I'm Trying Not To Pass On A Legacy Of Eating Disorders To My Daughter

by Melissa Tamberg-Heffron
Originally Published: 

I struggle to recall how it all began, like unraveling fleeting clips on an old movie reel, none of which I can quite splice back together. Where, when, how, why? There are so many variables, all masked by the murky hands of time, which make it nearly impossible for me to pinpoint.

Maybe it started in seventh-grade English class, that day I wore those brand new Levi’s to school and Mike Thomas hissed in front of the entire class, “I didn’t know they made 501s that big!” Or perhaps it rose up out of my inherent perfectionism, that incessant internal buzz echoing that nothing was ever quite enough. Or possibly it was sparked by a hunger for control, a natural outcome of being raised between the chaotic, unpredictable walls of an alcoholic household; the unquenchable quest turned inward, devouring me.

All of these decades later, the only thing I know with certainty about that time in my life is this: I was dying to be thin. And quite frankly, I almost did. Though fully recovered now, I feel compelled to trace the trail, ingest every last clue, reconstruct the precise recipe that led to my eating disorders. Because now I have a daughter, and it is my job—my duty, my vow—to do absolutely everything in my power to prevent her from following in my footsteps.

I wasn’t obese as a child. Really, I was just slightly overweight. I say this with the assurance that comes not from memory, but from photography. If I was recounting my size based on how I felt about myself at the time, then the image would be grossly inflated. But the pictures don’t lie: I wasn’t fat.

I was, however, the tallest girl in the class. Even in that first 1975 amber-tinted kindergarten class portrait, I towered above all of my peers. By the time junior high arrived, ushering in all the cruelty and heartlessness the interval promises, I had sprouted to 5-foot-10. Never small-boned, I couldn’t have slipped into the era’s chic size 3 Jordache jeans or designer Guess denims if every last calorie had been confiscated from my diet. My body just wasn’t built for hugging those darling Esprit pants I was forced to covet from afar. My hips, even back then, were contoured more for childbearing, but that certainly isn’t the prize a middle school girl craves from her body.

I first learned about anorexia and bulimia in a Teen magazine article. Despite the blatant health warnings—the entire point of the story—I remember instead being intrigued. I could eat anything I wanted and not gain an ounce? Maybe even lose weight? It was ingenious! Rather than the information frightening or disgusting me as it should have, the piece instead became my playbook, instructing me in how to binge and purge.

I had been secretly forcing my fingers down the back of my throat for several months when my mom sensed something was amiss and confirmed her suspicions by reading my diary. To this day, I can still recall the betrayal I felt when she confronted me, my illness rendering me completely immune to her concern. Yet I know, if faced with the identical set of circumstances now, without hesitancy I would do exactly as she had if it meant protecting my daughter.

After my affliction had been exposed, I could no longer use the bathroom without my mom’s fine-tuned ear policing just beyond the door, but my insatiable desperation to be thin fueled a repulsive level of resourcefulness. I started vomiting under backyard bushes and even into a giant black trash bag spread across my closet floor. As the sour stench would waft through that tiny space, I remember bracing for the imminent dizziness and the rush of my pounding heartbeat, all the while straining for the possibility of my mom’s footsteps approaching from down the hall. In those moments, every sensation in my body was magnified, but none was more powerful than the euphoria of feeling my hands pressed in tandem across the distinct flatness of my stomach.

In high school, my bulimia evolved into anorexia, swallowing my 5-foot-10-inch frame until all that remained was a virtual stick figure cleaving to a mere 109 pounds. Thirty years later, I still haven’t forgotten the look on my mom’s face—equal parts sorrow and terror—as she snapped prom-night photos my sophomore year, my clavicles grossly protruding under my tiny strapless gown.

Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones. I completely recovered from my eating disorders. I owe this in large measure to my mom, who put me through years of counseling and stood by me at every size. It was my mother who prepared my favorite meals, packaging them in teeny 3-by-3-inch portions while I essentially retrained myself to eat—a single bite literally marking the difference between feeling full and feeling so fat that I would have no choice but to expel the food.

As I ruminate on all of this now, sandwiched precariously between our three generations, it is all too easy for me to imagine how terrified my mom must have felt, how completely and utterly helpless. How profoundly I understand now. How much I applaud her. And how desperately I hope to never endure as a mother what I, as a daughter, put her through.

My little girl, like me, is not tiny, nor is she overweight by any standards. She is off-the-charts tall for her age; just as I once did, she eclipses every other boy and girl in her pre-K class. The other day, as I tickled her still-soft-like-a-toddler tummy, I started to tell my daughter how much I loved her “Buddha belly,” then abruptly stopped myself. Is it too soon to worry that such a term—offered only with affection—might possibly be negatively inferred? Likewise, will conveying to her that she is beautiful instill confidence, or will it cause her to link her appearance to her self-worth?

With an ultra-heightened awareness, I tip-toe this tentative tightrope. I shoot daggers at my husband when he (casually and innocently) remarks that some actress on a TV show we are all watching together appears to have gained weight: You have a daughter now. You can’t say those things in front of her. Between us, we have raised three healthy boys who never had to worry about their weight, who presumably haven’t even pondered the term “body image.” But it’s different with a girl. And in the absence of being able to isolate the precise foundation of my own eating disorders, I am left to cautiously navigate uncharted territory with my daughter.

So I do what feels right: I continue to fill her cup with three parts water, one part juice. She will never, ever hear me utter the words “I feel fat,” or make derogatory comments about my appearance. I don’t micro-manage her calorie intake or prohibit sugar. (There are times I feel an uneasy pang when my husband gives her two scoops of ice cream instead of one, when he adds syrup to her chocolate chip waffle, and when so many of their father-daughter outings are marked by stops for Slurpees and McDonald’s, however.) I prepare healthy meals and offer up plenty of fruits and veggies for snacks. I expose her to active pursuits that she loves like dancing, swimming and horseback riding. Yes, I do tell her she’s beautiful. But I also encourage her efforts, nurture her spirit, compliment her disposition and praise her hard work.

As she grows, I promise to listen, to observe, to sympathize. I vow to help her glean value from expanding her character, not narrowing her frame. My wish for my daughter is that she will never measure her sense of worth by the number on a scale.That she will love her body—or at the very least, be comfortable in her own skin. That she will never come to view herself in the dysmorphic manner I did, nor experience the crushing desperation that would make her ever consider vomiting into a trash bag in her closet. I hope my daughter won’t ever look in the mirror and perceive an unflattering image reflected back. That she will always select swimwear with the same reckless abandon she does today—choosing the tankini over the bikini not out of a desire to hide her belly, but because it bears images of her favorite Disney Princess Palace Pets across the front.

As she gets older, I hope she isn’t body-shamed like I was, bullied about a jean size or labeled “Thunder Thighs.” If she is, I hope that her sense of worth will be strong enough to let the vile words roll right off her shoulders. And in the event that my baby girl ever does succumb to any of these heartbreaking outcomes, then I pray I will find the strength to be half the support system for her that my own mother was for me.

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