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Your Daughter's Eating Disorder Is Your Fault

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One woman says she struggled with a three-year eating disorder. And her mother is to blame.

girl with measuring tape around her waist

Recently, writer Joanna Chakerian published a controversial article in the Washington Post about her lifelong battle with an eating disorder -- that she blames squarely on her mother.

Chakerian describes how at age 20 and at a self-described "normal weight," her mother said, "You would look so great and would be happier if you lost about 15 pounds." According to Chakerian, her mom's words resonated and for the next three years, she battled bulimia, binging and vomiting.

Can one person (much less one comment) really be responsible for creating an eating disorder? Were there other issues Chakerian was struggling with that contributed to her illness? Or should weight become a hands-off topic within families?

And while many experts say people with eating disorders often have other obsessive-compulsive tendencies and that food is just a way to establish order and control in life, others say parents obsessed with their own weight can trigger the illness in their children.

Like mother, like daughter?

According to the American Dietetic Association, when a mother is dissatisfied with her body, daughters will learn to base their self-worth on their appearance. In fact, a study published by the Association showed that girls as young as five are likely to try dieting simply because Mom has.

Take Jeanne Sager, a recovering bulimic, who wrote about the devastating day when her toddler had caught her purging for Babble.

"One day in March, when I was overwhelmed by the loss of my grandmother, Jillian caught me throwing up. I never meant her to see me like that. She burst into the bathroom without knocking and found me on the floor in front of 'the potty.' She ran to wrap her arms around my neck. Her voice was full of concern as she repeated the words she's heard so many times from me: 'It's okay. I'm sorry you don't feel good,' and she patted my back with her little hands. I wanted the floor to swallow me whole. I didn't deserve her."

Sager continues: "A week later, I heard her leaning over the toilet bowl coughing, and I could tell the cough was fake. I could hear her giggling while she told my husband, 'I'm sick, Daddy. Have to throw up, Daddy.' I sank against the door in the next room. What have I done?"

Miles Goldstein, a therapist at the Eating Disorders Center of Potomac Valley, in Rockville, MD, says parents should steer clear of weight issues around their children to avoid a situation like this from occurring.

"For all of us, our weight fluctuates," he says. "You've got to take into account what's going on on a psychological level, on an activity level, and there are certain years where there's going to be a lot more stress. If you're uncomfortable with your child's current weight fluctuation, I would definitely say ride out the wave: Don't bring it to the individual's attention."

How do you know if your daughter is suffering from an eating disorder?

"Today we are seeing a really broad range of eating disordered behavior, including extreme dieting, over-exercise, and skipping meals. While not all teens reach the point of having an anorexia or bulimia diagnosis, millions of them do fall into those gray areas," says Claire Mysco, author of Girls Inc. Presents: You're Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self. "The bottom line is that if your child's thoughts about food and weight are preventing her from feeling good about herself and enjoying her life, that is enough of a sign to seek help from a professional."

We spoke with Dr. David B. Herzog, author of Unlocking the Mysteries of Eating Disorders, momlogic friend Counseling Mom, Roseanne Tobey, L.P.C., and Claire Mysco, who is also founder of Inside Beauty, for important warning signs that parents can look for in teens who may be suffering from bulimia or anorexia.

5 Top Signs of Anorexia or Bulimia:

1. Extreme food restriction: The teen has a drastic change in her eating habits.  For instance, she is only willing to accept really small portions and then pushing them around the plate instead of eating them.

2. Perceives her body or parts of her body as extremely large when that is not the case: This may result in a change in clothing style. A daughter who has lost a lot of weight and is now wearing baggy clothing.

3. Disappearance of food from refrigerator or pantry: Bingers usually binge in secret, so keep an eye out for pantries or fridges that have been emptied of their contents, as well as large amounts of empty food wrappers either in the garbage or stashed in some out of the way place.

4. Excessive, compulsive exercise: An obsession with exercising--for instance several times a day, or to the point of complete exhaustion. 

5. Extreme weight loss or marked fluctuations in weight: Dramatic weight loss can be a sign of anorexia, but it is important to remember that not all eating disorders result in weight loss. Many bulimics are normal weight and they can even be overweight. That doesn't make their eating disordered behavior any less dangerous. Watch out for frequent trips to the bathroom after meals and excessive exercise (specifically increased discussion about needing to burn off calories). If you find any evidence that your child has been abusing laxatives or diet pills, confront her immediately.

The earlier a patient is diagnosed and treated with an eating disorder, the more likely they will recover completely. However, according to Walden, one of the country's leading hospitals for treating eating disorders, prolonged bouts with bulimia and anorexia that go untreated can result in osteoporosis, retarded growth, kidney problems, ulcers and heart failure and even death.

For more information about teens and eating disorders visit the Harris Center for Eating Disorders or Walden Hospital.

What do you think -- can moms cause eating disorders in our children?

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18 comments so far | Post a comment now
Emma March 3, 2009, 8:57 AM

As a recovered anorexic, I can sympathize with this article. However, I think it is important to remember there is a flip side to the coin. As children, we tend to emulate and mirror our parents, specifically the parent who is of the same sex. Growing up, I remember my mother eating healthy foods, exercising daily and saving sweets for special occassions, all of which set good examples for my siblings and I. I also remember her starving herself, crying because every outfit made her look fat and critizing my skin, hair, body and weight almost daily. I’m naturally very slender (as is my mother) but was always warned that eating too much would make me fat or she would compare my body to a friends. It was hurtful and I still remember those jabs to this day. Do I blame her because I starved my body all those years? No, I do not. While she certainly didn’t help me, it was my body and ultimately my choice. She never took the food away or commanded me to not eat—I did that to myself. It was my mother who intervened and got me help when I needed it most. When we feel bad about ourselves, we have a tendency to remember and latch onto those comments that play into our insecurities. I think it’s easy for us to blame others for our problems, especially because it’s easier than blaming ourselves.

Mary March 3, 2009, 10:22 AM

My mom had nothing to do with my eating disorder. I was bulimic during college and finally stopped in my mid 20s when my boyfriend asked me to. (I’m now 41) I never recall my mom complaining about her weight nor constantly being on a diet. If anything she was very supportive, always telling me how smart and pretty and successful I am. I gave myself an eating disorder: no one else was responsible.
To you young Ana’s and Mia’s, stop! what you are doing strips you of your beauty. (Tooth enamel alone) Sure, it’s an easy way to maintain your weight, but do you really want a puffy face or extra facial hair?
Today I weigh less than I ever did in my 20s. I haven’t dieted since then because I learned how to listen to my body and only eat when I’m hungry. Unlike most heavy women, I’m not that emotionally attached to food.

Kel March 3, 2009, 2:15 PM

wow that’s sad that she’s blaming her mom out in the media like this. :( my mom probably contributed to my eating disorder, but i think it’s important to not focus on blaming someone. what i’m trying to do is take responsibility for my own actions/choices and move on.

Kirstie March 3, 2009, 2:39 PM

I can understand her feelings - my mom did definitely influence my eating disorder, no doubt about it. She made a lot of comments through the years about my weight and even about my disorder, but do I necessarily BLAME her for it? Never. I was the one in control of what I did or did not put into my mouth or keep in my stomach, not my mother. I’m sure when I was at my sickest, she wished she WAS more in control of it - but she wasn’t. I made my decisions for myself, for better or worse, and I can’t blame anyone but myself for the decisions I made and for the years I lost to an eating disorder.

And like Mary said - girls, if you are doing this to yourselves, please, please stop now, while you can. It is not worth it. I’ve been recovered for two years, thank God, and I have never been happier. You are so much better off without it - it robs you of the best years of your life.

anne March 3, 2009, 6:26 PM

Okay, here goes. I don’t think anyone should be blamed for what is largely a biologically based illness. Anorexia is at least 56% heritable (moderately heritable) based on Swedish twin studies. Sometimes people are able to point to something specific (an incident, a comment, often a diet gone terribly awry) that set the illness in motion. So, yes, environmental factors have an influence and can help sustain an illness. But they can’t cause it. You need the genetic predisposition to develop anorexia…and likely bulimia too. ED’s run in families. It may be why a mother is sometimes viewed as ‘giving’ it to a daughter. Genetically that may well be true. I’m glad to hear young women on this site not blaming their mothers. Neither should you blame yourselves. This is a terribly difficult illness to fight and families need to unite, not divide, to do it best.

I’d like to refer readers to two sites that have been an incredible source of hope and support to me. I am passing them on.

(parents of bulimics are welcome on both sites too)

Ju March 3, 2009, 6:53 PM

I was lucky enough to not have to go through these eating disorders as a teen. I grew up in South Korea, my mother raised me with a more Korean mindset, so when I started getting curves as a teen and my Korean counterparts stayed twigs, it was emotionally damaging to me. I kept seeing fat where it was normal to have some, but I never thought to stop eating or making myself throw up. I don’t think I even knew about that, it wasn’t something that was put in the public eye here, if it even was a problem. I feel for the girls and women that go through this and am glad that there is help availiable.

Marie March 5, 2009, 8:45 PM

My jaw dropped when I read Chakerian’s statement about what her mother said - my mother said the EXACT SAME THING to me when I was 12! (Why is it always ‘15 lbs.’?)

As Emma and Kel said, mothers can (and do) often influence the way we view our bodies,making us more vulnerable to develop eating disorders - but we cannot place the blame outside of ourselves.

I was bulimic for 17 years, and have been completely restored (mind and body) for the last five. I have written a book about overcoming EDs from a Christian perspective, and hope that it will be published by next year. Ultimately, eating disorders (like other addictions) are spiritual diseases masquerading as physical ones. They are LEARNED BEHAVIORS, which CAN be unlearned. Blaming genetics, the environment or society is not the answer - but often pride and control issues are.

I’ve read the Swedish twin study, and the science behind it was dubious at best. Statistics can be skewed to support anything. There is no indication that anorexia and bulimia are inherited - but “nurture” and messages we picked up from our mothers play a very big role. Forgiveness and accepting our own responsibility for poor choices is key in recovery.

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Lisa October 7, 2010, 5:09 AM

My 19 yr old daughter died on 4/13/10 due to her eating disorder. STOP pointing fingers and get these girls the help they need before it is to late !!!!!!!!!!!

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