“Ugh, I just can’t lose this baby weight,” one of the mothers on our hike up the shady side of the mountain in Kapa`a on Kauai, her four-month old daughter cooing in the carrier in front of her.
“I know,” another mother said. “I keep trying to work out, but it’s just not coming off.” Her nine-month old daughter kicked her legs in the forward-facing carrier on her chest.
I looked down at my own six-month old daughter in my front pack, then back up at these two perfectly normal-sized women, and sighed.
This is how eating disorders get started, I thought.
And, I should know. I battled anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating and exercising for over 15 years of my life. It wasn’t until I gave birth to my daughter that I realized I never wanted her to waste one moment of her life worrying about the number on a scale or on the tag of her dress.
What I should’ve said in that moment, as we traversed the roots of trees in a beautiful backdrop of Mother Nature is, “But look at what your bodies have done! Your bodies created the lives you’re holding in front of you right now. Look at how miraculous your body has been to you.”
And, if I were really brave and bold, I would’ve added, “Your daughters are hearing everything you’re saying — whether you realize it or not.”
When I eventually healed my eating disorder to the point that I worked as a facilitator in both in-patient and outpatient facilities, the therapists in the office would often share how what they saw in the clients mirrored what the mothers believed about themselves. And, because the mother’s relationship with body and food weren’t healthfully or fully addressed, it was passed on to the next generation.
Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illnesses in the world, partly because you can never fully disengage from your ‘drug of choice.’ Unlike alcoholism or heroin, you’ll always have to eat to survive. In therapy, we learn that it’s never about the food, just like it’s never about the body and how it looks. But, if we’re not mindful about what we’re telling ourselves – or saying around our children or directly to them – then we’re perpetuating a cycle of self-persecution generation after generation.
In order to recover from my eating disorder in my mid-20s, I entered into an intensive outpatient program in Los Angeles. Every weekday for a year, after my full-time job, I would spend three hours in group and individual therapy. I continued on with individual sessions for years, until I got to a point where I was leading recovery groups at in-patient and outpatient facilities similar to the one I had been a client of.
However, my efforts as a group facilitator seemed somewhat futile. Each client was aiming to get to a point of surviving, not thriving, so it makes sense that these patterns would get repeated once children come along.
Conscious parenting is a reckoning with our own pitfalls, shadow sides, and shortcomings in order to make an intentional choice of the thing we say or do to model and inspire our own children — all of this can be especially hard for women in a culture wrapped around an obsession with the ideal physical aesthetic, even if all of our bodies are designed to be completely and uniquely different.
Though I suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum throughout my 38 weeks of pregnancy, it was only afterward that I realized what a blessing I was given — being that sick and constantly throwing up removed any semblance of my former patterns of bulimia from my life and reframed my appreciation for my body completely.
One evening, while I knelt on the bathroom floor, a migraine pulsing through my temples after not being able to control the need to throw up multiple times for eight hours straight, I thought, “How could I have ever chosen to voluntarily do this to myself?”
To truly change this dynamic for ourselves and our daughters, I believe that it’s vital to be mindful of the impact of how you’re showing up and what you’re saying. As busy as you are, start to incorporate more mindfulness and journaling practices into your every day to reflect upon who you are, your own value and worth, and what you truly want from life.
And, know that the more you love yourself, the more you can model that for your daughter. But, keep in mind, it goes beyond modeling…
According to Psychology Today:
- It’s vital to have healthy boundaries between daughters and parents, which translates into letting your kids be kids and you being the adult you need to be. Women with anorexia nervosa often report a lack of boundaries with their mothers. Aim to provide your daughter with a stable foundation in the teenage years, and allow her enough freedom to make her own decisions to develop her own identity.
- Host regular family dinners, so you can teach your children healthy eating patterns. The more pleasant the atmosphere at home, the more she can create positive associations between food, eating, and socialization.
- Empower your child — young women who are self-confident are less likely to succumb to eating or body image issues. The more you can create the foundation for her to understand that her value and worth are tied to being-ness, rather than her physicality, the more she’ll have a solid foundation to explore life from.
While a lot of eating disorder recovery programs believe that you’ll always have a problem you’ll simply have to manage for the rest of your life, I truly believe that you can overcome your eating disorder completely, so that it’s absolutely a thing of your past and simply becomes part of your heroine’s journey.
One you can nurture for your own daughter, too!