A Conversation on eating disorder, body image and recovery between a Mother and Daughter.
In recent years, there has been an ever-evolving dialogue about mental health and its connection to our family experiences. While it is valuable for every one of us to take some time to dive deeper into where our beliefs about ourselves and our value come from, these intensely intimate discussions tend to happen outside of the relationships that we have with those who have known us as long as we have been on this planet – our parents.
While it can be cathartic to express how our upbringing has impacted how we see who we are at our core, and how we have made decisions about our futures from the fragments of the past, it can be equally eye-opening to hear those stories from our caretakers themselves.
This is an excerpt from a conversation between myself (33) and my mother (62) about our mutual battles and learnings. It showcases segments from a heart-to-heart that has not only given me greater insights into myself and my thinking about my body but has left me with such compassion for her, as she navigated her own journey through disordered eating all the while doing her best to show up as a mom. If this story inspires anything in you, I hope that it encourages you to pick up the phone, send a text or schedule a coffee date with your mother, and invites you to ask bold questions that you have never explored together before.
What is your earliest memory of your body? (Mother)
My earliest memory was looking at a picture from when I was a toddler, with my brother and sister and I was the heaviest one. I also remember elementary school being heavier than the other kids, who made fun of me. I felt like I was different from everybody else in public school. I felt like I was bigger than the other kids. I don’t know that I felt that I felt bad about my body, I just noticed that something was different
What is your earliest memory of your body? (Daughter)
I had the same kind of thing. Where I didn’t feel bad, I just looked around and felt like I was bigger than other people. I was the biggest one in my class; the tallest one in my class. All the little boys were so tiny and I looked huge in the school pictures –towering over everybody.
How do you remember bodies and food being spoken about in your family? (Mother)
I would say that my parents thought that being slim was ideal and were disturbed that we were not all thin. Thin bodies were glorified and complemented and heavier ones were unattractive. My parents spoke of others’ weights very often and commented on when people gained weight.
When it comes to food, portions were always a problem. Apples for dessert were a punishment if you would have wanted cake instead. Sweet desserts were served to guests and when they were given to us as kids, the slices were small. We were not allowed to ask for seconds. I was especially not allowed as I was the heaviest of my siblings. It was always like anything that was considered treats or sweet things, was policed. If you wanted another one, you got a dirty look. You felt bad about what you chose to eat and felt like you were being watched for how much you were taking.
How do you remember bodies and food being spoken about in your family? (Daughter)
I remember that there was a lot of food readily available. There was a lot of exceptionalism —these are good foods and these are the bad foods. I remember your relationship with your body when you were on a diet, I didn’t know what was going on but I knew you were afraid of food. I knew that you were always unhappy with your body. I find too when I think back about it, I don’t feel like you made that many overt comments to me about how I looked or my size, it was more under the surface.
When did your disordered eating and challenging relationship with your body begin? (Mother)
I was always a compulsive overeater from a very young age. My eating disorder, bulimia, began in my early 20s. I set a goal to lose 50 pounds. I did it by restricting, bingeing and then purging, along with laxative abuse and misuse of diuretics. My job suffered as I called in sick much of the time. The only thing that mattered was the food. I nearly fainted at the party before my wedding because my electrolytes were so screwed up. This went on very strongly for a few years and continued into my 30s. I was on and off different diet schemes, and all of them worked until they didn’t. More schemes, eating disorder groups, and support groups, only to talk about the problem and never the solution.
When did your disordered eating and challenging relationship with your body begin? (Daughter)
I avoided food or I would eat and then I would go and exercise for 3 hours. I went through a really hard period of compulsive exercise. After eating dinner, I would think about what I would need to do to burn off what I had just consumed —sometimes I would do that 3 times per day. I would wake up in the morning, and all I would do on a loop was recount what I ate the day before. That would determine how I felt. It only got worse when I got a tracking app. I would track every little thing and would get mad if anyone tried to get me to eat anything outside of what I felt was permitted. I restricted myself for years. It started out innocently enough–it happened slowly, it wasn’t 0 to 100 —it got progressively more obsessive. When I turned 30, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to live a life where I was so focused on food and my body that I didn’t dedicate the time and energy that my life, my hobbies, my passions and my people deserved and needed from me. Thinking back on it, in many ways, my self-esteem at 20 before I lost weight and went from a bigger body to a smaller body was better than at 25 when I was at my smallest. You become a shell of yourself and you become really self-absorbed. I remember my partner cooking me these beautiful meals, and I would have three bites of it and not know why he was upset. I would be upset because I questioned why he would make such a high-calorie dinner. You become paranoid that people are trying to mess with you. You become obsessed with yourself, and your body and think that everyone else should become obsessed with what you are eating. It feels as though I had more compassion for people when I was in a larger body; I had never given as much thought to other people’s bodies until I was obsessed with my own.
If you could go back and give yourself a truth that you know now, what would you say? (Mother)
I would tell myself that whatever you do earlier in life follows you all the way through. I ruined my teeth with stomach acid from all the vomiting, I took precious time away and could have enjoyed my life instead of focusing on outside beauty. The laxative problem still haunts me and my food obsession, although better, has never completely gone away. You don’t need to survive on a diet of compliments to be worthy.
If you could go back and give yourself a truth that you know now, what would you say? (Daughter)
How you look and how much you weigh and what pant size you are wearing is not indicative of what kind of person you are and not indicative of your value as a person. The people who are around you care about you because they think you are funny and smart not based on the way that you look. I would also tell myself that everything comes from something deeper. This desire to focus on your body may come from an underlying need to feel safe or feel loved or feeling acknowledged. Look at the behaviour and ask yourself is there an alternative way that I can have this need met?
How would you describe your relationship with food now? (Mother)
That’s a biggie. It’s always a battle. Daily. Although I have had success with a 12-step program, it remains a struggle. I am looking forward to the day when I can be at peace with all food. It’s a love-hate relationship. That said, I have much greater awareness now and am no longer in a place where I feel out of control.
How would you describe your relationship with food now? (Daughter)
My relationship with food has really turned around over the past 3 years. I no longer track, I focus on movement that feels good and I enjoy a whole variety of foods both for nutrition and for pleasure. I can catch myself now when I am starting to slip into old thinking patterns, especially if I am feeling stressed. I am now able to redirect my focus to other habits that give me a sense of control or calm like going for a walk, taking deep breaths, journaling, meditation and speaking to my emotions.
How did having your daughters impact your relationship with yourself and with your body? (Mother)
A mother-daughter dynamic is beautiful and can be complicated. I probably did not set an ideal example for my daughters, although I tried my best with what I had at the time. I feel that my relationship with my daughters struggled when they were younger, but now as adults, I have been able to be transparent about my struggles and we have an understanding of each other as unique human beings. I don’t know how I would have been as a mother to sons. The dynamic would have been different as at the time in the 90s, all body sizes were not as socially acceptable as they are now.
How do you feel your mother’s body image impacted your own? (Daughter)
The thing that kids pick up on more than food and healthy habits is the way that your mother looks at herself. As a little girl, you look to your mom to determine how you should look and evaluate yourself. If she is critical of her body, then you learn to be critical of your own body. That modelling is so important and I feel very fortunate now, as an adult, that I have a chance to relearn that perspective by getting to know your experiences. It really does help me to get a better grasp of why my self-image became so interlinked with how I looked.
What do you love about your body now? (Mother)
I appreciate my body as a whole and favour my health over how I look on the outside. As I age I just want peace and kindness for myself and my body
What do you love about your body now? (Daughter)
I am so grateful for what my body does for me every day. It allows me to go for long walks through the woods, to spend time doing the things that I love, and to dance around when my favourite pump-up song comes on. It has been so beneficial the last few years to see it as the vessel that carries me through the world. I am always in awe of its capacity for intuition, its ability to guide me to activities that feel restful or energizing and most of all the full range of emotions I am now able to delve into now that I am more connected to myself.
What have you learned about through this conversation? (Mother)
I learned that it is so freeing to be vulnerable and open with your story. I learned that it felt great to be so honest with my daughter so that she can understand where she came from, and how my life shaped hers. This gave her a tremendous insight into who I am, a gift that few experience.
What have you learned about through this conversation? (Daughter)
I have learned how freeing it can be to have open, honest conversations about really personal topics with my mom. Growing up, I would not have been in a place to feel comfortable talking about body image and my history of disordered eating in this way with my mother– with friends, sure, but there is another layer of intimacy when it is the person who raised you, who influenced you and in many ways that you looked up to, being on the other side of the table hearing about how their choices and your choices interconnect.
What advice do you want to share with other mothers and daughters? (Mother)
I would want mothers to know that they should open up and share themselves with their daughters so that she gets to know them on the inside – not only from how she observes. It will be a great memory for her – your vulnerability. I would want daughters to know that their mom wants to know them. Don’t be afraid to share. It may not be easy, but give it a try. You might be surprised. I know that my daughter shared that one of her goals for 2023 was to get to know me better and I could not have felt more blessed.
What advice do you want to share with other mothers and daughters? (Daughter)
I would encourage anyone who has struggled with their mental health, anyone who is trying to get to know themselves better or who has been doing the inner child work to get a more fulsome understanding of themselves to reach out and offer a space to have a coffee chat like this one with your mother. It can be scary if you have not always had that type of relationship. Still, once you break the ice, you will realise that not only do the two of you have more in common than you think, but you may get a greater appreciation for where your internal dialogue comes from and through this come up with new strategies to heal those old wounds.