‘My mother gave me an eating disorder as a child – now I’m terrified I’ll do the same’

Growing research suggests children of eating disordered mothers are at high risk of developing an eating disorder themselves - Getty
Growing research suggests children of eating disordered mothers are at high risk of developing an eating disorder themselves - Getty

When Jasmine* was 10 years old, she started her first food diary. One of her early entries opened with, “Half a hard boiled egg, four cups of water, eight laps around the park.”

Much of her childhood was spent meticulously counting her calories, documenting her “good” and “bad” food intake, and tracking her exercise and weight. She filled countless journals with her findings – the pages holding secrets she still carries to this day.

“My first memory of thinking ‘I’m fat’ was when I was six years old,” the 32-year-old healthcare worker recalls. “I would stare at my reflection in the mirror and grab the fat around my tummy. I hated myself.”

This sense of self-hatred eventually led Jasmine to starve herself before she even hit puberty. When looking at the root of her early-onset anorexia, she believes it can be traced back to an all-too familiar source: her mother. For years, she was exposed to her mother’s unhealthy relationship with food and harmful comments on body image.

“My mum has always been very petite. She was a dancer, whereas I inherited curves from my father’s side of the family. My mother would always brag about how small she was, and my grandmother would make frequent jokes about my baby fat. I felt too big and not dainty enough,” she explains.

When Jasmine asked to take ballet classes at age 10, she was told that girls with big breasts could never be ballerinas. When she developed curves at age 12, she was forbidden from eating dessert for an entire summer. Even after Jasmine was hospitalised with anorexia for two months at age 14, her mother did not discourage her from skipping meals, as long as she took her vitamins.

Now, as a mother herself she is terrified of passing her anorexia down to her six-year-old son.

Intergenerational effects

Jasmine’s fears come against a backdrop of growing research that suggests children of eating disordered mothers are at high risk of developing an eating disorder themselves.

According to a previous study, anorexia occurs 11.4 times more frequently in immediate family members of women who are diagnosed with the disorder, compared to immediate family members of women who are unaffected.

With anorexic symptoms being identified in children as young as six and seven, the intergenerational effects of eating disorders are only now beginning to be identified.

According to Dr Sarah Barnett, a psychotherapist who has spent over a decade researching the “intergenerational cycle” of eating disorders at the University of Hertfordshire, these inherited diagnoses not only point to a genetic vulnerability, but also to environmental factors.

“Part of any child’s developmental process is to internalise and mirror their mother’s behaviour,” she explains. “For a mother with an eating disorder, she will display dysfunctional and dangerous patterns around food and body image – eventually, that becomes the child’s reality.”

In many cases, Dr Barnett suggests that eating disorders are not actually about food – food is merely the symptom of a deeper insecurity.

“The makeup of an eating disorder is about self-esteem – many women may not think that they’re worthy enough to have good food or nourishment. Ultimately, if the eating disordered mother brings her unresolved issues into the relationship with her child, the transmission of these issues becomes more likely,” she says.

‘No one loves a fat lady’

Claire*, 31, is living proof of this fact. She developed binge eating disorder (BED) after witnessing her mother struggle with disordered eating for the entirety of her upbringing.

“As a child, I watched my mother restrict her own diet as well as mine. She was very vocal about how she’d only eaten yoghurt for weeks straight. For her, weight was a matter of control – she would tell me that if I didn’t have the willpower to control my weight, then I was weak,” she says.

Growing up, Claire, now an admin manager,  believed that being fat was a “capital sin”. Some of her earliest memories consist of her mother pointing at women in the supermarket and telling her, “No one loves a fat lady.”

“I heard that sentence quite a lot, and it stuck with me. I would think to myself as a child, ‘If no one loves fat people, and my mother is restricting what I'm eating, that means I'm fat, and therefore, no one loves me,’” she recalls.

In her early teens, Claire started skipping meals. Her mother noticed this pattern, and instead of expressing concern, she encouraged the behaviour. Eventually, Claire resorted to bingeing and purging to please her mother. It was only when she became pregnant with her daughter that she went into remission and realised she had the power to break the cycle.

“Even though I believe my mother caused my eating disorder, I’ve decided that I'm not angry at her, simply because she inherited her disorder from her own mother. It's something that's perpetuated through the ages, and it’s up to me to do things differently in raising my child,” Claire explains.

Positive rules

Jasmine came to the same realisation while pregnant with her son. After being hospitalised four times for her anorexia prior to her pregnancy, she became “terrified” that she would “somehow pass it along to him”. Throughout her pregnancy, she continually battled the urge to starve herself because she knew that her baby needed the nutrition.

“I made sure that even if I didn’t feel like eating, I would sit down and eat a meal for him. He’s the one who made it worth it,” she says.

With the help of her hospital therapist, Jasmine became determined to bring her son up with a healthier attitude to food and his body.

“I didn't ever want my son to feel the kind of self-hatred I felt for myself,” she says. Nevertheless, at age three, he started reading the nutritional facts on various food packages. He started saying things like, “This only has 150 calories, so it’s okay to eat.” Immediately, Jasmine realised she needed to change her own behaviour.

“I’ve taught my son that calories aren’t something that he should worry about, and that there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ food. He’s learning that food is to be enjoyed and savoured – we cook together and have dinner together at the table every night. I never want him to feel shamed about food like I was. Or eat in silence.”

Now one year postpartum, Claire has also established various “positive rules” early on, both for herself and her daughter’s sake. When it comes to food, she has adopted a neutral “I propose, she disposes” mindset which allows her daughter to either accept or reject the food she’s being offered.

“My daughter is learning how to listen to her body. She knows to eat if she’s hungry, and when to stop if she’s full,” Claire explains. “As her mother, I'm not going to force her to eat or tell her to stop eating – she will never hear me comment on what she eats or what her body looks like.”

Ongoing recovery

Both Claire and Jasmine’s recovery is ongoing. To reduce the risk of relapsing, both women have been intentional about not only changing their outward behaviour, but also how they treat themselves.

“I will only talk positively about my own body, regardless of whether my daughter is listening,” says Claire. “Growing up, my mother would constantly ask me, ‘Do I look fat in this?’, and I never want my daughter to hear those words.”

For Jasmine, reclaiming her body has been a full-circle process. When looking back at her six-year-old self who hated her body, she recognises how far she has come in raising her six-year-old son who is learning to love his own.

“The fear of messing things up is still very real, but I had a moment recently when I looked at my son and felt completely at peace. I reminded myself of the beautiful life that I’ve built for us, and for the first time, I could feel my inner child healing.”

* Names have been changed