Has anyone else had a parent who FORCED you into an eating disorder?
May 31, 2016 11:49 AM   Subscribe

I (female) grew up in a house as the only girl with multiple brothers. My mother began putting me on diets at age 8, before I'd ever shown any signs of having weight issues. I was a normal 8 yr old girl, but not as scrawny as my brothers. From the diets she'd always put me on (this was the 80's, for cultural reference), it began a terrible cycle of me failing the diets and not ever being able to do enough to make her stop policing what I ate. I'm just now coming to the conclusion that I may never have had an issue with food / being overweight if my mom had not forced her insecurities on to me. Longer explanation included. Advice/perspective/fellow war stories appreciated.

I've been doing therapy recently to work through some childhood traumas and they all seem to go back to my relationship with my mother. When I was 8 yrs old, a normal weight (not scrawny but not at all chubby) she put me on my first diet. I couldn't stay on more than a week or so and that began a lifelong cycle of my mother policing everything I eat and telling me things about how I'll never be (loved, successful, etc) unless I was thin.

I've known this for years and have spoken up about it to her and my family and friends the entire time. Noone could convince her that this was hurting me - she was always convinced I was hurting myself by not listening to her "tough love". For the first time it just occurred to me that perhaps I wouldn't ever have become overweight if she hadn't forced this insane insecurity onto me. And force it she did. She.was.relentless. In her mind she was willing to "be the bad guy" if it would save her daughter's life.

Other than this and some other blind spots she has about certain things (I believe because she refuses to be self reflective and refuses to deal with her own insecurities and the possibility she pushed this on me), she's a fantastic parent. In a great, dysfunctional but loving family. She's also an expert in child wellness/child abuse/ child therapy. Which makes this all the more baffling and difficult to explain to her why her actions have hurt me so badly. And it's difficult to get others in my family to see that too.

Is this at all common? Anyone else dealt with this? If so, do you have any suggestions or perspective on this kind of situation?
posted by zettoo to Human Relations (32 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Hm... well.... I think of it in terms of being forced into "disordered eating" and it can happen when someone habitually forces you to eat WAY too much (hello Italian Nonna!) or too little (like what you describe). Yes, this can lead to what people refer to as an eating disorder... but really disorder is kind of a misnomer - it's an accumulation of habits that have sort of wired-themselves into your brain and they're hard to break out of. Recovery from an eating disorder requires developing a new and healthier attitude towards food after breaking down the misinformation re: food and fears associated with food that have caused the disordered eating.

I think it is very common--and common enough that many many many people don't seek help for disordered eating. Even if your mom didn't force you to eat a certain way - just watching how she related to food could have a major impact on you later in life.

I'm so sorry your mom burdened you with such unhealthy thoughts about your weight and food at such a young age. The good news is that you can recover!! It sounds like you have a lot of insight into what went wrong. Now you can look at rebuilding a better relationship to food and learn to enjoy its relationship to your body. It can take time. Keep working with your therapist. Good luck!!
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:02 PM on May 31, 2016

The situation with my own mother wasn't as extreme as what you're describing, but it was in the same ballpark -- being encouraged to go on diets when I was much too young, being told that if I just lost X pounds I'd be SO BEAUTIFUL, being told that if I was thinner I'd have a much easier and better romantic life. She spent a ton of time talking about her own weight and about the weight of other people in the world; there was a constant dialog of guilt around food. My reaction to it as I got older was to actively blow her off and do whatever I wanted, but because I'd only ever gotten negative information about food and guilt-based nagging about exercise -- instead of being educated about nutrition and a balanced diet, and encouraged to be active because it's fun and healthy -- I ate badly and saw myself as irrevocably non-athletic. It wasn't until my late twenties that I made any real progress in getting my shit together with regards to food and exercise, and I suspect it's going to be a struggle for the rest of my life.

As for my current relationship with my mother, I've just flat-out told her that I don't want to talk to her about her weight, or my weight, or anyone else's weight. And if she starts in on that kind of conversation, I redirect immediately to another topic.

She's a great lady but the world did a lot of damage to her when she was growing up, and she, in turn, did a lot of damage to me.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 12:03 PM on May 31, 2016 [9 favorites]

Ha! I wasn't a fat child, just strong and big-boned (as you can see from looking at pictures of Young Frowner) until I started getting bullied for being fat, began to spend all my time hiding inside and ate whatever I could get because it took my mind off my troubles.

My parents were not at fault, although they did some things that I think parents today would not in terms of forcing me to spend a lot of time around the worst of the bullies most days for many years and letting some truly egregious stuff at school go completely unchecked.

But yeah, I definitely hear you. When I realized that I had not always been a fat child and that becoming a fat child was very much a trauma response - and when I realized that people who could have protected me had not - I spent a lot of time feeling really angry. Being a fat person has been the most significant aspect of my life, a bigger deal (ha, bigger, fat people are so jolly right) than gender or sexuality or social class. There has never been a day since I was about eight that I have spent without being conscious of how I look and how people judge me. It has been, on balance, pretty awful. And when I think back on the possibility that this might never have happened, it's pretty upsetting.

But what are you going to do? Therapy, lots and lots of therapy, I guess.
posted by Frowner at 12:04 PM on May 31, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'm not sure it's possible to induce an eating disorder in another person, but certainly a lot of well-meaning mothers have cooperated in inflicting cultural anxieties about eating and body size on their daughters (and sometimes sons). You're not mistaken about your own experience. Yes, she was hurting you. Yes, it was wrong.

Think about what it's like to be trapped in a worldview where you'll never have any value unless you're thin, to the point that you will torture your own child to "save" her from the dread fate of being fat. What a terrible, sad way to live, to hinge your self-esteem on such a stupid and trivial thing, to feel that you must hurt your own child to jam her into such an arbitrary standard. Unfortunately, there's not a lot you can do to change her beliefs, especially if she is not willing to listen to you telling her now, as an adult, that what she did hurt you. What you can do is politely but firmly refuse to discuss food or your appearance with her, at all. If she brings it up, refuse to respond. If she makes a comment at dinner, tell her that if she makes another, you will leave, and then do it. You will be blamed for causing trouble and hurting her feelings, but your mom is hurting you, and if she can't listen to you telling her that, then you can and should withdraw yourself from the pain.
posted by praemunire at 12:04 PM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hello! Yes, this sounds VERY familiar.

I was a thin kid who ate whatever I felt like, whenever I was hungry. Then I gained weight when I was seven. I suspect it was in advance of a growth spurt, but to my Mom it was an issue. I was put on a diet at seven. Seven.

That started a cycle of food being glamorized to me, with me sneaking treats and things I 'shouldn't' have. I was on Weight Watchers at 12 and reached my goal of 92 pounds. Of course, I was about to go through puberty, and I needed to add some weight, but I was trying to keep this artificially low weight, and being physically HUNGRY, I gained weight to 135 pounds, where I started. I was actually quite lovely, with large boobs, so it was an appropriate weight for me, but I was made to feel like a total failure for gaining all my weight back. Can I also say they put me on 1200 calories per day, not even the 'teen' plan which had more milk and fruit on it.

I did every diet under the sun, including two tries with actual speed, and Fen-Phen. I did Medifast, started and failed on Weight Watchers more times than I care to think about. Atkins, Scarsdale, South Beach. You name it, I've tried it and failed at it.

I got some counseling and the best I can come up with is, Mom loved me and thought she was helping. Turns out she wasn't, but her heart was in the right place.

I have vivid memories. She bribed me to lose 30 pounds, for a pair of Frye boots. I couldn't do it, and so I never got them. It seems really cruel to me. Like my worth tied up in being thin. And if I wasn't thin, I wasn't worth a nice pair of boots. Ask me about my clothing addiction.

My dad is an MSW, with a weight problem of his own (which he managed poorly) and I shake my head at the total lunacy of the food police.

Now, I try to eat well. I don't monitor it, I eat what I want and I try to be sure that it's mostly 'healthy' but at this point in time do I even know what that is?

I have more food issues than Gourmet magazine. Also, I'm pretty fat.

Forgive your Mom, she didn't know what damage she was doing. Get counseling with someone who specializes in eating disorders (If you're in Atlanta, I'll give you the name of my therapist.)

Forgive yourself. Being fat isn't the end of the world. It doesn't make you a bad person. You won't die from being fat.

Also, what modern medicine doesn't understand about weight gain, fat and dieting is criminal. Doctors don't have an answer, no one does, all we can do is keep trying.

Hang in there, it gets better.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:06 PM on May 31, 2016 [25 favorites]

I believe that a parent can push a child into disordered eating. It happened to me, though my parents were not nearly as extreme as what you're describing. I finally managed to tackle the issues in a meaningful way at age 40. I still have to remain vigilant. My husband also has some seriously disordered eating issues and body dysmorphia issues because his mother started to brainwash him at an early age that he was fat. She instilled a lot of wrong-headed ideas about food along with the brainwashing. And, here's the thing: he's always been very thin and as a kid, he was certainly in the "skinny" category. He was tall and very, very thin. She convinced him he was fat despite clear physical evidence that the opposite was true. He still has fall-out from it.

Your mother wouldn't be the first parent who despite being, "... an expert in child wellness/child abuse/ child therapy," ended up being quite damaging and abusive to their own children in the home. Her education couldn't overcome her own damaging and harmful impulses and you can't overestimate the power of the privacy that a home can create. She was able to do things to you in the home that she wouldn't have done to others in the public sphere.

The most freeing thing I realized in my own recovery was that I didn't need my parents to understand that they harmed me with their aggressive concern about my diet and weight. I could heal myself even without them realizing what they did and showing remorse. What I did do was erect very strong boundaries and let it be known that I would no longer tolerate policing of my diet or my weight and shut down comments and advice and any concern trolling they did. They eventually got it and now we have a much better relationship around this and we've also been able to get to a place where we discuss food and eating without them launching into the old patterns.
posted by quince at 12:17 PM on May 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thanks everyone for your insightful responses! I want to give a more thorough reflection on all this after this question's been up for a while and folks have had time to put their thoughts in. But I have a quick question for Ruthless Bunny:

Thank you for sharing. Holy shit seven. Fucking hell. You're a brave person for facing this all head-on. My question to you is - when you say your dad is an MSW do you mean Master of Social Work or did that stand for something else? Irorically my mom has an MSW and has spent her whole career protecting children in other dysfunctional household situations. She's considered astonishingly good at her job, always "doing the tough thing" to protect the children at all costs. That is why her blindspot with me is so baffling. I'm certain she's had training that treating your child like this is harmful. But for this one thing she can't see it AT ALL. To make matters worse, our father was one of the head law enforcement officials (not a cop but close) in our community, was unfailingly honest and ethical in all things. But he didn't/couldn't/wouldn't keep me safe from my mother's behavior. It's really scary to have to face that knowledge that even though I know how much my dad loves me and how much I love him, he failed me in this. It's scary but I know important to acknowledge when you're trying to heal the parts of you that were harmed as a child. Thanks for your encouragement;) Back atcha!

ETA: Quince, thank you for your answer too. As I said i'll write more but I had to laugh at the term "concern trolling". That's a fantastic way to put it. Just yesterday my mom, who knows she's not allowed to talk to me about food, has been "concerned" that I was sweating too much and that could be a sign I could get a stroke. Sweating and strokes are not connected. Concern trolling, that's what that was.
posted by zettoo at 12:18 PM on May 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

There is research that malnourished or underfed kids are prone to become obese adults. So, you are correct: forcing you to diet as a child almost certainly caused your adult weight problems.

My mom grew up in a war zone. She has a lot of food baggage. I moved away at a young age. I eventually developed a healthy relationship to food. If your entire family reinforces this, maybe it is time to look for jobs elsewhere.
posted by Michele in California at 12:20 PM on May 31, 2016 [14 favorites]

Oh, absolutely, no question. I was put on my first diet somewhere between 4 and 6... it's before I have many memories but I know my mom published an article when I was 6 about how much weight she'd gotten me to lose since I was a (slightly chubby but perfectly normal) 4-year-old. I started sneaking food, overeating in the very limited circumstances when I felt it would never get back to her (and then PANICKING if I thought she might find out), throwing up, refusing to eat in public, inventing all sorts of absurd rules about what food I "liked" enough to eat... the whole gamut. Plus of course all the dieting totally fucked my metabolism (in one of the many instances of me being sent to a weight loss doctor, I got medical confirmation of this). There is absolutely no question in my mind that without my household's preoccupation with what I was allowed to eat and how I was allowed to look, I would have had a healthier relationship with food much earlier, and probably wouldn't have wound up as a fat adult.

The thing is, you can't change the past, and you probably can't make her understand. All you can do is fix how you feel about yourself and your body, right now and in the future. It feels like you're living as the embodiment of the ways you failed, and the ways she failed you. I get that, so hard. But a fat body isn't failure, yours OR hers. It's just a body. You can start learning to treat it well now, and while it will probably stay fat (if you're actually treating it well), it will start to feel less like an albatross and more like just...you. That doesn't mean you can't grieve the years you spent being taught to hate and mistreat yourself, but it just means getting hung up on that won't fix anything the way overcoming it will.

There are a lot of resources out there, but look into Health At Every Size, and feel free to MeMail.
posted by babelfish at 12:26 PM on May 31, 2016 [8 favorites]

It's incredibly common for very dysfunctional people to become therapists or other "helping" professionals. And also incredibly common for people to be able to be their better selves with everyone other than those closest to them.

In case it helps to have a stranger say it: that your parents were both able to help other children in their professional lives but failed you in this arena says NOTHING about you or your qualities as a child. It is entirely, 100% their failing.
posted by mcduff at 12:29 PM on May 31, 2016 [32 favorites]

I had an upbringing very much like Ruthless Bunny's, with input from both parents. And, for a long time I blamed them for my food issues - basically for how much I LOVE food - I had this idea that if they hadn't made such a big issue of it, I wouldn't have gotten hooked on treats.

But I've come to completely retreat from this. What they did was unpleasant, but it had no influence with my love of treats, current or past. Two things convinced me:

One, I have two little daughters. One is obsessed with treats and always has been, from infancy. She will do anything to get more sweets and she has no self-limit function. The other girl isn't interested in food, sweet or otherwise. And there is no difference in how I fed them, etc. They were, literally, born this way.

Two, I have recently tried Victoza, which acts on the pancreas and the brain, among other organs. And the difference (at least before I developed tolerance to it) was ASTOUNDING. Night and day. I was like... so this is what it feels like to be a regular-weight person, who can order a salad for lunch, and be ok! That was something that was physically not possible for me previously. I had been so terribly hungry! My whole life I'd been blaming myself for being undisciplined, greedy etc, when in fact these habits don't originate in the mind (as I'd been taught by the entire diet industry) but rather in the body. I was hungrier than other people. That's why I ate more. With that malfunction fixed, I am able to make much better choices about food. Without it... well, the other night I skipped a dose, and woke up in the night from gnawing hunger pangs.

So no, I don't think your mom gave you an eating disorder. Your mom sounds foolish and un-self-aware, but in my experience, how I want to eat is a function of what my body wants, and that's a biochemical thing, not an emotional thing.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:32 PM on May 31, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yes, my father has a Master of Social Work and spent his career counseling families. The shoemakers kids go barefoot.

I once asked him, "Why didn't you step in?" He said, "It was important that we were a united front. You're right, I should have said something."

Eh, it is what it is.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:10 PM on May 31, 2016 [7 favorites]

I was a skinny kid. My mom, following the advice of doctors, would try to force me to eat massive amounts of peanut butter every day. As a child, there are very few things you can control. So if you don't feel heard, you're going to pull the levers you can. To this day, I physically cannot eat when I'm upset.

Parents can absolutely kill your self esteem and teach you to hate your body.
posted by snickerdoodle at 1:31 PM on May 31, 2016 [6 favorites]

I don't know if this is common, but it's something that I also deal with.

As for solutions/advice, I don't know if my approach is right for you, but I ended up doing a few things (some consciously, some just in blind reaction to my mother and her body issues):

1. I now am much more of a "radical fat acceptance" type person than I think I otherwise would have been. (I'm not fat, but this type of politics/personal philosophy has really helped me reprogram a lot of the toxic shit I learned from my mom.) I work extremely hard to accept my body the way it is and not have unrealistic ideas about how I should look. And the same goes for others -- I work hard not to bodyshame anyone, ever.

2. I have a pretty knee-jerk rebellious attitude to my mom. I know this isn't the most healthy thing ever, but it's a lot healthier than feeling obligated to accept the bizarro fantasy ideas that she has about looks and especially about weight and food. So, yeah, I'm taunting her with the notion that I might have green hair for my wedding. Which isn't exactly me being my best self. But if I wasn't doing this, we'd be having the "maybe you should order a smaller dress and go on a diet" conversation, and I'm not doing that, so she can fucking deal. I refuse to be the perfect daughter and ignore the many, many ways that she was not and has not been the perfect mother.

3. I work so, so hard to counterprogram the attitudes she ingrained in me about my appearance. I love my body. I accept compliments. I eat what I want. I wear what I want. I don't own a scale. I don't worry about how I look. If I'm going to wear makeup or get a pedicure or go shopping, I'm going to do it based on what makes me feel good, not as a form of physical obedience.
posted by Sara C. at 1:52 PM on May 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

Baahaahaa. My mom is an utter pain in the ass about food and intake and diets and being thin.

True story #1: After I gave birth to my first kid (10 million hours, no anesthesia) I was really hungry so my husband went out to get our favorite takeout. As we're sitting in my hospital room admiring my perfect baby and opening the containers of food, my mom said of the lo mein noodles I was about to devour, "You're not going to eat all that, are you? How will you lose the baby weight?" when I had literally pushed that baby out less than two hours prior.

True story #2: At my kid's college graduation from NYU where she was the only performer and she soloed onstage at Lincoln F***ing Center, my mom muttered during the performance that her granddaughter appeared fat on the stage. The kid is 5'11" and weighs 120 and is literally a model (and performer).

True story #3: I ran my first 10k and asked my mom to watch the kids. After the race they give out goodies. I took TWO cookies, and my mom said, "Those aren't BOTH for you, are they?"

So yeah, moms.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:09 PM on May 31, 2016 [20 favorites]

True story #2: At my kid's college graduation from NYU where she was the only performer and she soloed onstage at Lincoln F***ing Center, my mom muttered during the performance that her granddaughter appeared fat on the stage. The kid is 5'11" and weighs 120 and is literally a model (and performer).

Wow. If that was my kid, she'd still be telling the story fifty years later of how her mom spent her graduation night in the Tombs.
posted by praemunire at 2:22 PM on May 31, 2016 [10 favorites]

Big sigh. I won't add more anecdotes because they are all the same.

I'm proud my daughters are comfortable in their skins, but I've had enough family-members commenting all along.
What is this thing with womens' bodies?? My daughters are beautiful (as all young people are), still their aunts have opinions about their weights. Happily my mum has understood the big NO sign I put up in front of her, and my girls don't respect the aunties judgement much.
posted by mumimor at 2:42 PM on May 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

She's considered astonishingly good at her job, always "doing the tough thing" to protect the children at all costs. That is why her blindspot with me is so baffling.

Does it help to think that maybe, she considered her treatment of you as exactly "doing the tough thing" to protect you from a thing she feared? Her premises (that gaining weight or being overweight is somehow more awful than being unhappy and unhealthy) are completely, utterly wrong, but she was acting on them in a logical way.

My mother, when I was growing up, was terrified of getting fat. I mean like a phobia level afraid. She barely ever ate; she exercised constantly. She once said that if she ever weighed 135 pounds she'd just up and kill herself. I, at the time, weighed 130. What does a teenager take away from that? Nothin' great, I tell ya. When I lost ~20 lbs during a terrible illness, her comment was that maybe I wouldn't gain it back when I got better. My doctor was testing me for stomach cancer. And she was excited that the wasting away might "stick."

Now, I know my mother loves me tremendously. If I had actually had stomach cancer, she would have been devastated - her thoughtless comment might well have just been her way of avoiding a terrifying topic. I do not think she ever loved me any less at any weight. She was excited when I got thinner, but never put me on diets. Ever.

But she taught me, by accident, that my love for myself should be conditional. That thin was more important than healthy. That I couldn't trust my own eyes about how I looked--because I thought I looked okay at 130 lbs, but if I was only 5 lbs away from my mom's "just kill myself" point then I obviously couldn't see myself properly. I struggle with all of this still.

I forgave her/continue working to forgive her by trying to understand that really, on some level, she was not well. She may well have been clinically anorexic at some points, for all I know--certainly in some photos from that era, she looks gaunt and pale, not slim and fit. She was dealing with an awful fear/distortion in an imperfect way and she damaged me by accident.

Incidentally, she has recently had some health issues that resulted in significant weight gain. She is actually dealing with it pretty well, and recognizing that her previous behaviors were unhealthy and contributed to her current situation. It would be great if she some day had an epiphany about how I internalized her eating issues, but I'm not counting on that for resolving my own struggles.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 2:49 PM on May 31, 2016 [7 favorites]

I loved my mom very much and still miss her every day a decade after she died. She had a pretty awful childhood in some ways - she was evacuated during WW2 to the countryside at about age five and was billeted with a woman who basically neglected her for nearly a year, including foodwise. Mom developed a significant weight problem in later life, when she had a sufficient and "safe" access to food.
My youth and adolescence was spent hearing her, an obese woman, tell me, an average-sized girl that I couldn't eat this, and I couldn't eat that. Otherwise I would get fat. I was active, I walked everywhere, but by late teens I was of course obsessed with what I ate, and yes I got fat and unfit and diabetic eventually. I think the issue was not so much hearing about what I shouldn't eat, but that healthy eating was just not modelled for us. We weren't taught about portions, or balance, or that not eating everything on your plate wasn't a crime (although that probably related more to a poor working-class household's anxiety over not wasting food and a mother's wish not to have her children feel hunger like she had).
I feel so sorry for what my mom went through - five years old and starving - and think that my issues with food probably relate more to my own "childish" rebellion when I realised I could eat anything I liked and no one could stop me as an adult. I'm tackling it now, slowly, in part with the help of Victoza as mentioned above. I don't blame her - I think she was trying to help me, genuinely, but it was just not the right strategy and I have this feeling being fat was always going to be in my future.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 2:58 PM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh hi! Both my parents modeled some level of disordered eating behavior, and tried to control our diets and exercise in different ways, and my sisters and I all developed eating disorders pretty early. Plus, my mother was probably alcoholic, and my father was obsessed and controlling about her drinking, and we've every last one of us had issues with alcohol and drugs. I tend to connect the eating disorders and the alcohol/drug abuse in my own mind; at least the dynamic was intertwined in our family. My belief is that you can become an addict or develop a disorder all on your own, or with help from the culture you live in, but it's a lot easier to develop a problem-- and the problem will be more intractable-- if you have family who either share the problem or are codependent or both.

Maybe it's my background of combined eating disorders and addictions talking, but I tend to see behavior like your mother's more or less in the codependent range and as such, very very hard for the person to admit to. It was always about control after all; she's not going to give that up easily.
posted by BibiRose at 3:27 PM on May 31, 2016

Yep! I was always stocky and big boned (and, given the pretty clear genetic pattern in both sides of my family, was always going to be fat) but my mother's own disordered eating (alternately hoarding food and starving herself) and her anxities about my weight left me with a lot of scars about food and body image and my own pattern of disordered eating. She put me on a diet first when I was... 6, maybe? And dragged me to adult Weight Watchers when I was 9, and spent a ton of time openly shaming me about my weight (posting the results of a weekly weigh-in at the dinner table, etc) and trying to monitor/restrict everything I ate.

Needless to say, it strained our relationship for MANY years.

Now, thanks to hard battles with self-acceptance--a lot of which was aided by reading up on HAES and fat-acceptance movements--I feel like my mental health has improved, I'm much better about how I eat, and things with my mother have improved because I flat-out ban her from discussing my weight. I just flat-out say, "No, we are not discussing this. You are not my doctor" and I change the subject. It's been effective and really helpful!

Good luck, OP.
posted by TwoStride at 3:46 PM on May 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

My mother did this to my sister and I (but not our brother). She kept telling us how she was a proud feminist and then kept trying to dictate our lives (she wanted us to go into STEM and be successful career women and not settle down until we were in our 30s but yes settle down and with men only and we HAD to have kids but later than she had had us etc etc). My mother crash dieted all her way through 5 years of chemotherapy, like restricted her calories immensely (multiple diets) while literally having poison pumped into her, and marathoned The Biggest Loser all the time and kept talking about how if my sister wasn't careful she'd end up on that show (I on the other hand was told I'd get reported to What Not to Wear because I didn't show off my body enough).

She complained about how fat my sister was from the time my sister was 6, would restrict my sister's access to treats and junk food but would provide them to our brother no question, would morally shame my sister every time she grabbed food that wasn't a meal but then frequently made meals that my sister loathed (while making our brother's favourites), and seemed baffled that my sister resented her for it. My sister is short and has a chubbier body type similar to my mother's. My sister is 21 and still thinks she's fat and keeps talking about how she doesn't want to do X until she loses weight (things like "I don't want to get a tattoo on my bicep until I lose weight"); she does plenty of physical exercise (dances, goes to the gym) and eats well but her weight doesn't budge because that's where her body is most comfortable.

I was older and much more compliant because I felt like I had to be perfect to get my mom's positive attention. I saw how she treated my sister and didn't want her to turn that negativity towards me so I decided I needed to stay thin. I basically didn't eat lunch for all of high school (I would buy one muffin at school and eat it during second period and that was my breakfast + lunch). I'm trans so that's a whole other set of body image stuff but the biggest indication that I'm headed for a depressive spiral is when I start restricting my food because I feel I haven't "earned" it. I can't keep a food budget because I will use it to torment myself into feeling guilty about my food choices. Sometimes the only thing that can get me to eat is the mantra "eating poorly is better than not eating at all".

As an adult, I can see this as my mother projecting her issues onto us. I think she deeply regretted some of the choices she made when she realized she didn't have time to do it all (she was diagnosed with cancer at 35). I also think she saw my sister and I as "do overs" with a better financial start (she grew up poor). She was a pretty permissive mother when it came to things like going out or staying out, things that she would've wanted to do basically, but she was really controlling in many other aspects. She was codependent with me (my role was to be caretaker/confidante in the absence of her having a partner) and clearly resented my sister (who was framed as the difficult child, who got harsher punishments, who was virtually emotionally abandoned at the age of 10) but she loved and doted on our brother. My sister and I have CPTSD, my brother does not. Our mother somehow managed to be a wonderful mom to one kid while really really hurting the other two.

I found that I made a lot more progress on dealing with my feelings when I let go of the image of our family as great and loving despite the dysfunction. I felt like I couldn't criticize her parenting because of all the hardships she was dealing with. The truth is that we deserved better even if she meant well. The few things she did well do not cancel out the hurt that she taught us to feel for our bodies. I had to stop defending her in order to finally build up my sense of self-worth, to recognize that we were children and we deserved a parent who made us feel like we were good enough. Maybe someday I'll be able to forgive my mother, maybe not, but for once I'm prioritizing myself instead of her. (My mother died 5 years ago so I do not need to navigate a relationship at the same time and this makes it easier to hold such a black-and-white attitude.)

I know that several of my AFAB friends had their mothers mess with their eating. Most of the kids were people-pleasing high achievers or otherwise sensitive to their mother's needs. Most of the moms were driven and successful people who felt they knew what was best for their kids.
posted by buteo at 4:07 PM on May 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've watched people do this with their kids. Like, four year olds hiding jars of peanut butter under their bed, and jars of sugar, or binge eating a whole (adult) pizza because they've been starved most of the day in a 'eat everything on your plate even if you gag' kind of thing. That very very early indoctrination around food absolutely has knock on effects. Some kids have pre-dispositions to certain ways of eating, totally (see: my kid and salty stuff, holy shit she will eat parmesan straight, any kind of cured meat, sucks the salt off things she doesn't want to eat) but the attitude towards food and the body is something that is behavioural. To that end it can change though.

(My mother was very much anti-diet, anti-body shame. I picked up some because I'm a woman in our culture, but I don't have the kind of deep-seated loathing a lot of women who grew up around dieting have.)
posted by geek anachronism at 4:28 PM on May 31, 2016

Think about what it's like to be trapped in a worldview where you'll never have any value unless you're thin, to the point that you will torture your own child to "save" her from the dread fate of being fat. What a terrible, sad way to live, to hinge your self-esteem on such a stupid and trivial thing, to feel that you must hurt your own child to jam her into such an arbitrary standard.

This reminds me of something I once read about foot-binding in pre-twentieth-century Chinese culture.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:37 PM on May 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

My mother told me every day of my life, starting from when I was around 6 years old to the day I moved out of the house, how ugly and fat I was and how she was ashamed to be seen with me and nobody would ever love me. Which was great motivation for me to ditch the unhealthy eating habits and eat nothing but nutritious salads! Just kidding. I remember saving up my allowance in 5th grade to buy diet pills. I still struggle with my weight many years later.

A few things that have helped: Time and distance. Therapy -- it was incredibly affirming just to have somebody acknowledge that the things she said to me were horrible and of course they would upset me, after a lifetime of being told that I'm "too sensitive" and must be exaggerating or making things up. Becoming an adult with my own family of people who love and value me regardless of my appearance. Refusing to discuss any weight-related issue with my mother -- even if she compliments me, I change the subject. Really, time and distance more than anything else, though. I used to think about this a lot and be really angry about it, but over time I'm able to appreciate the many good things that my mother has done for me, and accept that some bad came along with the good. I've also realized that I take people's words very seriously, while she pays zero attention to what comes out of her mouth. So we were kind of mismatched in that way.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:44 PM on May 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also, what absolutely did NOT work for me: Confronting my mother about this. I tried this on several different occasions; she would deny ("You're so sensitive, I never said that,"), deflect ("Don't be so hung up about these things, you're too serious"), double down ("I WISH you were anorexic, it's better than looking like a whale!"). I was left feeling even more angry and frustrated each time, and eventually realized I was never going to get that satisfying moment of closure.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:52 PM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

My mother has always (and still does) police everything I eat, whether she's around to see it or not. Always asking if I "needed to eat that", making comments about what I was eating and how much, talking about my brother, who is in such good shape. Even now, I am living with her temporarily, and she asks where I'm going and what I did while I was out, which is code for asking what I ate. She talks about Weight Watchers, weight loss meds, and surgery, even though I already had a WLS that nearly killed me. She tells me how much weight I've gained on a regular basis.

Growing up, my family had a cabinet where the junk food was locked up; only my brother and father were allowed to have it. The location of the key rotated, and I always went searching for it, even if they just left the house for a few minutes. As soon as I could get around by myself I ate as much junk food as I could get my hands on. I even had a teenage shoplifting habit that centered around stealing food, because I didn't always have money.

I am morbidly obese. My mother is not the only reason, it's a combination of poor dietary choices, a busted thyroid, heredity, and the issues with my mom that pushed me into binge/closet eating for a long time. Now I watch what I eat and exercise, because I've come to the conclusion that the only one who suffers is me if I don't take care of myself. My mom is never going to change; she really believes that she is helping, despite my statements to the contrary. So, I'm going to move out when I can, because my life is better in a lot of ways when we have some distance, continue with the diet and exercise, and hopefully get therapy at some point.
posted by lemonwheel at 12:53 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was five or ten pounds overweight when I was in elementary school. Every time I went for a second helping of something at dinner (even veggies) my mother would balloon out her cheeks and tell me that I would have to be rolled to school. I was also informed that my life would be so! much! better! if I wasn't such a tub with giant thunder thighs. When mom packed my lunch I got carrot sticks, a dry turkey sandwich with salt and pepper, and money for white milk. My brother got doritos, PB&J, and chocolate milk. By the time I was 14 I weighed 82 lbs. after two years of starving myself almost to death and my mom gained about 50 lbs. in compensatory eating. The less I ate, the more she ate. It was a crazy situation. My dad also has an eating disorder and my brother spent his childhood calling me "BFP," which is short for big fat pig.

My mom was a fat kid. She had friends but also was bullied a bit. She fixed her weight in high school and suddenly became a cheerleader dating the most popular and cutest boy in the school. I know she was trying to keep me from being tortured. She wanted me to date cute boys and go to prom. What she didn't know is that I had about fifty diagnosable mental illnesses brewing pretty much from birth that were going to make all of those things impossible. No prom, no cute boys. No weddings or grandchildren. I've never graduated from anything despite having about 12 4.0 college terms under my belt. In her efforts to help me be liked and accepted I became permanently damaged. I have the worst self-esteem possible. No matter how thin I am, how nice my make-up is, how cute my hair is, I hate the way I look. I haven't looked in a mirror in years. They're literally all covered with towels. I put my contacts in by feel.

My dad exacerbates the self-esteem situation with comments about my weight to this day, but my mom permanently shut up after they threatened to give me an NG tube at my ED clinic because I was having kidney pain and fainting.

So, yeah. Count me as a yes.
posted by xyzzy at 2:36 AM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have spent 30 years with an active eating disorder. I am 45. My mother put me on my first diet at 9. I was in no way, shape, or form overweight. My mother weighed every ounce of cereal, chicken, and salad dressing I ate when I was living in her home.

I've been in active recovery for 5 years, but it's still a daily (hourly) struggle. Every 10th word out of my mother's mouth has to do with her current diet/exercise plan. She is 70 with NPD and will never, ever change. I have had to make changes to myself to get as far in recovery as I have. I'm more than happy to chat if you need an ear. I have the most incredible ED therapist in the universe.

Please feel free to memail me.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:57 AM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to say that we all share so many of the same stories that I don't feel so alone anymore. I try to frame it as a cultural issue, that our parents bought into the 'thin' culture and transferred their fears and anxieties about fat onto us.

Some of our parents were misguided, others downright cruel.

I don't know what to make of it, but it would be nice if I could just choose what looks good, eat enough of it to keep me 'not hungry' and not assign a value of 'good' or 'bad' onto every freaking thing I put in my mouth.

I'm 53 and I still have really unhealthy thoughts about food. I've done therapy and I intellectually know that being fat isn't bad, and doesn't make me bad, yet I fantasize about weight loss. I beat myself up when I eat ice cream or candy, I sometimes binge.

I have no answers, only the process of trying to do better for myself every day.

We're survivors. Yay us!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:16 AM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

BibiRose might have a thread for you to follow. Is there addiction in your family? That can screw up family dynamics really quickly. My parents weren't difficult about my eating or weight, but we have a lot of addiction in our family, and many of my female relatives have eating disorders. My mom does but worked really hard to not pass it on to me. The only family member who ever gave me trouble was my brother, and it was a very short conversation -

Brother: I'm really worried about your weight. Can we talk about it?
Me: Sure, as soon as we can talk about your drinking.

And that was that.

And therapy will help. I had a difficult thing (not related to food) happen when I was younger, and it was so, so validating to have my therapist look me in the eye and say, "Every single adult in your life failed you at that moment. Every. Single. One. You tried to reach out to get help and they failed you. You're angry for good reason. The people who were supposed to protect you, didn't."

And so I say to you: I see your pain. The people who were supposed to protect you, didn't.
posted by RogueTech at 10:29 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I moved 3500 miles away, only thing that helped. The family food politics are absolutely monstrous. It's still very triggering to be around, so I make an effort not to be around it.
posted by French Fry at 11:08 AM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

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