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If you have been in treatment for an eating disorder, you may be familiar with the question: “What did your mom eat like when you were growing up? How was food and eating treated in your family?” I cannot count how many times I have been asked this by treatment providers over the years. The question was often accompanied by a judgmental tone of voice- the tone someone uses when they think they already know the answer to your question (or at least the answer they want to hear).
Whenever I told treatment providers that my mother’s relationship with food is not something that contributed to my eating disorder, my words were met with inquisitive glances and questions such as, “Are you sure?” To this day, I can still declare with confidence that no, my mother’s eating habits did not contribute to the development of my eating disorder and yes, I am 100% sure. As Jenni Schaefer says, “Mother’s have been falsely blamed for eating disorders in the past and it MUST stop. My mom did not cause my eating disorder- but she did a whole lot to help me get better.”
Modern research demonstrates that there is no single cause of eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex biopsychosocial illnesses. Biopsychosocial means that they arise from a combination of biological factors (functioning of neurotransmitters, brain structure, etc), psychological factors (emotional functioning and self-esteem are examples), and social factors (the environment and people you interact with, as well as the media). A common saying is that for an eating disorder to develop, genetics have to load the gun and life experiences and environment have to pull the trigger.
For me, the genetics loaded the gun and the environment certainly pulled the trigger– but the life experiences that negatively impacted my perceptions of myself, food, and my body had nothing to do with my mother’s outlook on weight and nutrition.
My mother brought me up to believe that I could accomplish anything I wanted to. She taught me that the most important thing was not for me to look a certain way or achieve certain grades, but rather to strive to be a good person, accomplish my personal goals, and be happy. In fact, my dear mother made a conscious effort to model a healthy relationship with food, because she is a guidance counselor and knew the dangers of young girls developing eating disorders!
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My perfectionistic mindset and negative body image that contributed to the development of my eating disorder had nothing to do with the values she passed on to me and everything to do with my own biological temperament and its interaction with painful life events.
On the flip side, one of my close friends growing up was constantly pressured by her mother to diet and lose weight and I was terrified that she was going to develop an eating disorder. She did not develop an eating disorder, however, because one environmental factor alone was not enough to trigger such a complex illness.
I am not saying that there are not people whose eating disorders are influenced by their mothers– I know people personally who have experienced this and neuropsychological research shows that eating disorders tend to run in families. The message that I hope to convey is simply that each individual’s experience with an eating disorder is unique and multi-faceted.
I believe that listening to someone’s individual story with an open mind and heart is a more effective way to support someone with an eating disorder than playing a “blame game” based on generalizations. This not only gives the individual a voice, but also leaves the door open for an individual’s family, if they are supportive, to play a key role in their loved one’s recovery.
In terms of eating disorder prevention, I do believe that it is important for mothers to model positive relationships with food for their children. However, because children’s environment goes beyond the home, I believe that WE ALL- each and every one of us- have the responsibility to strive to make our world a better place where people are encouraged to treat their bodies with love and respect. No one person can “cause” someone to develop an eating disorder; but, maybe if we all work together as a human race, we can create a world where the environment no longer pulls the trigger.
Thank you, Mom, for always having my back physically, emotionally, and financially throughout my recovery process. I could not have made it this far without you!
*This post was inspired by Jenni Schaefer’s video “Mom, it’s not your fault”.
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