I was making waffles for my kids when sadness and frustration kicked in. I looked at the thick pool of butter melting into each square of my 6-year-old son’s waffle, extra pats given with love and determination to fill out his thin frame. My daughter, a little dumpling of a toddler, had a much lighter smear spread thinly across her waffle.
This is how it starts.
When I look back on my own years of obsessive dieting and binge eating, it’s always with a laugh and an eye roll: “Every teenage girl had an eating disorder then. It was a rite of passage.” I was never frighteningly skinny or forced into treatment. It was simply always there, quietly controlling my moods, my wardrobe, my metabolism and my sense of worth.
In adulthood, my relationship with my eating disorder has softened into more of an easygoing partnership than toxic abuse. But it often makes its presence known through internal dialogues and little games: Daily weigh-ins that determine whether I’m wearing pants with buttons that day; parsing out cookies two at a time because odd numbers are uncomfortable.
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The gravity of my responsibility as a parent is not lost on me: I’m partly in charge of two little people’s nutrition, helping to establish habits that could shape their relationship with food. And I desperately want them both to remain free from my burdens.
My fears aren’t entirely unfounded. Some research has pinpointed a genetic link to anorexia nervosa, suggesting the disease can be inherited. But more broadly, a whole confluence of factors can lead to disordered eating, and much of that begins in childhood.
“Eating disorders are very complex illnesses…” says Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. “Factors like biological predisposition, co-occurring psychological conditions and cultural messages all play into it.”
Though I could never pinpoint the origins of my disorder, memories related to my weight and body shape flow from every direction. My pediatrician lecturing me about adding more roughage to my diet. Watching my mother fret about her own body, even though to me she was just mom and I didn’t understand why it mattered. Eating my way through a box of cereal – no milk added – because my body craved endless amounts of sugar. Always being the slowest, the clumsiest, the last one picked and wondering why other girls could be thin without even trying.
But back then, no one ever thought there was a problem with a young girl obsessing over calories and fat grams, as long as the net result was weight loss. Because I never hit any physical danger – either hospitalisation thin or obesity-level heavy – it wasn’t a “real” disorder.
Even though I was never diagnosed with a disorder, I reasoned that I had learned enough in my lifetime to empower my kids. I would never force my children to eat if they’re not hungry. I don’t talk about my body issues with them. If going out to dinner means they only eat french fries for one meal, that’s okay.
But I couldn’t control my reactions of glee and high praise when my kids made the “right” choices. That rose to the surface when I offered…
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