I am sitting here eating a piece of cake my mom made for my birthday. I am enjoying it. Zero guilt. Why is eating cake a matter of discussion? Because eating -- for me -- used to be a matter of life or death. For much of my life, I was afraid to eat cake and everything else. I struggled with anorexia and bulimia.
For those of you wondering -- and I have heard it many times before -- my eating disorder was not caused by my mother. My mom was not overly controlling or absent from the home. She was not abusive in any way -- no, not even a little. My mom did not put pressure on me to be a perfect student -- I did that to myself. My mother is loving, nurturing and supportive. She is the kind of mom who encouraged me to believe in myself and chase after my dreams; the kind of mom who supported my decision to pursue music in Nashville. She is a mom who will drop everything to celebrate her child's birthday.
However, my mom and I are different in many ways, and she encouraged that too. Like most mothers, she wanted her daughter to find her own voice even if that voice opposed her personal view. As a result, I am not much of a birthday cake maker, and she would never write a blog to make a point -- this point: Historically, mothers have been falsely blamed for eating disorders. This must stop.
Remember when we thought that autism and schizophrenia were caused by moms? We were wrong to blame mothers then, and we are wrong to blame them now. My mom did not cause my eating disorder, but she did a whole lot to help me get better.
Eating disorders are complex, biopsychosocial illnesses. Leading researchers agree that "Genetics loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger." Researchers don't believe that there is a specific eating disorder gene. People inherit a latent vulnerability in the form of traits like anxiety, compulsivity, and perfectionism that can lead to the development of an eating disorder. I definitely have all of those traits, and I believe the environment that pulled the trigger for me was a Western culture that glamorizes thinness. To answer another common question: No, my mom never dieted, never owned a scale and never talked about her weight. She has always been a normal weight and had a healthy body image.
Of course, there are other aspects to the "environment" that doctors reference -- life experiences, peer relationships and yes, even familial components. But this does not mean that families (moms included) cause eating disorders. In my work as a speaker and writer about recovery, I have met individuals with the illness who came from dysfunctional families and suffered unspeakable abuse. But the majority of people -- and I have connected with thousands across the globe -- have loving families who did their absolute best with the information they had at the time.
To fully recover from my eating disorder I found professional help. My mom and dad supported me emotionally and financially. I changed my way of thinking in almost every aspect of my life. I learned to love my body in a culture that doesn't. I learned the value of rest and relaxation in a workaholic's world. I learned that food is just food and does not have a moral value like "good" or "bad." And, my mom's cake tastes very good.
On this Mother's Day, let's all do less blaming and more thanking. To the moms out there, thank you.
To watch a video inspired by this piece and created by the National Eating Disorders Association, click here.
Jenni Schaefer is a singer/songwriter, speaker, and author of "Life Without Ed" (McGraw-Hill) and "Goodbye Ed, Hello Me" (McGraw-Hill, September 2009). She has been appointed to the Ambassador Council of the National Eating Disorders Association (www.MyNeda.org). Information and Referral Helpline: 1-800-931-2237.
Jenni is the daughter of Joe and Susan Schaefer, who reside in Doss, Texas.
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