By Avis Rumney
Summer is the season of bathing suits, sundresses and shorts. It is the time for pool parties and barbecues. For many of us, these thoughts conjure up happy memories, relaxed times and occasions to look forward to. However, for anyone with an eating disorder (and unfortunately, for many others, because society indoctrinates us to criticize our shape and size), summer – with its norm of more revealing clothing and events that call for dressing accordingly – evokes dread, discomfort and despair. It is sad when people measure their worth by their weight, and this is exactly what anyone with an eating disorder does.
If you are the mother of an eating disordered daughter, doubtless you have watched your daughter dress in all manner of camouflaging clothing, whatever the weather or the season. People with eating disorders feel shame about their bodies – regardless of their actual body size – and do their best to disguise their real shape. In addition, those suffering from anorexia have little body protection from the cold and get chilled easily. It is not unusual to see a young woman with an eating disorder wearing a blouse, sweatshirt and a jacket at times most others are clad in short sleeved or sleeveless attire.
Uncomfortable though it may be to witness your daughter dressing in this manner, know that it is not something you can or should try to change. Nor is it something she can change at this time. Body image distortion is central to any eating disorder. Even though many body image issues are rooted in self-image problems – that is, the person directs her self-hatred toward her body and then focuses on trying to fix her body – no amount of persuasion that her body is not ugly or disgusting will cause your daughter to change her mind. It is only through therapy and the process of healing her relationship with herself that she can, in time, come to terms with her body.
It is likely that you feel sad and perhaps even frustrated and discouraged. This is where help comes in the form of patience and the serenity prayer [excerpted from the original written by Reinhold Niebuhr over 60 years ago, which has been modified for use by 12 Step Programs]: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Your daughter’s attitude about her body and how she wants to cover it is something you cannot change. Only she can change it, and only in her own time. Better to put your energy elsewhere, such as into having enjoyable, non-food, non-clothing, non-appearance-focused outings with her. And, as always, let her know you love her for who she is. Connect with her around the things you can relate to that interest her. Build a bond between you, if you both are open to that, founded on an appreciation of who she is now, not on how you remember her or wish she could or would be. If she is in recovery, she is on the road – albeit often a very long one – toward accepting herself, and it is for this that she needs your support and acknowledgment.
When your daughter develops an eating disorder, it can be painful and frightening. Of course your immediate impulse is to “fix” her, and your first reaction may be to blame yourself for her situation. Hopefully the tips included here will guide you to take actions that are helpful for both you and her, and to adopt a perspective that is compassionate towards both of you. The anxiety and challenges that this situation evokes are unavoidable, but your response to these can make a difference in how you feel and how you contribute to your daughter’s recovery.
Whether your daughter has just recently developed an eating disorder, or has been struggling for a while, know that you do not have to face this situation alone. There is hope for recovery and help is available – for your daughter, for you, and for your family.
For more useful, everyday suggestions, read my booklet Tips for Mothers of Daughters with Eating Disorders: How to Take Care of Yourself While Supporting Your Daughter’s Recovery (see my Books page). If you would like additional resources or assistance, please feel free to call me at (415) 602-1403. Ask me about telephone-based coaching for mothers with eating disordered daughters.