By Ally Goult RCC MA & Amber Whittemore RD MHSc
First things first, I really want to make one thing clear. Whenever starting a conversation with a client around parents, the one thing I am always super adamant about is that I am not in the business of blaming. What I mean by this is that it’s okay (and healthy) to have conversations around how/why our parents may have unintentionally harmed us, but having these conversations doesn’t mean we’re vilifying or demonizing them. We can love our parents, and also hold space for the little boys and girls that still live within us, that may have been hurt by our parents whether the hurt was intentional or not.
Secondly, throughout this blog, I often refer to "Moms" being one of the most important models in developing a healthy or harmful relationship with our bodies and food. I want to make it clear that at The Nourished Co. we have let the idea of a gender binary burn, and offer an inclusive and non-judgemental space for everyone. In our line of work we see males and females every day with disordered eating, so we know that the stereotypical gender norms hold no merit in the world of ED's or mental illness (or, anywhere, for that matter). So, when referring to "Moms" throughout this blog we are not assigning that label to those only assigned female at birth, we recognize that gender and families are much more fluid than this.
SO, with that in mind, the topic that’s been coming up a lot for me lately, and that I wanted to write about today, might feel a little sensitive for some people - and that’s totally normal and okay. What I’ve noticed over and over again in my work with ED and body dysmorphic clients, is the common thread that the first place they saw this behaviour modelled was in Mom. So often the story is “for as long as I can remember, my Mom has been on a diet,” or “my Mom always spoke so negatively about her body, so even though she told me I was beautiful, it was hard to believe her because of how she talked about herself.” These are the first subtle stories that little girls hear, usually from the most important person in the world to them (Mom), that smaller is better.
So why is this so important? Well on a messaging/modelling level, it’s important because little ones are conditioned to mirror the behaviour of the important adults around them- it’s literally how we learn to be in the world. But on an even deeper level, kids are deeply hardwired to need to connect with their mothers. Why? Well in our evolutionary past, not connecting with Mom would on a very basic level equal survival threat. We are one of the only mammals that fully rely on our Moms to ensure basic survival, so what Mom says, we are programmed to internalize and agree with.
What essentially starts to happen, is that this idea of “smaller is better” starts to carry the significance of a survival threat fear. On a deep level, little girls are programmed to feel like this is a basic component of their bond with their Mom, and releasing this idea feels as scary as dying (literally). We see it perpetuate into adulthood too, where women continue to bond with their Moms around dieting or losing weight together as an actual relationship activity.
All of this is to say that if you’re struggling with ED, and sometimes overwhelmed by why it feels so deeply difficult to release this programming around food or your body image, this is just one (among many) deeper possibilities around why this is so, so hard for some of us. Our Moms are the most important people to most of us (at least in early life), and if this is how Mom subtly taught us to think about ourselves, no wonder we don’t want to let that go.
So, how do we take this information and use it to stop the diet cycle from keeping on generation after generation?
First of all, making the space to be self-compassionate with ourselves, no matter where we are at on our journey, is an important place to start. This goes for the children being affected by diet culture (it is not your fault), the adults who embodied the thin ideal as a child and have been carrying it since (it is not your fault), and the parents who just now are identifying they have been carrying and modelling the thin ideal (it is not your fault). If you are a human being on planet earth, you have been exposed to diet culture, and we need to remember that parents and Moms are also people.
It is rarely anybody's fault for initially embodying the "smaller is better" mindset, because, as outlined above, it has often been instilled in us from the generation above and the culture we are part of.
However, we also know that we get to make the choice to drop diet culture, so we can exist in a more meaningful way and model that instead, if we decide to or already have children. Therefore, if we continue to model the thin ideal with the knowledge that it is harmful and that we have the power to stop it, it is no longer an innocent generational mistake.
So, how do we stop passing on the "smaller is better" mindset and reduce the risk of our children taking on that burden?
Working with a professional on your own body image or food concerns is probably the best place to start because we know:
1. Parents who model body acceptance create children who embody this as their innate way of viewing themselves and others.
2. Parents who model food neutrality allow their children a fighting chance against a culture that is trying to hand them an eating disorder on a silver platter.
3. Parents who let the thin ideal burn for themselves can embody a more meaningful existence, and teach their children the importance of the same for them.
4. When the expectations instilled in us by diet culture are no longer on the front burner, we can replace them with something much bigger - i.e., teaching children their values, that their personality and differences are what make them special, that their worth is innate and how they show up for themselves and others is what allows us to obtain and maintain a meaningful life... etc.
There are also plenty of resources at your disposal on Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size, if you are interested in checking any of these out the "resource" section of the website (www.thenourishedco.com) is a great place to start!