We all knew women in college with issues around food–anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating, women who didn’t eat so that they could drink more. Maybe you were one of those women to a degree, or maybe you lived with a roommate and know too well about eating disorders from that experience. I was one of those women, although my eating disorders started long before college.
Last week my friend Tracy Morrison wrote a heartfelt letter to Nordstrom explaining why a pillow for sale in its stores, meant to be cute, was spreading the dangerous message to girls that skinny is good, skinny is always the goal. The letter went viral, and Nordstrom removed the ridiculous pillow from its shelves.
It took Tracy tremendous courage to take on this topic–as well as a giant retailer–and to share her own story. What occurred to me as I watched so much support well up around this feat, is that so many moms are likely dealing with their own battles around weight and food and obsession. There is no expiration date on eating disorders, yet it is not something we acknowledge in the mom community in the present tense. Perhaps this is because we think these are issues we should be over “by now.”
We write and talk a great deal about making sure our daughters have a healthy body image; that they see past what the media serves up–flawless and impossibly proportioned women; that they play with Barbie without assuming she represents an ideal; that they look to movie characters who are strong and self-sufficient instead of meek and in need of rescue.
As a mom of two girls and one boy, I think of these things too. I don’t comment on my weight or anyone else’s. I don’t say I feel, look, smell, or sound fat. I compliment the kids on their clothes, their hair, their ideas, their good memories and their great questions, their athletic ability (or ambition), their schoolwork, and their compassion. I redirect conversations that begin with “I look….” I treat them like the whole persons they are.
But I am thinking about my weight most of the day, every day. I weigh myself so often that I know what each article of clothing I own weighs. I know how much my shoes weigh. I have two scales in case I need a second opinion. There are medications that have helped, or would help, my anxiety that I refuse to take because they are likely to cause weight gain. As insane as that sounds–as insane as that is–it won’t change because I wish it were different, or I pretend those aren’t my thoughts. Yet I am a world away from where I began, from a place to which I don’t want to return. Along with mountains of gratitude, I harbor shame and fear, still, in bringing this up.
My children didn’t know me when I didn’t eat or when I exercised compulsively, or when I got up in the middle of the night to binge on whatever was in the cabinets. They don’t know the measures I went to to be thin and thinner. Because I have worked very diligently–but not perfectly–over the past decade-plus, they do not need to ever know that woman.
There are few times in my adult life that I have spoken with friends–certainly not new friends–about my past struggles or the struggles I continue to have. Few people have shared their problems around food with me. So many times, however, have I seen a woman, around my age, clearly in trouble (as this can be a very visible disease) at the gym, in a store, or somewhere else; I have never approached anyone. Eating and body image issues are not cool when you’re in your forties, and I don’t want to expose another person to her embarrassment. Or my own.
After Tracy’s victory, I had a thought: Given the enormity of the eating disorder problem in colleges, is it possible that all these young women are recovered by their thirties and forties? I think that of those of us who survived–because some do not–many found solutions, or were able to leave it behind. But I think many are still at the mercy of the disorder, and some have developed eating disorders later in life. As grown women and mothers, we may not know there are support systems or even feel we deserve one at this point in our lives. It can feel like defeat because this is an indefatigable opponent.
I wish though, that we didn’t have to hide our battles from one another. I wish we could say that you aren’t bad if you have these thoughts and feel powerless around food, or compelled to exercise, or hate yourself when you aren’t a certain number. You aren’t a failed mom or woman because you cannot control your thoughts in the face of all the colors of information about nutrition, healthy living, acceptance. You probably have a problem that you cannot solve with your own thinking. Living like that isn’t the answer. But as someone who has spent many years in the illness, and many years in recovery, I know that, alone, I couldn’t imagine or read or wish myself out of the cage. The belief that we should know better when we are parents, keeps women (and men are not immune) from seeking the help that is most certainly out there in the form of anonymous programs, in- and out-patient treatment programs, and therapists that specialize.
I walk the line every day between wanting to protect my daughters from unnecessary influences on their pliable self-esteem and having my own mind with the fallout from twenty years of active eating disorders. That line may will always be the thinnest one in the room.
This post appeared originally, with a slightly different title, on Appleseeds blog.