Eating Issues: Breakfast at Tiffany’s… dinner at home

At some point I went from seeing Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as an idealized anima to realizing that she (or at least her character) was an anorexic woman in a hat with a lot of issues (after all, Holly Golightly is essentially a self-involved prostitute who is ashamed of her uneducated hillbilly roots—a lost kitty in a rainstorm and someone who needs treatment more than a lover).

Given that body image, weight-loss obsession and eating issues are legion in our culture, I thought Privilege of Parenting would take a plate and get in line at the buffet.  My focus is on the parenting aspects of eating disorders (an excellent place to read and learn more about anorexia in a New York Times Health Guide on the subject which also has links to Bulimia, and other eating disorder sites).

I think that most of us get the general gist that anorexia is about dangerous levels of weight loss while bulimia is about eating and purging via vomiting, over-exercising or laxatives/diuretics.  A less well known, but more frequently diagnosed acronym is EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified); in this case some people, when given this less severe diagnosis, will actually go further in their extreme non-eating to, for example, stop getting their period and thus qualify for the full diagnosis of anorexia.  For more on this see a recent New York Times story on EDNOS, “Narrowing an Eating Disorder.”

While factors in eating disorders range from genetics (i.e. if you have, or have had, an eating disorder, your kid is at increased risk), to family history of addiction and hormonal influences, anorexia, bulimia and EDNOS have also all been linked with negative family influences.  In other words the experts do partly blame this one on bad parenting.

Ouch.  But the beginning of good parenting is dropping our guilt and self-focus, raising our consciousness and healing ourselves in the service of our children.

I know that my mom was a strange eater, prone to guilt about eating, dieting and talking a lot about food and weight.  My dad was the sort to ask her if she really wanted to eat that French fry as it hovered in her fingers between them.  Perhaps I can blame my occasionally (okay chronically) picky and particular eating on my upbringing and so I’m not saying I have any great health and wellness soapbox to preach from—only a sincere wish to be in the mix with other parents who care.

Let’s keep in mind, however, that while studies on eating issues may assert that families play a major role in triggering and perpetuating eating disorders, we’re talking theory more than a wealth of solidly grounded research findings.  Nonetheless, let’s pile the responsibility on our own plates in the hope that it might free our kids to be less neurotic.

Key factors cited as eating disorder-inducing “bad” parenting include:  moms having eating disorders themselves (40% of 9 and 10 year old girls trying to lose weight were doing it at the urging of their moms); dads being critical on their sons’ weight has been seen to correlate with binging and purging in young males.

Parents with substance abuse issues and/or alcoholism are more likely to have anorexic or bulimic kids than non-abusers while parents with psychiatric disorders seem to have bulimic kids more often than would be found in the general population.  Rates of reported sexual abuse in bulimic women run as high as 35%.  Finally, people with bulimia are more likely on average to have a parent who is either currently obese or who was during their own childhood.

If we think about control as a key issue around eating disorders, it make sense that situations where children might feel out of control (i.e. a drunk, drug abusing, sexually inappropriate or mentally ill parents) could lead them to anxiously control whatever they can—particularly their own food intake.

Often people with eating issues essentially “eat their feelings,” reading every emotional cue (i.e. sad, scared, lonely, bored) as a hunger cue.  We literally have “gut minds” insofar as the gastrointestinal walls contain neurons very much like those found in the brain.  Helping children contain and metabolize their emotions is part of helping with an eating disorder; it’s not just about getting the eating “right,” it’s about seeing the eating as a symptom of underlying depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem and/or trauma.

Sexuality plays into eating disorders and so it makes a sort of inner-logic sense to either starve oneself and regress to a point of faux-girlhood (i.e. losing curves, period, etc.) as a way of avoiding the responsibilities and sexually complicated waters of maturity.  Conversely, some women take on a layer of extra weight as a protection against too much sexual attention.

One thing I have noticed in my clinical work is that kids with eating disorders often come from very controlling environments—particularly very judgmental, status-oriented and highly critical homes where only the finest will do, and nothing is ever good enough.

Anorexia is a sort of extreme reductionism (a literal belief that you can never be too thin or too rich—spend a little time in Beverly Hills or West Palm Beach and you’ll see this simply isn’t so).  But like many neurotic disorders, logic and rationality do not typically have much impact on getting people with eating disorders to see things in a healthier manner.

Research on treating anorexia suggest that “family-based therapies in which parents assume responsibility for feeding their afflicted adolescent are the most effective in helping a person with anorexia gain weight and improve eating habits and moods” (National Institute of Mental Health).  To me this suggests a need for an anorexic child to be able to regress in the service of growth much the way one takes a step back before jumping over a stream; it also suggests that kids with self-involved or narcissistically wounded (i.e. bowl-less parents) need to snap out of it and find a way to be present for their child or teen.

What we do not want to do is confuse thinness with health.  Yes, we also have a problem with obesity in our culture, but perhaps we can frame our overall problem as one of dysregulation—we are a culture out of balance on everything from education to fame to spending to sex.  As a culture we’re rather unhappy, and getting our weight right is not going to make us happy; however, becoming happy, I do believe, will help us get our health working better.  If you wonder if your child has an eating disorder, go to any of the sites linked in this post (or try Dr. Krevoy’s site on my blogroll) and read the checklists; and/or do the reach out and ask a professional in your area for their take on your kid’s (and your own) situation.  Eating disorders can be life threatening (not to mention life-ruining), thus if you have any doubt take it seriously.

So, let’s dedicate today to our own authentic happiness (content with the way we are right now) and healthy eating (and to seeking help and support if we cannot pull this off unassisted).  Doing this is a powerful way to help our children love, accept and regulate themselves, and thus our well-being ripples out and ultimately benefits all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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4 Responses to “Eating Issues: Breakfast at Tiffany’s… dinner at home”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I became anorexic my senior year in high school. I was so angry and tired of my parents being so very wrapped up in their own all consuming unhappiness that I wondered if they would even notice the changes in me. Sadly, they never said a word, even though we always ate dinner together as a family. For some reason, dinnertime was when the arguments reached their peak. I went from my athletic and normal 130 to 101 in 6 weeks. I remember just wanting so badly to have a real mother-daughter relationship like my friends seemed to have. Going away to college was a good thing, and I came back to my normal body weight on my own within a year (plus a few pounds). I am happy to say that my relationship with my Mom is better now than it ever has been, as she has done a lot of healing and transforming on her part. We can pretty much talk about anything now, and I feel very fortunate that we have a dramatically improved relationship. Having my own child has been the event that has made me the most accepting of my body. What matters most to me now is how I feel physically, my energy levels, and staying in good health so that I can be around as long as possible in life for my daughter.

  2. Lizinator Says:

    As a teenager (13-17), I was a “failed” bulimic who just couldn’t get herself to purge. Instead I binged and tried to compensate with A LOT of exercise. Even now that I’m 30 years older and more moderate in my habits, there is still a part of me that occasionally likes to binge as a means of regulating emotion. That I like to do this in secret (as if food and I are engaged in an illicit affair) says a lot about how much I need to work on trusting people as much as I do food. One thing that’s been helpful to me is the A.A. phrase, “H.A.L.T.” — “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired” — the triggers that make some people drink and others eat.

  3. Beth K Says:

    Every day through numerous media women get the message that we “should” be ultra-thin like models. It takes confidence, wisdom, and stamina to counteract all of these messages and remember that people of all sizes and shapes can be attractive. It is important to do this work, not just for our own good, but for our children’s (and particularly our daughters’) sake.

  4. sarahzephynz Says:

    Great article and great film.

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