90% of mothers pat themselves on the back this morning

The problem with the sort of "prevention" talk in Moms key to daughters' healthy body image is that it is right: of course we should all give up the silly, fatuous, damaging fat and diet talk. We should, we MUST.

But all the positive body image stuff in the world, the most perfect parenting, the ideal nurturing environment - none of these things will head off an eating disorder (and resultant distorted body image) in a person who has the genetic predisposition and starts skipping meals.

I wish to hell I'd never dieted, never said a negative thing about my appearance, never looked sideways wistfully in a mirror. I know, after my daughter's illness, I never ever will again.

But I didn't cause my daughter's body image problems or eating disorder by my behavior. What my behavior did was make me look like a hypocrite and a fool to that part of my daughter's intellect that was still intact. It made it harder for me to support her recovery. It confused the issues and delayed our response.

Articles like that above feed a self-congratulating hubris to those whose kids don't develop eating disorders. I grieve for every parent of a newly diagnosed ED patient who cries reading that article - and they will.


  1. I'm not as discouraged by this as you seem to be, Laura.
    One very healthy point is that reversing the culture of hating the body you're born in and the food to fuel it is a good thing. Maybe it won't stop those with the strong genetics from developing EDs, but I bet it will help lots of other people not spend years with disordered eating habits and self image. Also, it's very likely that it may help us recognize children who need help earlier. If everyone ACTs like they have EDs and body-dysmorphia, it's harder to recognize those who are REALLY at risk. Everyone I know picks lo-fat and fat free milk, yogurt, etc. It didn't stand out to me that d COULD ONLY pick fat free foods for some time. Regular conversation with my female friends (and increasingly the males as well) is laden with disparaging comments on ones own (butt, hips, tummy, whatever). It made it harder to see that d not only thought these things, but saw them as the only way her self-worth was defined - which was thinking that WAY preceded ED.
    It's also highly unlikely that the genetics work like an on/off switch. It's more likely to be a spectrum from high risk to low risk . In that light, one may very well be able to head off full-blown ED in those at the low-risk end, if the surroundings are supportive enough. And the information that dieting & focus on appearance are triggering or risk factors for EDs might help family and friends with early detection and intervention.

    I didn't get a sense that this article was feeding self-congratulatory-smugness in parents of the non-afflicted. But I can certainly understand it's having that effect on a mom or dad who's busy beating themselves up for their sick kid. It's not clear to me that this article is to blame for THAT. But more could be done to combat the idea that such a thing as perfect parenting yields perfect kids is even POSSIBLE, much less an every-day type achievement.

  2. I think you're being overly sensitive to the article. Eating disorders may hold a genetic component for some who develop them, but there is no specific ED gene, but rather characteristics that align themselves in an eating disorder. Given the right climate, these same characteristics could also develop into alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse, academic excellence, sports or any number of activities.

    For some with eating disorders, family relations held a very real and potent impact on our eating disorder development. For you to suggest my mother had absolutely nothing to do with my eating disorder is assumptive, patronizing and insulting to the gains I've made in analyzing the nature of my illness.

    Even the most perfect parents have children who go on to develop eating disorders. But there exist yet many others who aren't as fortunate and for whom familial relations do contribute to eating disorder development. Regardless, the suggestion to refrain from negative body image talk is an excellent one that all parents should take to heart.

  3. I suppose family environment could influence whether an adolescent goes on a diet or not, but it's hard to see how the relationship between mother and daughter is responsible for causing the dramatically distorted thoughts and behaviors, and the objectively measurable changes in brain function, that result in those individuals who are genetically predisposed to eating disorders. I think that attributing those changes to the social environment of the family is to trivialize the medical seriousness of the illness and the key role of biology.
    If family environment is responsible, why do animals get anorexia? If the media image of the "ideal" female body is the cause, why do men get anorexia? Why do people in cultures with a different set of cultural norms get anorexia? Why did people get anorexia hundreds of years ago, when cultural values were different and the mass media didn't exist. Why haven't any of these programs designed to "correct" dysfunctional family behaviors shown any empirically verificable success at either preventing or treating anorexia?
    Why is it that my relative, who is a PhD in clincial psychology with a specialty in eating disorders, and who raised her daughter doing all the so-called "right" things, nonetheless witness her adolescent daughter develop anorexia?
    CPB in California

  4. --I wish to hell I'd never dieted, never said a negative thing about my appearance, never looked sideways wistfully in a mirror. I know, after my daughter's illness, I never ever will again.--

    This sounds, almost verbatim, like a conversation I had with my wife yesterday on the way to pick up groceries. Readings she has done in light of our daughter's ED show that two main contributing factors in setting up the framework for ED development were:
    - Emphasis on appearance, keeping the weight off, various and sundry diets on the part of one or both parents:
    - And family conflict.

    I am the A$$ who contributed largely to this establishment of pattern; I told my wife before we were married, only half-joking, that I wanted none of the 'five-pounds-a-year' thing, i.e. a woman gaining weight gradually over time until she's 'not the woman I married'. So she did Weight Watchers, tried the cabbage soup / green bean soup diets, dealt with my subtle (and not so subtle) comments about her 'cushyness' et. al. Naturally this was hurtful to her, and she, being no internalizing, shrinking violet, became conspicuously upset and then a fight was on. (That was not the only thing we had conflict on in front of the kids, by the way)

    I had no idea that my child was, by the age of seven, in the nascent stages of an eating disorder, observing this obsession with appearance and then secretly bingeing late at night on whatever was available in the pantry. I knew that seeing her parents fight and having such a negative tone in the house was poisonous to her formation, but we did endeavor to shower her with love, attention, and positive reinforcement to try to let her know it wasn't her problem. But then all the conflict, and the resentment I felt towards my wife, drove me to a long-distance internet affair. The e-mails were discovered, my wife threw me out of the house, and my oldest girl was devastated. After some serious discussion and intervention, I was allowed to return, and tried to repair all the damage I had caused in my relationships with everybody. But the damage was done with my oldest at a pivotal time in her development, having just turned 10.

    By around this time last year it became apparent that she was restricting her diet and trying to get rid of her 'childhood chunk', first through vegetarianism, then through outright veganism... and then by trying to get by on less than 300 calories a day in pursuit of her goal to be a top supermodel. By March of this year it was clear she could no longer continue in school- she almost passed out a number of times while there.
    Once we started putting all of the pieces together we saw she was in full-blown anorexia nervosa, later confirmed by a professional opinion. Her issues with mine and her mother's relationship have come out in intensive therapy, and she has been distant from, and unaffectionate with me since the beginning of the year. That hurts.
    So the moral is- forget about dieting, live a healthy lifestyle, and keep peace in your home.

  5. Hi sparticussquid -- How do you know that the emphasis on appearance and family conflict were two main contributing factors in setting up your daughter's anorexia? Millions of families have those same issues and the kids don't get anorexia. Conversely, millions of families DON'T have those issues, and the kids end up developing eating disorders. The fact is that there have never been any rigorous studies that have shown that those family characteristics are responsible for the development of an eating disorder, although there's a huge amount of literature out there asserting otherwise.
    It goes without saying we should love and support our children and build healthy and happy families. But we should do it because it's a good thing to do, not because it's been proven to protect against eating disorders.

  6. Wow. That was very brave of you to confess that Spartacussquid. I wish my mother would own up to her mistakes. I would give anything for that. Kudos to you.

  7. The point, to me, is this: bad-mouthing your body isn't a good thing, whether your kid has an ED or not.

    So many people have spent time kvetching about their butts, but that doesn't mean it caused an eating disorder. Whether you did or you didn't, beating yourself with the blame stick after your child is diagnosed isn't really going to help. Acknowledging your errors is good, that's a long way from beating yourself up about it.

  8. in answer to the question concerning why I believe a turbulent home life and fixation on appearance are precursors to developing the ED...
    There are probably genetic predispositions to the ED, as there are with a great many disorders. What brings out certain disorders is a 'trigger event' of some sort, whether it be physiological or psycho-emotional trauma. I use the example of psoriasis, a genetic autoimmune condition which ordinarily does not manifest itself from birth, but follows the aforementioned criteria. The same with a genetic predisposition to hypertension; I've been in pretty good physical condition nearly all of my life, and have followed sound nutritional guidelines, but when I lost my job and was out of work for several months following the shock of 9/11, I discovered, after I returned to work, that my blood pressure was dangerously high when I tried to donate blood. So I don't think that the condition emerges from a vacuum. But I will concede that obsession with appearance and family strife are not SOLE contributors.


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