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.


Anonymous said...

Every child or teen with an eating disorder says these words at one time or another.

This is not true!

Go to, and see that a lot of those with anorexia and bulimia are terrified of telling their parents that they believe they are fat. It's their secret...they'll wear bigger clothes at home and pretend to eat to hide this problem.

I have bulimia, and I've had it since I was 9. It had nothing to do with what I was watching on TV, or what I saw in magazines. Furthermore, it had nothing to do with being weighed at school or having fat calipers put on me. It had to do with ME, not with anybody else. It was a coping mechanism...and the stress of my parents focusing on me and my acceptance of my weight would have made it worse. I didn't even know that anybody else was throwing up their food other than me.

Bulimia is a disease kept in secret, because those with bulimia see their actions as shameful.

And you know what eventually got me to stop throwing up my food? I stopped eating densely caloric foods like rich chocolate cake and hard cheese, to get rid of the urge to throw it all up. Movies like Supersize Me gave me inspiration. Losing weight was a side effect...I could have been 130 pounds and would have still thrown up after certain foods; again, it was something in ME, not with any outside factors or comparisons. Even after I know that I should accept my body and that there is nothing wrong with it and that I am healthy, a finals period or visiting my parents would still make me throw up, no matter what I ate...I was never fully recovered from this!

Magazines, TV, and actions of schools are not what is leading to eating disorders. Perfectionism, needing a way to cope, and wishes for control, and genetic and biological factors cause eating disorders.

Please do not make generalizations about eating only puts those with the problems more into hiding, because they are afraid that they are not worthy of getting help because they do not have the reasoning that you have. The shame and my disordered reasoning is why I would have never, ever told my parents I thought I was fat, and I would have never, ever sought help until I was in my 20s.

Harriet said...


I agree with you about the biological and genetics roots of eating disorders. If you've read my blog before you know that I'm a passionate advocate for the biological perspective on these illnesses. So we're in agreement there.

I'm really talking about something different here: The toxic culture that our children are growing up in when it comes to food and eating. Does it cause eating disorders? No. Can it trigger someone who's susceptible into an e.d.? Absolutely. You probably had a genetic predisposition to bulimia. Something or things in your environment triggered it. I'm glad for you that you have found a way to manage it.

Do I think that because my daughter expresses these things to me that she's got or is going to have an e.d.? No. But I still worry about her.

I really wasn't trying to make generalizations about e.d.s--just talk about our experience and my fears as a parent. Not all children express these feelings, but many of them do. In fact I think the majority do express them, either to their parents or to friends or certainly to themselves. Most of those kids will not go on to develop e.d.s. But for those who are at risk, it's a very scary thing to hear.

I wish all good things for you, including a full and lasting recovery.

I agree with you that there are no SHOULDS when it comes to eating disorders or anything else that's human.

Anonymous said...

Harriet, there needs to be more mothers like you.

A :)

nukkingphutz said...

Harriet, you've hit the nail on the head.

If we didn't live in a society that was so obsessed with image and looks, I'm absolutely positive that there wouldn't be as many instances of e.d.s - regardless of which ones we're talking about. No, it wouldn't make them go away, but they wouldn't be as prevalent in our society as they are now.

I have a 10-year old daughter that is going through much the same thing, and after hearing me go on about how fat and ugly *I* am for so many years, I worry that I may have inadvertently taught her to revile any amount of fat on her body (for the record, I always told her that she was beautiful, I've never told her that she was fat, and I've always tried to instill good self-esteem in her; but we all know that children tend to internalize things even when we don't mean them to).

So even though there hasn't been any instances of e.d. in my family (yet), this post still hit home for me, because I have a girl-child who is also surrounded by "better looking" (her words, not mine) girls, whether we're talking about the girls at school or the ones she sees on tv and in magazines.

It's worrisome, regardless of your personal history.

Anonymous said...

I don't deny that there's probably some biological/genetic factor to my ED but having the social-cultural influences around me--magazines, TV, emaciated models--compounded my experience and made it all the more hellish.

The urge to throw up/overexercise/deliberately starve was accompanied by the hell of standing in line at the grocery store with my two bananas and one can of soup and seeing magazine cover after magazine cover of models and actresses airbrushed into skeletons.

So I totally get what Harriet is saying here. Totally.

Unknown said...

I think you are right to focus on the reaction we make to this, not the statement. We're lucky when our kids trust us with their feelings of all kinds, and they depend on us to show them how to react to those thoughts and feelings.

When we react by listening, hearing, discussing, and caring we give a great gift to children growing up in a society insane with self-hate. If we dismiss it, or shout it down, we might shut them down and let them think this is a valid concern.

And I guarantee you that you are ideally placed to protect and defend your child now, because you know the enemy.

Harriet said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Laura. There is nothing scarier than hearing your second child express some of this stuff after almost losing the first one to it.

I've had so many parents say things to me like, "My 6 year old talks about thinking she's too fat--should I be nervous about that?"

Well, yes--not necessarily because she's going to become anorexic but because it's a horrible way to begin your lifelong relationship with your own body and what feeds it. Think about all the energy we'd have for other things if we were so obsessed with hating our bodies and ourselves.

Anonymous said...

It's an easy message to internalize, no matter what our parents say. (and it's even worse when your parents give mixed messages!)

Anonymous said...


I think that this was a very well written piece! I have a 9yr old daughter that is a little bigger than others,and I hope that I never hear from her lips "I am too fat". That for me would be heartbreaking.I am trying to teach her that all body sizes are beautiful and that you can be healthy no matter what size you are. I think that media sources we have today are doing alot to damage our childrens self esteem and well being by sexualizing them so early and teaching them that they have to be thin and perfect.Hopefully this trend does not go on forever.


Anonymous said...

I wish I'd had a mom like you. Growing up, my mom commented constantly on my body, told me I looked pregnant, looked at me in disgust, talked about how much cuter my "skinny" friends were, and informed me upon my graduation from college that I probably would have a hard time finding a job because I was overweight. I was never really that overweight, which makes it even more strange.

littlem said...

"Not today. Not my daughter."

God bless you, Harriet.

I don't know where you live, but I'm going to leave you a URL for a workout program I've taken up. (Please hear me out.)

I'm not a parent yet, but I WAS quite an overweight kid (although also younger than my peers; try that combo on for size), and I hated gym (competition, sweating, eye-hand coordination with the damn ball, all the stuff I COULD NOT DO and HATED). I grew up teased and shamed.

And THEN I went to college and was told that to make an audition for the dance team, I moved well but would have to lose some weight.

So I developed an eating disorder. Because I was never taught anything about my body's musculature by all those educators (including my own parents) that purported to know what was best for me.

(And I passed the audition for the company, which reinforced the madness for about, oh, 4 more years.)

I've taken up yoga and Pilates, and they have it for teens. I have shrunk two sizes (the post-anorexia reverse balloon put pressure on my knees, and every doctor since then has said "lose weight" -- oooooooookay), and I have not had to alter my nutrition (I hate the word "diet") or my weight.

I have read studies that girl athletes have better body images than their non-working-out peers, and I find it interesting that n cases where the girl athletes have developed eating disorders, it's in sports where their coach has hinted, or actively misinformed them, that they have to lose more weight to gain/sustain a COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE.

You work with an individual exercise, separated from all that group sport competitive madness, and maybe, just maybe, the child has a chance.

(Also, since it works with layered musculature that is normally underdeveloped in most other exercise programs, Pilates can make you both smaller and stronger, while you don't have to change healthy eating habits or lose weight. And they have developed programs for teenagers in part because they know that they and their body images are going through such roller coaster drama.

I often think that if someone had pointed me toward those forms of exercise when I was a teen, I wouldn't have such a history of disordered eating (although our culture is so screwed up that you never know), and I wouldn't be having to rehab the physical problems I have now.

And it's not cheap (at least for the first set of privates, which, at minimum, is necessary to learn the technique, b/c the exercises look simple, but it's all about how you use your body), but it may be worth it for peace of mind -- for you AND for her (as she sees and feels her body grow stronger, and gets a sense of physical mastery that girls are frequently encouraged to either do without or otherwise "achieve" by "being the skinniest").

Because heaven knows it wouldn't have mattered how much logical sense some adult made talking to me about body image when I was 10-11-12-16-19, it was ALL about how I felt AROUND MY PEERS.

So here is the link. With the best of good wishes for your family's continued health and safety.

Carrie Arnold said...


Whatever happens with your youngest (and with your oldest!), know this: you are a great mom.

I had the opposite problem of your youngest: I went through puberty earlier and was at my adult height and weight at 13. So I was bigger than the other girls. And it sucked, especially because the other girls made sure that I knew how different we were. This was also 15 years ago, and the obesity fears weren't as bad then, either.

It's good that she feels comfortable telling you about how she's feeling. And the "I feel fat!" can also be code for "I feel different" or unliked or unaccepted.

Take care, Harriet.

Rachel said...

My heart goes out to you and your daughters. I've battled anorexia for 11 years now, since I was 15, and my greatest terror was (and still is) the possibility that my younger sister will someday follow in my footsteps. She's visited me countless times in the hospital as an adolescent, even though being surrounded by emaciated girls is just about the worst thing for a girl of that age. She's had to deal with me weighing less than her for most of the past decade, despite my being half a foot taller. She's seen my heart stop beating, my weight drop to that of a second grade child, and countless other miseries...and yet I always fear the premium society places on thinness will prevail in the end. I'm happy to report she's 22 now, and has never been on a diet, nor does she seem inclined to consider ever going on one. But still, I worry.

Your daughters are so fortunate to have a supportive mother. I don't think I can thank mine often enough for supporting me through all of this.

Harriet said...

I tried for years to model self-acceptance but I think I gave very mixed messages about how I felt about my own body--this is back before my older d became ill with anorexia. I understand now that it's not enough to just say the words--you have to really believe them. And that's a journey for anyone who's grown up in this culture. I've gotten to a place where I finally, most of the time, feel good about my body even though by society's standards I'm overweight. I wish I could say it made a difference to my daughters. I'm afraid there's way way way too much of the other perspective out there--free floating in the media, coming from the mouths of their friends and peers, coming from teachers and salespeople and random strangers on the street.

This weekend I finally got up the courage to talk to a saleswoman at one of my favorite stores--a store I haven't shopped in for several years, because when I was there with my older d when she was in recovery, this saleswoman turned to my d and said, "Aren't you lucky--you got the thin genes!" (I was the one shopping.) I tried to nicely remind this woman of her comment and why I had stopped shopping at the store. I know she was surprised. I hope it made her think before making a comment like that again.

A mother's stock is lowest when her kids are adolescents. Alas. :-)

I worry about my d and about all of her peers, especially the ones who are going to develop eating disorders. I know I can't stop it singlehandedly. I'm going to speak to the teachers and support staff at my d's school this Wednesday, to try and give them some information about eating disorders they don't have and give them some direction about how they can help. (And harm.) I expect they aren't going to like what I have to say, especially about all the anti-obesity messaging. All we can do is keep saying it and saying it.

Thanks for all of your support. It helps to not feel so alone in this obsessed culture.

Dee said...

The idea that our culture and the media have nothing to do with the eating disorders is absurd. Eating disorders are about perfectionism, no doubt. But, where do we get the idea that thin=perfect? Where do we get the idea that "you can never be too thin?" No other society has ever idealized thinness to the extent that we do. And, even in these comments, it's easy to see that people take thin=perfect for granted.

In reality, average and heavier than average people are just as likely to be beautiful (and smart, and disciplined) as thin people, but there are virtually no average to heavy people portrayed positively in the media: well dressed, well photographed, and characterized as powerful and attractive. My body image has improved immensely since I cut down on television and films and stopped reading fashion magazines.

Anonymous said...

"I'm going to speak to the teachers and support staff at my d's school this Wednesday ... I expect they aren't going to like what I have to say ..."

First, congratulations on going.

Second, may I respectfully suggest that you not borrow trouble, because the rate of interest is too high?

Some of the teachers may be RELIEVED that you're saying what they may not be able to step out from behind the party line and say.

Some of them, like your saleslady, may just be surprised. (A lot more folks than I think some of us expect don't exactly monitor what they're saying, or the impact of what they're saying -- they just parrot the party line. (I'm continually astounded by the lack of critical thinking in the larger culture, but I guess that's one of the reasons why advertising works so well.))

Also, at the end of the day, you don't want to undermine your message's potential by anticipating a negative reaction. You just said it yourself -- if you believe what you're saying, it's more likely that others will too. (So I think before you go in there that you want to make sure that you DO believe what you're saying and aren't giving out the mixed messages you were talking about earlier. Yes, in case you were wondering, you ARE doing something incredibly difficult.)

Harriet said...

littlem, you are entirely right. Thanks for the pep talk. :-)

dee, I don't think eating disorders are "about" anything. But it is true that people with anorexia tend to fall into a particular personality type, which includes perfectionism. No one knows whether these traits cause you to develop an e.d. or whether they're expressions of whatever genetic coding predisposes someone to have an e.d. It's a chicken and egg kind of thing.

Anonymous said...

... i hate getting wayed in like physics at school... its so...bleugh.. your so worried everyone is only conserned about how fat you are, i know they are more interseted in hiding there own results... but you stil feal like that

Tiffabee said...

I know I'm super late but brilliant post Harriet. I often wonder how I'm going to be the kind of mom I want to be when I have kids one day and how hard it will be to go against the grain and protect my children. You gave me some fantastic ideas! Thank you so much.

Harriet said...

Aw, thanks, Tiffabee.

Anonymous said...

i am a 17 guy in high school and it makes me sad to see my female friends come talk to me and say that they are fat and that they are ugly and most of them are skiny or with a very little tummy and like you have been saying its not just the media images but they play a big factor when us teens see it evey day every night and i have even felt the pressure from the media and it not nice as well a lot of my female friends get deprist because they fell this way so they have deppretion as well as a eatting disorder and no matter what the teachers and other people say they still believe that they are fat it makes me sad because there not