March 23, 2012

Mothering Eating Disorders.

Photo: Jude Freeman

Being a Mother and Woman in a Gaze-Focused World.

I gained about 35 pounds by the end. But, I hated it. I felt angry at myself for losing control and giving in to the hunger I felt. I wondered if there was some way to not gain more than 10 pounds while pregnant. By my calculations, if I could do that, I would actually end up with a net loss after the baby was born.

A few years ago, another author and I published an article in the journal Women’s Studies in Communication. The piece was an auto-ethnographic analysis of the connection between motherhood and eating disorders.

But, it might not have been the connection you think.

Many studies have been done considering the causal factors of adolescent eating disorder. Fewer have been done about adult women, but those have increased somewhat in the past decade.

Studies that have addressed causality have generally focused on parental and societal contributions to development of eating disorder. So, we have work that explains how the mother-child (and father-child) may encourage or discourage the likelihood of developing eating disorder.

Popular press pieces considering anorexia, bulimia, and associated disorders similarly focus on how socializing factors (parents, images of women/men in the media, peers) contribute to the development of eating disorder. Here too, however, few authors consider the connections between mothering and eating disordered behavior for the mother.

When mothers with eating disorders are discussed in scholarly or popular press, the general slant of the work tends to be the idea that mothers who have eating disorders are harmful to their children.

Concerns include:
>they may underfeed;
>they may create family disharmony;
>they may be poor mothers due to their own issues;
>they may encourage disordered behavior in their children; or
>they may pass on bad genetic code.

Still, then, we aren’t really seeing discussion of how mothering, as a role performed, may affect the eating disordered behavior of the mother.

That’s where this research came in.

There are a couple of underlying principles of this work:  First is the idea that women are taught to be very body aware and to be in strict control of the performance (including size) of the body. Second is that, in most cultures, mothers are also taught that their role should include little to no focus on the self, and total dedication to the needs of the child.

With those concepts as a framework, we examined the life narratives of the two authors (for more about auto-ethnography and it’s utility as a scholarly research tool, I would refer you to the original source), and addressed a number of arenas of the mothering role where eating disorders may be exacerbated.

Photo: David Lofink

First, pregnancy requires women to give up a significant measure of control over the physical body.

Physical changes occur in pregnancy that cannot be controlled. Weight will be gained for the vast majority of women, and the body will change shape. However, there isn’t just freedom to change, socially. Women are prescribed tightly controlled ranges of acceptable pregnancy weight gain. This means that, to “do it right” as women and mothers requires much attention to food and to weight. This can be a triggering situation for mothers with a history of eating disorder.

After pregnancy, the mother role includes significant devotion to communicating about food, managing the food intake of others, and nurturing through food.

Mothers are expected to teach their children what to eat and what not to eat, to give them information regarding appropriate nutrition, to help them avoid the pitfalls of eating disorders, to select and prepare healthy meals, and to show their affection through food treats. For a mother who already struggles with excessive worry about or attention to food, this can be a rather horrifying situation.

Photo: Gideon

In addition to taking active control over the food of others, mothers are expected to model good eating behavior.

Mothers who already have eating disorders are often vividly aware that their own behavior is not “normal.” They may struggle to hide eating-disordered behavior from their children and feel extreme guilt over any inability to do so. Because guilt and shame are correlated with eating disorders, this may actually create a self-perpetuating cycle.

The advice that is often given to mothers with eating disorders may also create more harm than help.

Women are primarily told to just stop it. This is mostly because of danger to the children, rather than impacts on the quality of the woman’s life. Articles contain horrifying stories of the negative outcomes suffered by children of mothers with eating disorders and exhort the mother to get her eating under control. Of course, the irony there (or one of them) is that control is at the root of the problem.

Knowing that there can be negative impacts of maternal eating disorders for children is not enough to simply make mothers “stop” the behaviors. The development of eating disorder is a complex process that occurs over time and that is impacted by widespread and deeply held societal beliefs. Additionally, the role of mother may exacerbate the issue, rather than relieving it. Thus, it is foolish for us to believe that leaving such beliefs and behaviors behind will be an easy process for mothers.

As long as we are living in cultures that teach women about the primacy of the female body as an object of gaze, and the importance of self-control of the physical form, we cannot lay the burden of fixing the problem at the feet of those who have learned that lesson so very well.

Arnold, L. B., & Doran, E. (2007).  Stop before you hurt the kids: Communicating self-control and self-negation in femininity, mothering, and eating disorders. Women’s Studies in Communication, 30 (1), 310-319.

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