OK, but surely THIS mom causes eating disorders, right?

I've been waiting for some time for a perfect example of what I mean when parents don't cause eating disorders.

Here it is:

Vogue article by mom about 7-year-old daughter’s weight sparks heavy backlash

Now, no one can know the whole story here but it doesn't matter, let's just pretend it is as described: this is a description of a grotesque abuse of parenting. I violently abhor the inconsistent, self-absorbed, appearance-focused, exhibitionist disordered bad parent described here and I think her daughter is being harmed, lifelong, by this sort of parenting. Surely, SURELY, I need to say that if this little girl grows up and develops and eating disorder it is abundantly her mother's fault, right? Right?


We don't know what causes eating disorders. As far as we know, even the worst sort of environment isn't going to trigger an eating disorder without a certain predisposition and unknown other factors, and we simply don't know what causes one person and not another to develop an eating disorder. The severity of an eating disorder isn't indicative of environment at all. Kids develop full-blown horrible EDs in all sorts of environments. Kids fail to develop EDs in environments that are patently toxic (see article). One kid in a family may fall ill, and another thrive.

This kid may indeed grow up with issues about her body size, may eat in a disordered way - maybe even severely, but it is important to distinguish those issues from an eating disorder. An eating disorder isn't just a certain level of disordered eating and body image distress: it is a severe mental illness with more symptoms than just the food behaviors. Eating disorders are not a dosed response to environment.

If, however, this girl has that predisposition for this mental illness -- and that's not a stretch since her mother may have it herself - she's in terrible peril. Even without the misery of such a role model in life an eating disorder diagnosis requires a stable, loving, ordered environment and parenting to support recovery. While parents can't cause an eating disorder they sure as heck CAN keep them ill once it starts. This woman's public statements make it look like any child in her care is not going to get their needs met.

Think of this in terms of the corollary. What if, by some miracle of resiliency, this girl grows up normal and without mental illness or discernible issues around eating and her appearance. Does that mean what her mother did wasn't wrong? It was wrong anyway. Horribly wrong and almost inevitably harmful.

P.S. It should be noted that the doctor TOLD this mother to put her kid on a diet, reportedly. This is going on all over the world and it is wrong. 

Added, great new article in Time: http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/27/vogue-essay-by-a-mom-who-put-her-7-year-old-daughter-on-a-diet-garners-outrage/ 


  1. I learnt about someone the other day who has really struggled with eating in some ways because (at least she feels) of the pressure her Mum has put on her. I can understand parents not causing eating disorders as it's not just from pressure or environment. But do you think that parents can cause disordered eating and low self esteem related to that? If so, might those be factors which also eventually lead to an eating disorder. I have had great parents I just struggle to try to totally break off any link between parents and eating disorders. I understand it isn't simple but I just feel there is a link of some kind, however loose and complicated.

  2. Such a great question!

    "But do you think that parents can cause disordered eating and low self esteem related to that?"

    Yes, absolutely. (We can also be protective against it)

    "If so, might those be factors which also eventually lead to an eating disorder."

    Yes, but perhaps not in the way people normally think about it. Disordered eating does seem to trigger eating disorders in those with that predisposition (a small percentage of people). Dieting or underrating seem to trigger a cascade of thoughts and behaviors that the person is no longer consciously controlling. Turning the dieting around and normalizing behaviors seems to have the opposite effect.

    Perhaps a similar question is: do parents cause allergies? No. But parents do unwittingly or carelessly expose a loved one to that allergen. If they fail to protect them once they do know about the allergy - they become part of the problem.

    The thing about dieting and body hating is that it isn't good for ANYONE, allergic or not.

    1. Parents often DO cause allergies by oversanitizing, preventing their kids' immune systems from developing properly.

  3. Eating disorders can be due to various personal factors and in most cases it affects the adolescent age group. I personally think that people with eating disorders should first be counselled before being put on a diet.

  4. Hello, Andrew. I'm guessing we've never met. I'm interested to hear why you believe anyone should be put on diets, and in particular why anyone with an eating disorder should?


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