Content warning: This article discusses disordered eating in a way that some readers may find distressing.
In our increasingly visual, social media-saturated culture, where minor celebs flog weight-loss teas on Instagram and women's bodies are objectified everywhere, eating disorders (ED) and body image issues are most often considered a young person's problem. However, figures suggest the problem is stubborn among middle-aged women, with 3% in their 40s and 50s saying they have an "active" ED and 15.3% having suffered from one during their lifetime. Fewer than one third (30%) of these women report seeking help, suggesting that many more could be suffering in silence.
Here, one 28-year-old woman shares her experience of growing up with a mum, now 56, with disordered eating patterns and poor body image, and reveals the long-term damage it has had on her own relationship with food and perception of her body. As told to Natalie Gil.
My mum has an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with food. During mealtimes, everything that passes her lips is considered a guilty pleasure and she will often make a religious-style confession afterwards: "...and then I even had some cheese." There always has to be food around, but only in the smallest of quantities. She snacks constantly, but only a bite or two every hour or so, and she rarely eats a normal, structured meal.
Perhaps as a result of her "guilty pleasure" mindset, she minimises eating normal food to maximise her ability to eat "bad" foods. So instead of protein and carbs at mealtimes, she’ll have a slither of white bread followed by a tiny portion of cake, sweets or chocolate.
Growing up, I always thought this was a normal attitude towards food. I thought it was part of being a woman. The boys in our household ate normally; it was just the girls who had to watch themselves. I remember always being told from a young age: "You can’t just eat what you want, have small portions. You have a body like mine." Dinners at relatives' houses were always problematic. My aunt, who is the same age as my mum, would eat normal meals – not just a series of bites of cakes – but my mum always labelled her figure "fuller" and would say things like: "She enjoys eating."
As well as her unhealthy relationship with food, my mum has body image issues. She would often ask me if her bum or thighs looked big. She’d weigh herself every morning and comment on it throughout the day. "Today I weighed 200 grams less than yesterday! Whoopee!" she’d say, or "Today I’m 200 grams heavier than yesterday. I need to watch myself."
Growing up, I always thought it was normal to think about your body this way. I’ve never been medically "overweight" and always had a healthy BMI as a child, but I became acutely aware of my body and weight at about 8 years old. Every time my dad took a photo, I'd focus on my body. How fat did I look? From the age of about 10, whenever we went clothes shopping, my mum would always tell me I needed to find clothes for my "body type" as I had "large thighs". This made clothes shopping an unpleasant experience. My body was my fault – if only I ate less.
My body was my fault – if only I ate less.
Every time we went out for a meal, I’d look for the low-calorie option. By age 11 I was consciously trying to lose weight and watching what I ate. I was always told the calorie content of food, the importance of calorie counting, and always encouraged to eat calorie-reduced foods. My mum would return from the shops saying, "I bought this for you" and present low-fat cheese and low-fat snack bars. The boys in the family never got this treatment.
My mum’s relationship with food has definitely rubbed off on me and I’ve never had a positive body image. I’m obsessive with what I eat, calorie-count perpetually and see food as a guilty pleasure. I always know what I’ve eaten and can give a pretty accurate estimate of the calories in most meals. I don’t know how to gauge my body’s hunger level; instead, I think, "Do I have the right to enjoy the next calorie fix?"
I’ve had a number of eating-related problems over the years, including purging, starving myself if I knew I was going out drinking, extreme dieting and a serious gym obsession. I’d exercise every day for at least one-and-a-half hours and "indulge" in three-hour workouts at weekends. I’d cancel social plans to go to the gym and repeat chants during my sessions: "You’ve got to pick up the pace, you’ve got to pick up the pace, you’ve got to pick up the pace – you fat bitch."
I also developed a nighttime eating disorder where I’d turn to food during periods of stress. I’d restrict my calories so severely during the day, on top of my long workouts, that I’d wake up starved in the night and binge at 3am, almost in a trancelike state. I’d feel so guilty the next day that I'd skip breakfast and lunch. I was prescribed antidepressant-based sleeping pills.
My body-image issues used to affect me in my relationships. If I wasn’t in top fitness condition, I wouldn’t allow myself to date men. I believed I didn’t deserve to be with a man unless I had a good body, which further perpetuated my gym obsession and calorie constriction. And when I did have sex, I’d expel a huge amount of mental energy worrying if my abs or bum were toned enough for the guy, taking me out of the moment.
I’m still unhappy with my appearance and am always trying to lose weight, but I now strive for a more balanced approach. My relationship with exercise is more balanced, I eat at mealtimes, and focus on whole, healthy foods. I also place a high importance on sleep, rest and not seeing food as an illicit substance that I should feel "guilty" about consuming. I also avoid these conversations with my mum now. It’s reciprocal. I think she knows it upsets me.
I don’t really like being around her for extended periods and I feel nervous eating around her.
Our relationship has suffered. Every time I visit home, inevitably there will be a crying match. If I haven’t received a comment on how I look from my mum, I will end up asking for one. Usually I’ll get "You look great, keep doing what you’re doing," or "Yes you’ve put on weight. You don’t need me to tell you this." This will be followed by hours of discussion on what my action plan should be to lose weight, and me crying. I still love seeing her but it's marred by my negative past experiences and I get nervous beforehand. I don’t really like being around her for extended periods and I feel nervous eating around her. Have I lost enough weight? How will the reviews fare this time?
It’s only as I’ve got older that I realise my mum’s behaviour was – and still is – unhealthy. The biggest turning point for me was when I went to university and saw that other girls ate normal meals. They had food on their plates, just like men – meat, potatoes, bread – and they weren’t eating only salad to allow themselves cake.
I know my mum didn’t intend this for me. She loves me terribly and I think just "wanted the best" for me. She saw her food issues as a constant battle with the scale, and without her intending, it rubbed off on me. I’ve never spoken to her about the magnitude of my issues. I think it would break her heart if she knew. If I have children one day, I hope to be able to shelter them from this warped mindset, and focus on health and balance.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with disordered eating, please contact the Butterfly Foundation at 1800 33 4673. Support and information are available 7 days a week.
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