When it comes to talking about eating disorders, there's no end to the distortions that often get trumpeted as "new." If you've had a loved one suffer with an eating disorder you know what I'm talking about. One of the things I teach my magazine journalism students is the fine art of taking a press release and turning it into a compelling and accurate piece of journalism. It's the toughest lesson we do all semester, which is no reflection on them. I think it's a challenging task to pull off, and very few news or public relations entities do it well.
To wit: This story from PR Newswire, whose headline trumpets "Mommy Not Always Dearest During Treatment for Eating Disorders." If you read only the headline and the first paragraph or two you'd come away with the idea that mothers were devastating, damaging, and destructive factors in their daughters' recovery from an eating disorder.
If you can force yourself past those first paragraphs, you'll be able to intuit a slightly more nuanced story. The family therapist quoted in the story, Catherine Weigel Foy, makes comments like "The mother-daughter relationship can be a complicated one." Um, yep. There's nothing particularly ground-breaking or earth-shattering in that statement. She goes on to say, "A mother's love begins before a child is born, and can create an unrealistic expectation that the connection between mothers and daughters will be as strong and free from limitations in adulthood as it was in early infancy."
I'll buy that, too, though perhaps I'm a bit more optimistic than Weigel Foy about the potential for good relationships between mothers and daughters.
Read down another paragraph or two and you find this:
Weigel Foy endorses an introspective look at this unique relationship and believes temporary distance from family members allows many adolescent and teenage girls to feel safe exploring the mother-daughter relationship in ways they haven't been able to during prior treatment for anorexia or bulimia. Weigel Foy and her colleagues at XX XX Residential Treatment Center work together to foster a nurturing environment that helps teen girls gain a realistic view of their relationship with their mothers. In turn, the girl and her mother are better equipped to support each other on their path to recovery.
Aha. Here, ladies and gentlemen, if we are attentive readers, the light bulb goes off. We understand that the piece we're reading isn't journalism at all but PR on behalf of XX XX Residential Treatment Center (I've deleted its name because I don't want to give it more publicity). Weigel Foy may be a good therapist or she may not; we really can't tell from this paraphrasing of her work in the service of publicity.
But certainly, the average reader will come away from the headline and opening paragraphs thinking, "Wow, this doctor thinks mothers are responsible for their daughters' eating disorder and/or get in the way during recovery."
Later in the piece, the writer concludes, "Through residential treatment and therapy this relationship can be explored and these young girls can come to better understand its affect on their diseases – and in turn help build a foundation for lifelong recovery." The mother-daughter relationship is being offered up as a reason to send your child to residential treatment.
Here I must point out that not only is there no evidence whatsoever that the mother-daughter relationship plays a causal or continuing role in eating disorders, but there is also no evidence whatsoever that exploring this relationship helps anyone get over an eating disorder. To the contrary: The most effective treatment for adolescent eating disorders is family-based treatment, which enlists the support of the family--mothers included--to help teens and young adults recover. And when I say "the most effective treatment," I am referring to real studies with real results, not one therapist's opinion (no matter how good she may be).
This kind of media deconstruction is important for everyone these days, as we're bombarded by information. But it seems to be especially imperative in the murky, vague, profit-seeking world of eating disorders treatment. Caveat emptor.