Eating Disorders

On Mothers and Eating Disorders


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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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Jessica has a B.A. in Psychology and Women's Studies and is pursuing a graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She is passionate about social justice and hopes to make a difference in the lives of others and advocate for social change. Having recovered from an eating disorder, Jessica is committed to spreading the word that freedom from eating disorders is possible. Through her writing at Libero, Jessica hopes to empower those struggling with eating disorders to fight for the health and happiness that they deserve.

8 Comments

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  • This is a very important post, Jess. My hope is that therapists and other who tend to engage in the meaningless " blame game " read it, and take the time to think about what you're saying.

    I've tried to tell therapists too, that no – my mum is not responsible for causing ED. I've tried to tell my mum too, as she felt she was held responsible. It pains me think of how she has blamed herself, when all she has done is saving my life from an early death.

    She – like your beautiful mum – has always made me feel loved, accepted and important. Encouraged me to stay true to myself, base my life on positive values – not on grades and other formal accomplishments. As she says – what matters at the end of the day is how you treat yourself and those around you, not what grade you got.

    That is my mum. Not the one therapists have presented.

    Thank you for writing this – know that I'll share it my mum. I think she too will find comfort and hope in your words.

    <3

  • I completely agree with Hedda! This IS such an important post and I do hope that therapists will begin to see that mothers should not be the 'go-to' answer for the source of someone's eating disorder.

    I am so glad to hear stories like yours (Jess) and like Hedda's and even my own where mothers have played a POSITIVE role in one's recovery rather than a negative one.

    I do realize there are situations where this is not the case, however, and my heart goes out to those whose mothers seem to do more harm than good. But that's a topic for another post… 🙂

    ~Lauren B.

  • Thank you so much for your comments, Hedda and Lauren! I'm glad you could relate to the post and that you also have supportive mothers. I'm glad we're speaking up about this! <3

  • I completely agree with this post,even if I did not have a supportive mum, she did not push me into ed,it was a decision I took at that particulars moment and time,instead of playing a blame game,I think one should try And understand why they chose that path,what exactly triggered it,why did i chose to react that way,once we take responsibility for our action we find the reason for our actions,a therapists job really should not be to feed ideas that maybe one's parents or any circumstance is to blame,but to help us to reflect onto ourselves and find our own answer. This applies to ed or any problem really.

  • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Flavia! I agree with you- we all need to discover own answers to the question of where our problems originated from. I also agree that it is important to take responsibility for our own actions regarding an eating disorder or any other issue- I believe that it empowers us with the agency to take responsibility for our recovery. Thanks again for your comment!

  • The first and foremost thing that you remember when you are trying to provide eating disorder help some one with an eating disorder is that simply never focus right away on the food and never compel them to stop the eating behavior.

  • Amen Jess! I think this is very important for mothers to realize, because I think mothers feel things are their fault, or that they could have stopped it, which isn't always the case.

    So glad you brought this up Jess 🙂

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