Modeling healthy eating habits and body attitudes when you used to emphatically not
"She’s fine; you’re the one with the problem here."
TW: Today’s issue addresses disordered eating (our own, not our children’s), although not in great detail. This issue also includes some mothers’ perspectives on how they feed/discuss food with their children, which is not intended to be prescriptive—but please skip if talk about feeding kids stresses you out.
This issue is divided into two parts: first, the stories of some witches in recovery from ED address a reader’s question. After that, I have some additional paywalled info from a few specialists who research and work with folks with eating disorders—but, again, this issue is not meant to be taken as medical advice.
OK! A reader wrote to me:
“I noticed in the responses to the woman who was trying to decide about having kids and had an ED history that there are a lot of moms with ED histories. I have a 2-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old stepdaughter and I had pretty serious anorexia as a tween and teen. I’d love to hear from other witches about how they think about how to model healthy attitudes around appetite/eating/body/self-image while managing their own continued recovery.”
Some witches, some anonymously, some not, shared their own experiences in response to this question. Find their edited and condensed responses between the asterisks:
I don’t have an eating disorder, but my mother does, and I grew up around some very unhealthy attitudes to food and bodies. This was in the 80s, so a lot of that messaging was reinforced by basically all media! I’ve had to unpack a lot of my own unhealthy attitudes to food since becoming a mother.
My husband and I are super careful around our son (his mother is also a disordered eater). We keep snack food in the house (my mother’s thing was that there was NO eating between meals), and if he gets hungry, we offer him a range of things from apples to those Fibre One bars and crackers. Some things feel more like treats, and some are more healthy, but they’re all things I’ve learned to be okay with snacking on myself.
He eats until he’s full, and he stops. My mom used to say things like, “I wish I could just stop eating like you do” when I was young, which made me horribly self-conscious then, so we’re careful not to do that sort of thing now. We do ask him to try everything on his plate and to eat vegetables even if he says he doesn’t like him. I do not make him eat things I know he hates, but I do want to make sure he has a varied diet.
I grew up hiding candy and snack food from my mother and feeling terrible shame about eating it; I still feel a lingering sense of shame when I buy myself a packet of chips. I do sometimes still find myself trying to hide wrappers and things from my husband, who emphatically could not care less what I eat. I really want to make sure my son never ever feels any of those compulsions!
I was sick from 13 in my mid to late 20s, when I started moving on in a more concerted way. I had pretty mixed feelings, having had the amount of treatment I did, which was a lot. By the end of it, I felt very tired of anorexia being the center of my life.
I had my first child when I was 32. Around the time I was thinking about getting pregnant, I had normal/low-grade negative passing feelings about my body, but nothing like the way it used to rule my mood or my lifestyle. I assumed I’d gain a lot of weight. I thought, “I’m probably not going to love that,” but I refused to let that define my having a child.
We were in Manhattan the other day, and we passed a billboard with a woman lifting up her shirt to show her very flat abs. My oldest son was like, “What is that?” It turned out to be an ad for Coolsculpting. I had to explain the nuance of “This is a company that wants you to buy something. You don’t need to be buying things that will change your body. They don’t work, and you don’t need to think about your body that way.” I don’t know how much of it sinks in.
I felt very strongly that we should have family dinners. That doesn’t look as Cleaverish in real life as it sounds. Little kids eat early; sometimes, you don’t want to eat at the same time as them. I’m always around when they’re eating. I was able to get away with a lot of shenanigans as a teenager because we didn’t have family dinners, so nobody was paying attention.
I refuse to fall into the Instagram ecosystem about bento boxes. I’m just going to take a reasonable approach and not be totally laissez-faire or authoritarian. I try to make food that’s good and balanced, and I’ll talk to them about nutrition in a way that I think is pretty simple, but I’m pretty hands-off. My husband will take more of a clean plate club approach, which irritates me a little bit.
I struggle with language around other people’s sizes. When my older boys were younger, there was this little water park where we lived at the time. There was a boy who was a bigger child. He was having a lot of fun and rolling around in the water. When we got home, my older son said, “Did you see that fat kid at the water park?” I was like, “Oh honey, where did you hear that word? That word is not so nice.” He was like, “We call the baby fat all the time!” And it’s true. “You’re such a cute, fat chunky little baby.” OK, whoops!
I do struggle with that and thinking about how kids recognize things about people, They can be indelicate by our standards by how you would describe people. But freaking out makes everything worse.
I know these days there’s a lot of discussion around the best way to teach children about food. I think that I probably would run afoul of what certain people in this area. I do tell the kids that certain foods have nutrients and others don’t, and I don’t let them decide what to eat because they’d eat candy all the time.
—from Kelsey Osgood, author of How to Disappear Completely
When I was pregnant with my first child in 2015-2016, I was in a better place than I had been in a while. My recovery has been long and up and down throughout the years.
Before I got pregnant, I ran a marathon, and that helped me in terms of eating well. I was so scared of potentially passing on the eating disorder to my unborn baby that I felt so motivated to eat well and not have bouts of restriction or binging.
I think about my eating disorder multiple times a day. I don’t want to pass anything on to my children. I can’t change that, but I can adopt an environment in which my children can learn to have healthy relationships around food. I don’t label food as good or bad or healthy or unhealthy. I really try to move away from those labels because they were quite detrimental to me when I was younger. It made me feel like I was being bad if I was eating “bad” foods, so I started to internalize that. I know the effects that can have on a child. I try to take a more nuanced approach to it. Let’s have a variety of different foods. I’m not going to say you can’t have Oreos after dinner, but I want you to have some of your healthy meal before you eat the Oreos.
Trying to figure out this balance is so difficult because it feels like I have to fake it ‘til I make it.
I rely on my husband, too. There are nights the kids ask, “Can we have our treat now?” I’ll have to say, “Talk to your father. I can’t quite make that decision in that moment.” This feels so overwhelming to be that person to decide what meals to make, how much whatever treat they’re able to have. My husband is supportive in that sense and can step in and help.
I try not to use food as rewards. I’ll take them for cake pops, but it doesn’t have to be tied to a reward. They don’t have to get 100 on a quiz to get a treat.
I also am very conscious about not saying anything bad about my body in front of the kids. Certainly, in-laws and grandparents and others talk about their bodies and put their bodies down a lot even though they know I take issue with that. I’m always reminded that I can’t control what other people say outside of the home and even sometimes in my home.
People always say you must think about this with regard to your daughter. I think it’s just as important to be teaching our sons these same things. We know ED affects people of all genders and body sizes.
—Mallary Tenore Tarpley, author of the forthcoming book Slip: Recovery, Sickness & the Space in Between
We all have a way of looking at our kids and looking at the world through their eyes, when the only experience we have for things is our own. The biggest rule I’m always trying to follow is something I learned from therapy: her experience doesn’t have to be my experience.
My daughter was born sturdy as all get out. She’s always been that way, with this core strength from when she was a baby. I’ve always worried about stopping the cycle of taking on “small is better!” That was the message I had. My therapist is like, “Where did you get that?” and I’m like, “I don’t know, but I got it. I got it from magazines. We all know celery has negative calories. We know if we want ice cream, we’re just thirsty. We know all these rules. We got all this poison put into us, and we got this message: we’re supposed to be super cool and not care about it, but we’re also supposed to look a certain way.”
I don’t want her to get that from me. I don’t want her to hear small is better. I don’t want her to even put negatives or positives around any size. It was easy when she was little because I could be like, “Just don’t talk about it in front of her. Neutralize how you talk about food and everything.” But now that she’s a little older, they notice these things that make them different. The first time, she was like, “I’m bigger than my friend; she’s skinny, and I’m chunky.” I was like, “Ohhh. Oh my god. But wait. That’s not...true? You’re both beautiful!”
I was completely freaked out. “Oh my god, I need her to be different so this doesn’t cause her pain.” But nobody’s causing her pain right now but you and your head. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass. She’s just observing it and doesn’t seem to care. My child is feeling herself day in and day out. She’s very pleased with herself and seems to really like herself quite a bit.
I’m always trying to watch that 1990’s thinking of denying the reality or trying to add what feels like toxic positivity. “You’re all beautiful!” Just don’t. Oftentimes, I’ll remind myself, “She’s fine; you’re the one with the problem here. This is about you.”
My dad got terminally ill, and when you have a kid, you’re like, “I don’t have any time to myself.” The routines around exercise went out the window, and also, you’re tired. I started dealing with the anxiety by eating again. I was on the rollercoaster of binging and trying every single diet and losing track of the diet I was on. I was treating the surface stuff. I found a behavioral therapist who was entirely focused on eating. That happened four weeks before the pandemic. I was working with her all through the pandemic. That really helped me learn why I was responding to things the way I was responding to them and find a way to be more mindful about it.
I went through B.E.D. for many years when I was younger; I’m very privileged to have had access to professional help like cognitive behavioral therapy. I am so thankful that this dominate my life anymore that it makes me quite accepting and loving of my body, which I hope sends a positive message. These are the philosophies that guide me with my boys:
No demonizing foods. I don’t want anything to feel like a forbidden treat to them. (Within reason; no, you may not open a third snack bag of potato chips 20 minutes before the dinner I spent a few hours making happen.)
I never correlate food or weight with exercise. I never say I need to burn something off or exercise to lose weight or get slim. Food is food, and exercise is exercise.
I don’t talk shit about anyone’s body, including my own. I will say I am strong and I have loose skin because I am a 44-year-old woman who has had two babies, but those are just facts. I say it with no shame or sadness. When I’m overheated, I take my shirt off and work out in front of them in my sports bra with no hiding. I want them to see me inhabiting my body and me feeling fine with it.
Therapy is normal, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of if someone sees a therapist.
No clean plate club. You have to take a couple of bites of the things on your plate, but leaving food behind is not a crime (subscribing to a composting service has made throwing away food feel less painful.)
No hiding eating/food. My older son once very conspicuously hid the fact that he was sneaking candy and eating it in his room. I told him that hiding food/eating was, essentially, bad vibes for me personally because I used to feel bad about what I wanted to eat and hide it from my parents. I said that if he wants a treat let’s talk about it/do it out in the open, please, and I won’t make him feel bad for wanting it.
I do think there is a certain pressure off with me having boys. I know of course that boys of course are at risk of developing ED and body dysmorphia but I wonder if I had a daughter I’d be more in my head about separating my own journey from hers.
I’m in recovery from about 15 years of eating disorders and some self-harming behaviors. I am so fucking grateful I came to a place of peace about five years before meeting my partner, having a kid, and becoming a stepmom. I feel deeply for parents who are working through this shit at the same time as learning how to be parents. I really had a hard time — for about two years, it was all-consuming, and at a certain point, I wondered if recovery was possible. I still occasionally have deeply ugly feelings, but I’m at a place where I can recognize them, and I have coping mechanisms.
My son is 6, and my stepdaughter is 13. Sometime within the last year, I heard my stepdaughter ask my partner — her dad — for a scale. I caught him later and told him that’s one of the few things I would go to mat for — that there would not be a scale in our house.
Overall, I make sure I’m modeling what I can. I never ever say negative things about my body, directly or indirectly. I never call food “bad” and “good.” I tell my stepdaughter that her choice of clothes or her makeup looks nice, but I never comment on her body.
The hardest thing for me has been not commenting on what my stepdaughter eats. Especially when she was younger, she ate and drank a lot of sugar. I had to put my foot down on a few items she brought in the house because my very young son was getting access to them, but my stepdaughter told me through her therapist that she didn’t want me to say anything about what she was eating. I try to remember that all girls, whether or not they develop eating disorders, are trying to navigate some pretty strong societal messages that we just don’t have control over, and in the end, having a trusting and safe relationship with her is important.
A side benefit of all this? More self-love. It honestly helps me in my own recovery. My behavior is for their positive self-image, but I know it helps my own.
And a little bit more on the subject
I wanted to get a little bit of academic/clinical perspective from experts who have researched and observed on this topic. I reached out to a few experts I found via’s book Fat Talk, including Kendrin Sonneville, who researchers the prevention of eating disorders at UMichigan’s school of public health:
What have you seen in your work regarding how mothers’ experiences with ED affects their ability to discuss and model appropriate attitudes towards food and weight for their kids?
We can report to parents some positives on how their history may influence their kids. I worked on a paper published a few years ago that showed moms with ED or an ED history are more likely to have kids with an ED history, but they are also much more likely to get their kids into treatment or diagnosed earlier. Recognizing their personal experience becomes a bit of a strength in that they can see things other people might miss. They’re helping catch these kids earlier, and that supports recovery. We’re reminding parents that they shouldn’t feel guilty about the experience they have. You can’t do anything about your history.
When are kids old enough to observe what we understand to be disordered eating?
Even if adolescents don’t understand a full eating disorder or eating disorder symptoms, they’re veery aware of parental body consciousness, rigidity around eating, and food roles. There is a presentation of eating disorder symptoms that are really obvious really early on, like, “Mama can’t eat that.” If parents are not giving themselves permission to eat, are being critical of their bodies, kids 6, 7, 8 years old understand that. I don’t think they can wrap their heads around eating disorders until they’re in their pre-teens.
With the Tripartite model on eating disorder risk, there are three influences: media, parental influence and peers. I feel like the parent arrow is not the biggest arrow: they can buffer some of the other arrows. It’s good modeling to counter cultural messages they might be getting from peers and media.
And I also spoke with Rachel Millner, PsyD, CEDS, CBTP, an eating disorder specialist in Doylestown, PA:
What do moms in recovery from ED tell you about their philosophies towards teaching their kids self-love and reasonable attitudes towards food?
I find is that the moms who have had their own eating disorder history or currently struggling actually do a fantastic job around this because they’re so attuned to what’s harmful. They’ve had their own experiences; they know focusing on what somebody’s eating or their body size or moralizing food is really harmful, and so they’re really attuned to not doing that with their kids, even if they’re not quite there with not doing it to themselves. Even if they’re still in a place where they’re not able to nourish their own body fully or let their own body be whatever size it’s meant to be, they often will still be able to do that for their kids because they don’t want to harm the kids the way that they were harmed.
How much control does a mother really have over how susceptible her child may be to external negative messages around size, self-image, and eating habits?
I think the struggle of motherhood across the board is how much control we actually have. We’re going to send our kids into the world; we can’t protect them from the harmful messages. But what we do at home still offers a lot of protective factors.
When my kids were younger, I tried to intervene as much as I could. Even in preschool, I opted them out of the day that the local hospital came in to talk about “healthy eating,” and I opted them out of the dentist coming in to talk about brushing your teeth because usually, the dentist goes into something about sugar. And when they got into grade school, in Pennsylvania, they still do weighing kids in school, and so I opted them out of that.
My kids obviously were exposed to other kids who were taught differently, and the language that I’ve used around it is that some people just haven’t learned yet that they can eat whatever food they want and they don’t need to be scared of food, or some people just haven’t learned yet that it’s okay to be in whatever size body. We talk about anti-fat bias the same way I talk to them about racism and sexism and homophobia and all of that. It’s just part of our conversation. Now they’re in sixth grade, they’re going to be exposed to all kinds of things, and I hope that they’ve been armed with enough information to have some resilience around it and to know that home is always going to be a safe place for their body and their relationship with food, even if the world isn’t always what we would love it to be.
It’s not realistic to teach kids to think, “Every day I feel perfect and I’m great and there’s no bad feelings.” How do we acknowledge that some days we may feel worse than others but in a nontoxic way?
I think that’s where self-worth comes in, that no matter how I feel about my body on any given day, I’m still worthy, I’m still a valuable human, I still deserve to be treated with love and respect and kindness, I still get to take up space in the world. I think we have to normalize that there’s no way to live in this culture and like your body every day: it’s impossible. I think then it’s the difference between “I don’t like my body and because of that I’m a bad person,” and “I don’t like my body today because I live in a world that has taught me to not like my body and I still have worth. I still have value, and I’m still an important human in the world.”
What do you advise pregnant women about how to stay on their recovery path while all these physical changes are happening and everyone has an opinion?
I think that this is where a really good Health At Every Size dietitian can be really helpful to be like, “There’s so much weight stigma in pregnancy, and so where can we get information that’s actually going to be about nourishing your body and making sure your needs are being met and not focused on all the fatphobia?”
A lot of my clients either don’t get weighed at all or ask to be weighed backward and not see their weight. We do a lot of conversations around “Our bodies change: we don’t get to control that. Your body knows what to do, and everybody’s body is going to respond to pregnancy differently.” A lot of people, I think, actually find pregnancy to be an easier time. Often, they’re able to nourish their body, thinking about “What do I need to give to my child?” vs “What do I need to give to myself?” But pregnancy is hard for all kinds of reasons.
How does does one maintain her own lode star of recovery when she’s also hypervigilant over whether her own child will gain weight, learn to eat typically, and things like that?
As with so much of motherhood, it’s like, how do you not spiral into guilt or feeling like something’s your fault? I think this is where you reach for the metaphor around the oxygen mask: you have to make sure that your recovery needs are being met, because if they’re not, then how can you be present to what your child needs? So, prioritizing your own recovery means nourishing your own body, and then there’s more space to be attuned to what your child needs.
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