‘Mum made me anorexic'

The media is giving me all sorts of excellent starting points to discuss how parents and eating disorders intersect.

‘Mum made me anorexic’ is a provocative title for a flawed article, but bears discussion.

How one reads this kind of narrative depends on how you look at the illness. If, as I do, you read this and see two people with similar predispositions to an illness, then you probably feel sympathy for both mother and father. You may, as I do, see a wonderful heroism in this daughter's recovery despite her environment and a tragedy in her mother's continued illness. I know I find myself wishing that this mother had been properly treated so she could have been able to stop her daughter's mental illness in its tracks or even kept her from triggering it in the first place. But I also feel such sadness at this mother's suffering.

If you think of eating disorders as something that can be given like a cold, or learned like a habit, you would not see in this story confirmation of the genetic basis of this predisposition. You may see this mother as cruel and the daughter as a victim. I see the illness as cruel and both mother and daughter as sufferers.

If you think anorexia is a matter of choice you may feel angry at this mother for refusing to choose to be well and sympathy for the daughter for choosing it. I don't. I read in this story about a mother trapped in a horrific mental condition and unable to properly nurture her daughter who has a similar predisposition.

If you think of anorexia as a desire to lose weight, and recovery as a desire to gain a normal weight, then you may think that this daughter as wise and the mother as hopelessly vain. The daughter does sound wise, and in that wisdom has let her mother's problems be separate from her own. But not for a moment do I think vanity plays any role whatsover in this family's tragedy.

I applaud this daughter and mother for telling their story, though I disagree with them both on how to read it - at least as described in this article. I honor their work to find their way, though I hope that a newer generation of treatment will treat both mothers and daughters simultaneously and with compassion.


  1. I can't believe that we have to reinvent the wheel for ED's.
    We inherit eye/hair color, skin tone, certain personality traits etc. Sometimes we're the same as parents/siblings etc. in varying degrees ... "Apples don't fall fer from the tree" and sometimes we're not! We are not identical or twins or clones and yet things run in families.
    It stands to reason that various traits will present themselves in some siblings/cousins/parents/grandparents to varying degrees. Some co-morbid traits will cluster and cause major dysfunction ... others will exhibit less exaggerated forms of the same traits. Some parents exhibiting dysfunction will contribute to similar or exaggerated problems in offspring. Other offspring will not be phased since they do not possess these dysfunctional traits. Some parents will be quite functional with quite dysfunctional children.
    This is why family assessment, differential diagnosis and family inclusive treatment are necessary to understand the components of the individual patients' ED including: family traits, individual developmental/personality issues, and how best to treat.

  2. The problem with media stories like this is that the journalists that write the article always put their own spin on it by selecting and focusing on specific phrases of the individuals' narratives.

    This was evident in the story you and others highlighted last week about Emily (ref. on your blog as below: "Directly from the Mom"). The Daily Mail journalists put a very different spin on a story that both Emily and her mother chose to correct; Emily via her blog, and her mother via a personal article in The Guardian.

    (BTW, I would choose The Guardian over The Daily Mail anyday... The latter newspaper almost always puts an emotional and biased spin on articles.).

    When people describe their experiences of an ED they inevitably focus on the thoughts that were present in their minds. So, for example, if a girl with AN develops an obsession with skinny models/celebrities during her illness she will attribute her illness to the media images of these thin women. However, no-one can blame media images for causing AN. Similarly, no-one can blame the mother for causing her daughter's AN in the article you highlight in this blog entry.

    However, I do agree with Susan Ringwood's comments at the end of this article. Kids with an inherent vulnerability towards anxiety, depression, EDs (etc.) may learn behaviours from mothers (as well as from peers, the media etc.) which 'feed'/exacerbate their psychological diffculties.

  3. My mother died earlier this year from anorexia. She was only 48, but had had the disorder since her teens. I, too, have dealt with bulimia and anorexia for most of my life.
    I firmly believe that anorexia - eating disorders in general - have a genetic link. That isn't to say that having a parent with one automatically means you will as well: my siblings, though at times I think they tend towards compulsive overeating, don't have eating disorders. But my Mom and I were very alike. Intense, intelligent, perfectionistic, demanding of ourselves. She had and I have some severe clinical depression and social anxiety.
    We never once discussed our eating disorders. She never enabled me, never pushed me towards one. While I can't deny that her own problems probably enhanced my own tendencies - I don't, and never have, blamed her. My mom was very, very sick. So was and am I. While I wish things had been different: I wish I didn't have an eating disorder, I wish I didn't have to watch my mom die, I wish my mom hadn't hurt so badly, had been able to recover. But I understand more than anyone that it is neither her FAULT, nor truly mine.
    Thanks for posting the link to this. You have an encouraging perspective on this.

  4. Saralynn I am so very sorry for the loss of your mother. This is a cruel disease. Your compassion for your mother is extraordinary and very moving.

    I hope so much that your treatment will progress and you fully, fully recover.

  5. This is the kind of story that scares me away from the temptation to relapse. I've got two young daughters who look to me as a role model. I can't do anything about any genetic predisposition to ED that I may have passed down to them (and unfortunately my oldest shows a tendency towards anxiety) but I can at least do my best to model healthy behavior. I pray that they won't have to go through the struggle that I have.

    I really wish there was more literature out there aimed at parents who are themselves in recovery.


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