Saturday, December 01, 2007

Mom's off the hook, Dad's on the hot seat

For the last 60 years or so, parents have been blamed for their children's eating disorders. Doctors have believed, and said, that anorexia and bulimia are caused by overcontrolling parents, by abusive parents, by sexual trauma, by inattentive parents, by cold parents, hypercritical parents. New research on the biology of eating disorders has slowly begun to offer an alternative to the blame game--a combination of genetics, biology, and environment is probably responsible for eating disorders, or so goes the latest thinking. (Though some folks clearly have some catching up to do on this score.)

Now a study from Australia points the finger once more at parents--specifically fathers, who are charged with contributing to a child's anorexia when they exert too much control. Mothers, on the other hand, played no apparent role.

I haven't read the original study, but the article reporting it makes me wonder how, exactly, this data was gathered. Reading between the lines, it seems the descriptions of the paternal relationships were reported by the teens with anorexia. Well, they'd have to be, wouldn't they?

Anyone who's parented a teen with anorexia knows that someone in the grip of an eating disorder may reflect a lot of anger toward parents, especially if those parents are insisting that the teen eat. It's really not the teen talking but the disease, which famously warps perceptions and behaviors.

While I'm sure there are overcontrolling fathers out there who contribute to their child's unhappiness in various ways, I'm a little leery of this kind of thing being reported as fact in a scientific study--and of what may come of it down the line.

As Daniel Le Grange once pointed out to me, by the time families come in for help with a teen's eating disorder, they tend to look pretty overcontrolling, because they're terrified at their child's behavior and frightened for her/his health and life. So even if the observations are made by someone outside the family, I wonder how meaningful observations made in a time of family crisis really are when thinking about causation.

God knows we need more studies about anorexia and bulimia--the lack of them is in part responsible for the dreadful lack of effective treatment options. I just wonder if this is the best use of research dollars. Wouldn't the money and time be better spent looking at ways to help teens recover rather than blaming their parents?

Um, just a thought.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


That's about all I can say right now about this destructive, damaging, obscene board game meant for preschoolers. It's about as subtle as a fart gag, and about a million times more noxious, because it seems designed to turn young children into budding anorexics.

The incomparable Sandy Szwarc had a lot to say about this today. As she points out, "[The game] teaches that foods, especially “bad” foods, make them fat. The message illustrated is that when a food is eaten, they must purge by expending a certain number of calories in exercise to avoid getting fat. Calorie counting before they can count."

The game reminds me of another ill-advised project of the last year, the inexplicable collaboration between two of my favorite children's authors on a book demonizing fat people and making plenty o' assumptions about them.

May Hungry Hank go the way of The Gulps. And fast.

Talking to middle school staff

Yesterday I made the first of what I hope will be many presentations to middle school staff--at my younger daughter's middle school, because that seemed like a good place to start. I'd put together a PowerPoint on 6 things I wanted them to know about eating disorders and 8 ways they could help.

The group was smaller than I'd hoped for, but they were really engaged. These are people who do truly care about the lives of kids. I was very heartened by that. Like doctors, they don't get any special training in eating disorders, and they're often frustrated and frightened by what they see.

I was also heartened by a conversation we got into on the "wellness" curricula--the same cockamamie stuff that bans syrup from elementary school lunchrooms and forbids a second slice of pizza to 4th-graders. One of the messages I tried to convey was how the increasing and heavy-handed emphasis on "eating healthy" and the war on obesity as played out in the schools was likely to trigger more eating disorders. It certainly sends a screwed-up message to kids and disrupts their lifelong relationship with food and eating. I'd braced myself for pushback along the lines of "Well kids are unhealthy and it's our job to help them learn to control themselves!" Instead, I got lots of nodding heads and comments about how worried they, teachers and staff, are about the shrill curriculum.

That made me feel good. There is room to broach these subjects, in public, and to begin a dialogue on them. Nothing changes if we just sit at home bitterly blogging about this stuff. We've got to get out in the real world, say our piece, and talk about it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


It all started innocently enough, with a 4th-grader and a school lunch. Said 4th-grader was having the school's hot lunch that day--French Toast Stix [sic]--and mentioned to her mother that maple syrup was no longer served with this, um, lunch, thanks to the new "wellness" policy in our school district.

So Mom sent along the tail end of a bottle of maple syrup with 4th-grader. And Mom got a phone call the very next day, reminding her that it is not OK to send in maple syrup, which is now apparently considered a controlled substance in the lunchroom.

Of course, I can see why maple syrup would be banned from an elementary school lunchroom. It's way too unhealthy to be eaten by children. And it no doubt contributes to the Obesity Epidemic! Whereas serving deep-fried bread sticks--or stix--does not.

No less a personage than the principal herself got involved in Syrupgate, because there's nothing more important than our children's BMIs (I mean health).

It's the same ridiculous pseudo-reasoning that limits all children in elementary schools here to one and only one slice of pizza on pizza day. Have you ever seen an elementary-school-size slice of pizza? It wouldn't fill a rat's stomach for an hour, let alone the stomach of a growing child for the rest of the afternoon.

Two slices of pizza and a swig of maple syrup might satisfy the children's hunger . . . but it might also Make Them Fat. And we all know it's better to be hungry than to be fat, right?

At least in my town.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

"Mom, I'm too fat!"

These are the words to strike terror into a mother's heart, especially if you've ever dealt with anorexia or bulimia in your house. Every child or teen with an eating disorder says these words at one time or another. They reflect the delusion at the heart of an eating disorder, the distorted perceptions of her/his own body and the anguish caused by those distortions.

I heard them many times in the year my older daughter was sick with anorexia. But this time, this weekend, they were uttered by my younger daughter.

My younger daughter sat with us at the table during the year and a half of re-feeding. She lived through the horror and terror of it all with us. We tried to protect her from the worst of it, but she certainly experienced firsthand the nightmare of living with an eating disorder. This may contribute to the reality that as the sibling of a child with anorexia, she's 8 times more likely to have it than other kids her age.

And we've talked about it. Boy, have we talked. We've talked about unrealistic body images and the media. We've talked about food-as-fuel. We've talked about bodies-come-in-all-shapes-and-sizes. We've talked about health-at-every-size.

I thought we'd talked our way through the dangerous parts and onto the solid shores of reason and understanding.

But the trouble is, as my younger daughter informed me, I just don't understand. I don't understand what it's like to be in 7th grade and be a girl. I don't understand what it's like to be a year or two behind when it comes to puberty, to still have a child's body, a child's shape, in a world full of budding young women.

"They look like this, Mom," she cried one night this weekend, sucking in her stomach to show me. Whereas my younger daughter still has the round shape of a child. She's younger than everyone else in her class, shorter, and clearly going through puberty later.

I don't think other kids are making fun of her for her childish figure. I think this is a case of institutionalized self-loathing. But I don't know for sure. I do know that seventh grade girls diet. A lot. And that they talk about their diets. And they talk, as young women (and some young men) do, about how fat they are.

They talk about how fat their butts and thighs and stomachs are. I know these kids; I've chaperoned them on field trips and come into their classrooms for years. They are not fat. They are not the headless fat children whose photos you see accompanying every media scare on the subject of childhood obesity. They look no different from kids of my generation, except that maybe they're a little taller.

Even if they were fat, of course, it would make no difference.

These children are bombarded with media images of super-thin women and men, and so that body type and paradigm comes to look very normal to them. They watch a lot of TV and movies and they learn to see themselves as sexualized from an early age.

They're bombarded at school with hysterical warnings about body fat and obesity and unhealthy eating. They are forced to watch Supersize Me. They are weighed and their BMIs calculated, in front of other children. Their body fat is "measured" (however inaccurately) with calipers, all in front of other children. They are taught that there's good food and bad food, that some foods are unhealthy, that some bodies are unacceptable. They're taught that you can never strive hard enough to be thin, to exercise, to avoid certain foods.

Some of them develop eating disorders. Maybe they would anyway; there's no way to know. We do know that some kids come hard-wired to be susceptible to an e.d., and that those disorders can then be triggered by environment and other factors. So maybe if they grew up in a culture that wasn't obsessed by issues of weight and body size and shape, they would pass through the dangerous time of adolescence without ever developing an e.d. If they grew up in a culture where it was OK to be who you are--fat or thin, intellectual or street-savvy, funny or serious--they would come out of adolescence loving themselves, not hating who they are.

Maybe this is all wishful, deluded thinking on my part.

I do know that those words my younger daughter said struck pure terror into my heart. That we will be talking about this from every direction I can think of over the next few months and years. That I'll be watching her like a hawk for the first inklings of an eating disorder, watching with terror a lump in my throat, with the memories of my older daughter still fresh, and with the determination to do whatever it takes to save her if she is in fact in danger.

But my god, how I wish I didn't have to. It occurs to me for pretty much the first time how different this would feel is the culture supported me rather than fought me. But in this culture and time, to advocate for, as Ellyn Satter says, a "joyful, comptent relationship with food," is to swim against the current, to fight the mainstream, to be perceived in many ways and places as a nutcase, a fruitcake, a mom-with-an-agenda in the worst possible sense of the word.

I've developed a thick skin. I don't care what the powers that be think. I care only about my children, and other people's children. But it's so easy to buy in to the culture's sick obsession. So easy, in a certain way, to turn to my younger daughter and say, "You do have a little tummy, dear--why don't we go on a diet? Together?" To unwittingly set her up for either a lifetime of physical self-loathing or disordered eating, or the hell of a full-blown eating disorder.

Not today. Not my daughter.