Challenges

My Mom’s Eating Disorder Took a Toll On Our Relationship. But Now We're Closer Than Ever.

It was almost impossible to be unscathed by her example.

My mom has struggled with disordered eating her entire adult life. She was born in 1948 and heavily influenced by 1960s beauty standards — Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, fashion magazines, and mini-skirts. By age 12, she was completely preoccupied with thinness. By 15, she was dieting in unusual, obsessive ways; for a few months, she ate nothing but apricots and drank nothing but apricot brandy.

My mom’s relationship with her body got worse as she entered show business in her 20s — she’s a singer and actress and has worked in Hollywood for over 40 years. She was frequently cast as a waif or victim, and thinness was a prerequisite for these roles. “Staying underweight for all those years in the business was part of the job,” she once told me. Her fractured eating patterns continued through her marriage and having me, her only child.

There were a few years where all she ate was cottage cheese and orange marmalade. One year was dedicated to yogurt and pecan praline granola. For years, dinner was a bag of frozen mango. She was always drinking coffee, and alternated between Diet Coke and sugar-free Red Bull. More recently she’s all about ginger kombucha.

My mom and I have always been close, but we’ve had to overcome the resentment and pain that stemmed from her lifelong eating disorder. As a teenager I was fixated on weight loss, too. It didn’t help that I was growing up in the mid-2000s, when a nationwide infatuation with thinness — a thigh gap, protruding hips, a sunken stomach — was in full swing.

We watched a lot of Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model together. My mom would always buy tabloids at the corner newsstand filled with articles like “Top 50 WORST Bikini Bodies” and “Celebrity Cellulite.” Her fractured eating habits were obvious to me — the fridge stocked with the same one item she was stuck on for that month, or year, the stacks of Optifast protein powder in her bedroom. She’d be “good” all week so she could have a full mug of half & half at the end of it. She would self-criticize, commenting on her arms or her backside, worried about fitting into the dress she’d wear on stage. She never put direct pressure on me to lose weight or diet, but it was almost impossible to be unscathed by her example.

I began obsessively thinking about food and my body around the age of 14 — counting calories, restricting foods and other compulsive behaviors. Though she didn’t realize it, she was giving positive reinforcement for my subsequent weight loss, calling me her “little string bean” or her “little model.”

Although there were many things to blame for my eating disorder (patriarchal beauty standards expressed via television, ignorant boyfriends, and Tumblr, to name a few), I knew my mom influenced me early on. Witnessing her body image struggles, I worried I would inherit them. I was angry and hurt, and I feared this would be part of my life forever. I wanted to feel close to her, comfortable and safe, but this dynamic had driven a wedge between us.

My resentment began to fade when we both finally acknowledged her dieting and relationship to her body. For the first time, midway through college, we spoke not just as daughter and mom, but as two women, with a shared battle. She started seeing a nutritional therapist about a year ago, at the age of 72. I was relieved and proud: she was actively addressing her disordered eating, albeit late in life.

After a few sessions she told me, “I'm liking being strong. I'm loving being strong. And I'm loving eating breakfast, so we've gotten that far.” It gave me hope that I can continue growing along my own non-linear path, whatever form it may take. We talk about how our elevator goes up and down, that we have these high highs: talking to strangers at the grocery store, finding so much joy in a walk around the block looking at flowers, having an afternoon iced coffee. Little things that bring us up.

We also share in the downs — the deep moments of pain, many of which involve agonizing over food and our bodies. She’s trying to make changes, eating more consistently and healthily, moving her body, but she stopped seeing her nutritional therapist a few months ago. She told me, “I still have a lot of self-destructive tendencies. So, am I really motivated to do it for myself? I don't think so. I'm motivated to do it to have a future with you. Because I love you so much.” I love her, too, but until she makes concrete changes for herself, and not for me, I worry the changes won’t last. That’s hard to admit, but I know what will last is the progress we’ve made in our relationship — I have an ally in my mom, and she has one in me.

Alice Wolfe is a graduate student at the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her work has been published in the Portland Mercury and NYU’s online publication, The Click. Her beats include the hospitality industry, pop culture, and civil liberties. She lives in Portland, Oregon.