6 Ways My Parents Unintentionally Taught Me Disordered Eating

A younger and older adult sit together at a dining table covered with bowls of food.

A younger and older adult sit together at a dining table covered with bowls of food.

(Content Note: Eating disorders, including descriptions of restriction practices.)

There’s only one time in my life I ever remember seeing my dad cry. It wasn’t at his mother’s funeral or his father’s, though I knew he was sad then. It was on a couch in a therapist’s office at an eating disorder treatment facility.

He was crying because, after trying everything else for two years to treat my anorexia, this was our last resort – and he didn’t know what we’d do if it didn’t work. He was crying because I’d graduated high school with the highest GPA in my class and four awards, and I may not even be able to go to college.

And he was crying because he knew that if it weren’t for his own actions, we might not even be there. Because he was the one who put me on my first diet at age thirteen.

I don’t mean to imply that eating disorders are about food. People with eating disorders use food to deal with larger problems.

My eating disorder was a coping mechanism to deal with the disempowerment I felt in my household, the constant criticism I received from my parents, the anxiety and depression I was innately prone to, and the sexualization my body received before I was even a fully sexual being, to name a few things.

But it was also about the toxic messages I’d received around food and weight. These messages came from the media, my peers, and, perhaps most influentially, my parents. They were many and varied, but they all stemmed from and encouraged fatphobia – the idea that fat is bad and fat people are below thin people.

There must have been a time when I didn’t do any calculations before I ate. When I ate what I wanted. When I could tell what I wanted.

But I don’t remember it.

I do remember being five and playing princesses with my best friend and rejecting her offer for a snack because “princesses don’t eat.”

I remember being six and sucking in my stomach because it looked “too big” after I ate – whatever that mean to a skinny kid who grew up to be a thin adult.

I remember being eight and calling my rival (for the title of most popular girl in the class) fat and passing around drawings of her with a huge, bulbous stomach.

I remember being eleven and turning down my brother’s invitation to join him in front of the TV because I was scared his bowl of popcorn would tempt me.

I don’t remember where I learned the beliefs that led to these choices, but I sure as hell know I wasn’t born with them. And at least one source of them was my parents.

Here are some of the ways my parents unintentionally taught me to practice disordered eating. They reflect the beliefs many kids receive from their parents and from society, because my parents weren’t born with them either. They had to learn them, too.

1. Using ‘Fat’ as an Insult

Ever since I can remember and up to this day, my dad can’t seem to describe a fat person he disapproves of without mentioning their weight. And it’s always connected to qualities associated with stereotypes of fat people, like a lack of work ethic and discipline.

“She’s unemployed, she’s got a weight problem, and she just can’t seem to get her life together” is a typical description.

Occasionally, my mom joins in and they feed off each other.

“One of the people on the tour with us was very large.”

“Oh God.”

They didn’t create the stereotypes of fat people that society teaches to us, but they certainly reinforced it.

Maybe that’s why I saw my own normal weight gain as a teenager as a sign of poor self-control.

Maybe that’s why, when I lost unhealthy amounts of weight, I felt like I was proving myself.

Maybe that’s why, when I passed on the brownies everyone else was eating, I felt superior.

Maybe that’s why, when my nutritionist taught me that restricting food intake doesn’t work in the long-term because your body fights to stay at your healthy weight, I secretly thought, “That’s just what you think because you’re not as strong as me.”

The message from my parents has always been clear: Thin is good and fat is bad, and the way to prove you are good is to be thin.

2. Telling Me What to Eat and When

When I was twelve, I made up a rule to try to get my diet “under control.” I could only eat food that was offered to me. School lunches were okay, I decided, because the offer was implied. But no going to the snack machines after school. No raiding the fridge after gymnastics. And no late-night snacks.

Perhaps I believed I couldn’t trust myself because the decision of whether or not to eat was always made for me. In the morning, my parents made me breakfast. At night, we all had to have dinner at the same time, and we had to eat it if we wanted dessert. In the afternoon, my mom gave us a snack. I was never asked if or when I wanted to eat.

If I did want to eat at an inconvenient time, I was told to just wait it out so that I could eat with the family. (The implication: I wasn’t allowed to eat twice within a few hours.)

It wasn’t until I was fourteen and on a diet that I first consciously felt hunger. Before that, I just wasn’t aware of the sensation. I had always learned that you decide to eat based on whether or not it’s mealtime or snack time and whether or not someone offers you food.

As I got older, the rules got more strict. You can have as many vegetables as you want, my dad explained, but go easy on the carbs. Avocado is a good fat; butter is a bad fat. But don’t have a lot of avocado! Then it becomes bad. Dark chocolate is okay sometimes, but preferably in the morning because then you’ll burn it off.

How could I possibly know what my body was telling me when I was busy trying to follow all this advice?

When I started to understand what hunger felt like, there were times my parents outright gaslighted me about it.

Once, I told my dad I was constantly starving after the “lunch” we ate while hiking, which consisted of a banana and an energy bar, and he informed me that in fact, the food was “calorically enough.”

And when told him I was starving after school (likely because I was, per his advice, eating salads for lunch) and needed something substantial, he’d tell me to “just eat a piece of fruit so you can have dinner.”

Even today, I have a lot of trouble figuring out if I’m hungry or not. I often can’t tell until I’m starving. I don’t trust those little inklings of hunger I have before the starving stage, since anything outside of mealtime is supposed to be quelled by a goddamn piece of fruit.

Over time, my parents taught me that I should decide what to eat with my brain, not my stomach. So eventually, my stomach just gave up.

3. Warning Me About Weight Gain

When I was around twelve, my dad started warning me that soon, I might gain weight more easily – as if that would be a bad thing rather than a very normal thing – when I reached for seconds or desserts.

Through these warnings, I learned that when you’re a kid, you can eat what you want, but when you’re an adolescent, you have to consider how attractive you’ll look as a result. Dieting, I figured, was part of the transition into womanhood.

And womanhood in particular. He never said this to my brother, at least to my knowledge, even though he ate far, far more than me and wasn’t significantly thinner or more active.

He, it was assumed, needed food if he was hungry. His hunger was helpful: a way to stay active and accomplish things.

But my hunger was the enemy – something to restrain, control, and master, lest, God forbid, I become less aesthetically pleasing.

By teaching me it was necessary to eat in a way that would yield a thin body, I think my dad implicitly taught me it was my duty to be conventionally attractive.

No wonder I wanted out of womanhood. That was another way I used my eating disorder: to keep myself in a prepubescent state, where maybe I wouldn’t be objectified like this.

4. Complaining About ‘Excessive’ Food

My dad always gave me the impression that food was very, very scary. If something he liked was on the table, he’d move it so that “we” wouldn’t fill our bowls ad infinitum (he rarely spoke for himself).

It was as if the food were coming after us, and we were powerless to stop it.

He conveyed this same sense after eating, when he’d complain about how much he “overate.” He often appeared to be in severe distress, letting out exasperated sighs and talking about how he couldn’t believe it and how he planned to start a diet immediately.

This affected me in two ways. One: It taught me to also eat more than I was hungry for, because apparently, that was how you celebrated the holidays or enjoyed a dinner out. Two: If I ate what he ate, I came to assume that it was also “too much,” even if I didn’t feel overfull, and felt ashamed.

Eating took on the same significance that being fat did: It was a symbol that you were totally out of control. And an eating disorder was a way to reclaim control.

5. Talking About Their Diets

Both of my parents were constantly on diets throughout my childhood, from Atkins to Weight Watchers, so I learned that this was something all grownups did. Dieting, it seemed, was like getting your wisdom teeth out: Our bodies were naturally wrong and needed fixing.

My mom would often talk with an air of superiority about not dieting and just “making healthy choices,” but it was all the same: a way to restrict food intake for weight loss. This taught me that even post-eating-disorder-recovery, as I rejected dieting, I should still do what was essentially dieting.

Unfortunately, she never learned her lesson.

During my senior year of college, she visited campus and took two of my friends and I out to dinner, and she had a burger and fries. Afterward, she started telling me about her preparations for my brother’s wedding.

“I’m on a weight-loss kick!” she said excitedly, explaining how she was planning to fit into a smaller dress size for the photos, as if she expected me to join in the excitement with her. “Though I won’t make much progress the way we ate tonight!”

Keep in mind, this was three years after I’d gotten out of an eating disorder treatment program.

“You’re seriously going to say this to me?” I asked.

“I thought you were good now!” she said.

After all the therapy she’d gone through, all she’d learned was that the dieting mindset and negative body talk were problematic if you’re around someone in the midst of an eating disorder. But if you’re daughter’s not anorexic, go for it! It’s A-okay to advocate dieting and shame certain food choices.

When parents speak positively about dieting, they teach their kids that they, too, should diet. And when they talk about certain foods as “bad” because their diets go against eating them, they teach their kids that they, too, should avoid those foods.

6. Acting Concerned About Health

Even today, knowing that I’m a body positive writer, my mom loves to “educate” me about how scary the “obesity epidemic” is and how you can reject disordered eating while still worrying about “health.”

And it’s triggering as hell.

Because as anyone who has been through eating disorder recovery knows, you can’t be in it halfway.

You can’t be like, “I’m going to embrace my body and love myself no matter what it looks like, but I’m going to make sure I don’t weigh too much!”

You can’t be like, “I’m going to tune into what my body needs and make choices about what to eat based on its physical signals – without going overboard and filling up on carbs!”

And, for the same reason, you can’t be like, “I accept people of all different sizes without judgement, but the obesity epidemic is very concerning!”

These two mentalities can’t coexist. Either you advocate a radical alternative that uproots every aspect of the status quo, or you’re part of the problem.

My parents don’t get that. And because of that, being free from disordered eating – especially around them – is still a struggle.

When I want cookies and ice cream for dessert because one of the two won’t fill me up, I flashback to when I did that at age fourteen and my dad said, “Wow, you’re really pigging out.”

When I recently told him about a new recipe I made involving cream sauce, I made sure to tell him I used light cream, because he always warned me about cream sauce.

When I want to eat a burger and fries, I still remember my mom saying that’s no good to eat before you’ll be photographed.

I have not applied the radical attitude that I’ve adopted toward fat acceptance at large to my own choices. Even after 26 years on this Earth and eight in eating disorder recovery, it’s hard not to sometimes be stuck in your parents’ disordered mentality.

***

So, I’m not speaking to you from an enlightened place. I have not transcended dieting culture and come downward to talk to you. I’m speaking from within the thick of it.

What I can say I know at this point, though, is that my parents’ disordered ideas are not mine. They don’t belong to me, and they’re not my burden to bear.

But many of us still bear the burden of the beliefs held by our parents, even ones we disagree with.

For now, I try to surround myself with different ideas. I follow body-positive, fat-positive blogs and social media accounts. I talk to fellow eating disorder survivors who know recovery isn’t a halfway deal.

And when someone complains about the obesity epidemic at family gatherings, I change the subject.

Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.