I’ve Struggled With An Eating Disorder And I Worry My Daughters Will Too

by Catherine Brown
Taro Vesalainen/Getty

The topic of eating disorders comes up frequently in conversations at my house. I have three daughters, two of whom are teens, but I never imagined having so many conversations so soon.

Twenty-some years have passed since I struggled with an eating disorder, which for me involved severely restricting my diet and exercising compulsively. I always planned to tell my girls about my own eating disorder (ED)…someday.

That someday came sooner than I thought. I recently co-edited a book of essays about eating disorder recovery, and my kids are curious. They saw my essay lying around and wanted to understand more. Why are you writing about eating disorders?

Now the topic of eating disorders emerges frequently in our conversation. My oldest daughter recently came home and shared that girls at her school talk about starving themselves to achieve the body they think will make them happy. At that moment I felt relieved we had already developed a dialogue about the issue. If we hadn’t already talked discussed ED, would she have felt comfortable talking about it with me?

Sometimes, however, I fear we have gone too far. When my one daughter decides to eat berries instead of ice cream after dinner, her sister accuses her of developing an eating disorder.

Dealing with eating disorders is incredibly tricky. Am I helping to prevent an eating disorder by encouraging open dialogue? Or do we talk about it too much? Will our frequent conversations somehow encourage them to develop an ED?

There is a genetic component to eating disorders, so my worries are justified. As eating disorder researcher and UNC Professor Cynthia Bulik says, “genes load the gun and environment pulls the trigger.”

For the past fifteen years, I have worked to provide an environment with as few triggers as possible. I have changed the way I talk about food and my body, refusing to make comments that had once been commonplace, comments like, “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” or “I feel so fat.” I have also avoided exerting control during mealtimes because EDs are often linked with a need for control.

I worry, though, that my efforts might not be enough to prevent an eating disorder. Not only can I not control what triggers my kids encounter at school or on social media, I can’t even control the ways they trigger each other, despite my best efforts. No matter how many times I tell my daughters to build one another up, they still can be cruel, and they still sometimes make disparaging comments about one another’s bodies.

Are these comments enough to trigger a disorder? Have they already?

I worry. And, in addition to worrying, I experience massive guilt for the stress I put my own parents through. I know they suffered feelings of anguish and helplessness as they tried to figure out whether what began as a health kick was truly healthy. I know they worried endlessly when they sent me back to college when I was losing weight, with no way of monitoring my eating and exercise habits.

Parents of a child with an ED suffer on so many levels. It’s bad enough they make themselves crazy trying to figure out whether a child’s newfound desire to become healthier is an admirable practice or a precursor to something nefarious. Even worse, they tend to blame themselves when a problem does develop.

Should I worry that my daughter has decided to eat fruit instead of ice cream for dessert, or should I praise her desire to be healthy? A case can easily be made for either response.

As a more-paranoid-than-average mom, my reaction is to try to surreptitiously monitor their eating at home to make sure they’re not taking healthy eating too far. I hope I’ll be able to catch a potential problem, but I’m realistic. I’ve been there.

I know what happens to a mind hijacked by anorexia. It makes a person do things they would never ordinarily do; it makes them deceive those around them and hide their behaviors for as long as possible to prevent getting caught. It builds a seemingly insurmountable wall between loved ones.

The experience of having lived through an eating disorder doesn’t make parenting daughters any easier. I know I can’t prevent my children from developing an eating disorder any more than I can prevent other catastrophes.

So, I do what I know how to do: I talk.

I share with them my experiences, and I discuss with them the potentially disastrous consequences of focusing on body image and weight loss.

I try to model healthy eating and exercise habits.

I talk to them about how the photographs they see are filtered and photoshopped to make celebrities appear perfect.

I work to build them up through comments about what their bodies can do instead of what their bodies look like.

I praise them for all their wonderful qualities that have nothing to do with their bodies.

And I do what every other parent does: I love my kids and guide them when I can. Then I hope and pray for the best.