Years ago, my daughter had a friend, and her friend had a mom who wanted to diet to lose some baby weight. Instead of dieting alone, this mother decided that she wanted a diet buddy. And instead of finding an appropriate diet buddy, she decided to enlist the company of her perfectly average weight 15-year-old daughter. Her daughter wanted a diet buddy as well, so she decided to enlist the company of my daughter, who never had reason to give even a passing thought to calories or to weight.
I have no idea whether the mother and daughter ever lost weight, but I can tell you that my daughter did. She lost too much weight; once she started, she couldn’t stop. It was this diet that set my daughter’s violent eating disorder into motion.
When she saw that I was opposed to her dieting, my daughter convinced me that it was just going to be about healthy eating. Naively, I thought, “What can be the harm in healthy eating?” While my daughter’s friend and her mother have moved on with their lives and probably forgotten all about this little diet of theirs, it is indelibly etched in my memory as the experience that triggered my daughter’s eating disorder. This eating disorder got a running start, and by the time we caught on to its wily tricks, it was raging like an out-of-control fire.
It’s been over 10 years since my daughter’s descent into the hell of her eating disorder, and I still can’t help feeling that in some way, the mother of my daughter’s friend unwittingly and irrevocably sparked a chain of events that set my daughter on a path of suffering. I am positive that she never meant to do any harm, but I wonder sometimes how life would have turned out for my daughter if her friend’s mother had acted differently.
This experience is the foundation of my belief that certain attitudes and behaviors surrounding food and weight are nothing less than toxic. Even if the person who holds/practices them seems unaffected, the toxicity can spread like secondhand smoke, selectively afflicting those who inhale it. You pass on certain attitudes and behaviors to your children, who then pass them on to mine, because kids talk to each other and life doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If parents truly understood this, I would like to believe that there would be a shift in the way that they speak about food, diet, and weight in front of their children. The impact of a parent’s words and attitudes is farther reaching than one would imagine.
So now you get where I am coming from. Maybe you can understand why I shudder when I see teens counting calories and I cringe when parents talk (incessantly) about their restrictive diets while their children of all ages are listening. Maybe you can understand why I find the culture that we live in, which equates weight with health in an absolute way, which idealizes weight loss, and which reveres thinness, to be poisonous. Maybe you can understand why I wince when I hear mothers and fathers disparaging their own bodies and the bodies of others in front of their children. Maybe you can understand why I recoil when I hear parents connect food with guilt and sin, or describe food as “clean,” or declare the need to “detox” while little and not-so-little ears are listening. And maybe you can understand why I flinch when I hear parents talking about the “need” to exercise after eating “forbidden” foods. To me, this is the equivalent of putting your children and mine in a smoke-filled room and watching them inhale the toxic fumes. It has the potential to make them very sick.
I admit that it is entirely possible that if my daughter hadn’t been exposed to dieting by her friend, her eating disorder would have been triggered by something else. There is no way to know this. I don’t believe that it’s possible to fully prevent eating disorders in those genetically or biologically predisposed to developing them, but I do believe that it’s possible to reduce the risk of people developing them by eliminating the potential triggers whenever possible. Dieting is an absolute trigger. All eating disorders involve an element of food restriction, which is why diets scare me. What starts as something relatively benign can end up ruining, or G-d forbid ending, someone’s life.
We can start making our children’s environment safer by getting rid of harmful characterizations surrounding food. Good food should refer to food that tastes good, and bad food should refer to food that tastes bad. Clean eating should refer to food that is properly washed and handled in a sanitary way. Detox should be reserved for people trying to kick a drug or alcohol habit. “Sinful” should be equated with things that are immoral, and not with chocolate cake.
We also need to get rid of harmful characterizations surrounding weight and the human body. We cannot allow value to be connected to weight. The sum total of a person cannot be a number on a scale. Shame on us as a society for buying into that belief and for passing it on to our children.
Health is about far more than what we eat and what we weigh. Until we internalize that message, I’m afraid that we are pretty much doomed to a world where eating disorders will become more and more prevalent and will destroy more innocent, beautiful lives.