’re fat.” Or whatever. People don’t really do that.
 
They’re more concerned about what they’re eating and talking about what’s going on in school, so just sort of now I’ll just have it, get on with it, try not to panic too much, and distract myself with what everyone else is talking about.
 
 

Getting her social life back on track was a gradual process for Steph. She says much of it was...

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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At the beginning I wasn’t feeling able enough to get out and socialise and everything, but like everything else that’s just fallen into place, and it’s quite strange now because every single night I’m out doing something [laughs] whereas before, you know, I was just in the house all the time, so it’s been quite, it’s great though, I love it. But again it was all very gradual and I just had to do things when I felt ready for them, and I did, I’d get to the stage where I do feel ready for things, you know, even now if somebody wants me to do something new, I get anxious about it, but I do it now, whereas before I just wouldn’t have done it and I do it and then I feel great after it because I’m like, well I’ve achieved that, you know, I’ve conquered that fear. So it is very much about facing your fears, you know, feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

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.
 

To make up for things she's missed out, Eva is now enjoying going on holidays. She balances out...

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Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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I feel like I’ve missed out on so much of my social life, now I want to feel like every holiday I’ve got to get everything in social wise, and I’ve not given myself the time to revise really so now it’s like, oh I have my exams and I’ve not dedicated enough time to working. So it’s definitely for me been kind of a see saw with balancing things, because I’ve not, one thing can be in excess and the other not, like this time it’s been the social life’s been in excess and school work’s been non-existent, whereas in the past I’ve said I’m not going out because I’m doing my work.

(For more see ‘Friendships and relationships’.)

Last reviewed October 2018.

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