Does (mom's) size matter?

Did the title above make you flinch? This is a touchy subject.

If mom is thin... or fat... dad is athletic... mom is in a running club... imagine how these benign facts take on meaning all of a sudden when Junior develops a mental condition that seems to be about weight and size. Did mom's size scare her daughter? Did Dad being so thin create a double standard? Family ice-cream night, the Weight Watcher account, the Diet Coke t-shirt - is it important or coincidence?

I have observed that EDs hit families with all sizes of parents. And I don't believe EDs really have much to do with a desire to be thin - so I'm not buying that facile causation myth.

But wow: I am never as aware of what I'm eating as when I'm being looked at as an anorexic's mother. I wasn't all that weird about food before our daughter's illness, but I went through a really bizarre time where I was sure everyone was staring judgementally at my plate.

I'm over that now - but my own relationship with eating and my weight went through some tough times in the years since our daughter's diagnosis. I over-ate during re feeding and beyond in cheer leading mode: there are no bad foods, food is good, don't be afraid! I lost touch with hunger and fullness. I began to hate food and everything associated with it. I grew very body conscious. I even weighed losing or gaining weight to promote my daughter's recovery - and thought of arguments for both sides. I caught myself wondering as an ED parent advocate if I hurt the reputation of parents if I'm too round or not round enough. I wondered if ordering a salad at an ED event will raise eyebrows - but then again, what does a fully-loaded burger say? If I turned down dessert am I restricting? If I ate dessert just to be social was I failing some test?

I hear this sort of thing from lots of parents - moms in particular.

It has taken years to really feel beyond it. I'm back to what I think is my normal state: don't think all that much about food or my body size. I forget to give a fig about what people think of my plate. I don't notice other people's shapes or what they eat unless pointed out, and anyone who does point these things out suffers a blistering lecture in response. I've come to be a strong believer in the Health at Every Size movement and the Intuitive Eating paradigm and follow Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility with our family meals. But none of that came naturally, or at once.

If you are a parent struggling with these things, I want to reassure you that it seems to be very common. And from personal experience I can say it worked out over time, and I learned a lot about myself and our society.

Does size matter? My answer is no. But I doubt any of us get out of this experience without wondering about it a bit, and some humbling struggle.


  1. Thank you for your honesty - yes it is a tough one. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror the other day and realised that I am now the same shape as my aunt was when I first met her - ie not very tall and fairly wide. Since Aunt R is now 99 for the first time I was able to think not "oh dear I'm fat" but "there's a good set of genes if ever there was one" but as I said, it was the first time I've thought that, and the negative thoughts will creep in alongside for a while to come I know.

  2. I'm not the parent of someone with an eating disorder, but I am an ED therapist. Reading this post it struck me that this is also what being in this profession can be like. All the same scrutiny, or feelings of scrutiny, especially when eating (or not!) in the related environments (conferences, work, etc). It's amazing what having a heightened sensitivity to this is like, isn't it? And also equally great to get a reprieve...

  3. Anonymous,

    This is an excellent point. It deserves a whole discussion of its own, come to think of it. I know I was making some snap judgments myself when I met a clinician, and I know my daughter did as well. It was a no-win for the clinician: there isn't an appearance that wouldn't inspire either suspicion or comparison.

    I remember one car trip home where the family described being distracted during the whole session by the therapist's Diet Coke.

  4. In my experience, our adolescents are just as likely to rebel against their parents as to emulate them. That goes for everything, including eating and physical activity. That doesn't keep us from second--guessing ourselves as parents, but it should help free us from guilt if our child develops anorexia.

  5. Anonymous,

    Forgive my inquisitiveness, but I'm curious about your statement. Are you saying that eating disorders are a form of rebellion?

  6. NO, I'm not saying that eating disorders are a form of rebellion (although I can see how my words could be interpreted that way) What I tried to say is that I agree that stuff parents do like being athletic, joining a running club, ordering ice cream sometimes and a salad other times, having a weight watcher account or wearing a diet coke t-shirt, don't have anything to do with whether our adolescent gets anorexia, and further that they don't even influence our kid's behavior all that much one way or the other since, while sometimes adolescents emulate their parents, other times they experiment with being different from them. ("Rebel" was not the best term to use!)

  7. Laura, do you know about Glenn Gaesser's book Big Fat Lies on the subject of being fit at any weight? Gaesser is a UVa professor who seems to agree with the Health at Every Size movement.

  8. I have read Gaesser, and his critics.

    I do believe in the Health at Every Size concept and scientific support. But with caution: not everyone is going to be healthy no matter what they do - health has to do with far more than just how fit we are, and it isn't all under our control.

    I believe in living our lives with balance and activity and in accordance with our genes and joys - we have gone the wrong way entirely by judging health, beauty, or virtue by one's size.


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