Mothers, Daughters and Eating Disorders

03/02/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

I am concerned when I hear the media or the counseling psychology community blame mothers for causing daughters to suffer from an eating disorder. Yes, it is true that a mother can pass on to her daughter her own disordered eating behaviors and negative body image. But if that is all we focus on, the underlying causes of a daughter's eating disorder and how food and body image issues get passed on and processed between mothers and daughters will not be discovered.

Mother blaming is patriarchy's age-old way of taking the focus away from the harm that it causes women by making women responsible for harming themselves. Blaming mothers is a form of prejudice, as Paula Caplan writes in her book "The New Don't Blame Mother." It is highly detrimental to the mother-daughter relationship and to women's emotional and mental wellbeing.

I work with mothers whose daughters have been diagnosed with eating disorders, and these mothers tell me that mother blaming makes them feel isolated. The culture of mother blaming increases the guilt they feel about any harm they may have inadvertently passed on to their daughter. And it leaves them with few avenues in which to find emotional support. Mothers find that when they share their personal reactions to their daughters' problems, they are often treated as being selfish and self-obsessed. When a daughter has an eating disorder, the family tends to narrow its focus down to what is happening with the daughter, which again leaves the mother emotionally isolated and unsupported, as she takes on the responsibility of managing her daughter's illness, along with everything else she does.

This narrow, mother blaming lens does not uncover the root causes of a daughter's eating disorder. What is needed is a much wider multi-generational and socio-cultural lens that examines how the daughter, mother, and grandmother are treated by their family and community. We need to focus on the emotional landscape in which women live, namely, how women are heard, understood, and emotionally supported within the family and community.

In families where a daughter is struggling with an eating disorder, women are typically not heard, understood, or emotionally supported. The family tends to fit into traditional gender roles where the mother does most, if not all, of the care giving, with little inquiry or understanding about what kind of care she needs in return. In the mother-daughter history maps I draw, the arrows that reflect who does the caregiving, extend from the mother and grandmother to their husbands, children, and other family members, with few arrows pointing back to them. This is what emotional neglect looks like. It sets mothers up to be responsible for everyone's needs, with little understanding that they too have needs of their own.

Eating disorders are a multifaceted problem. The fashion industry, for example, has a responsibility for the way they glorify thinness as beauty and power that girls feel pressurized to emulate. But I get concerned when the emotional neglect piece of the eating disorder puzzle gets ignored or sidelined as a contributing factor to the epidemic of female eating disorders. Daughters today are starving themselves, over eating, and bulimic as a reaction to the lack of emotional feeding that they, their mother, and their grandmother receive in the family. Their eating disorders are a reaction to the lack of inquiry women receive to what they emotionally need. Even though young women today are achieving levels of public visibility their mother and grandmother could not, women's emotional empowerment is lagging behind. The conversation that inquires after what women need emotionally is not being asked to the degree women need for their emotional and mental wellbeing, their equality, and their visibility in their relationships.

If we are to solve the problem of why so many of our successful, capable, young women are struggling to feed themselves, we must look at women's history of emotional starvation. The self-less caregiving role has always been disastrous for women. It makes women starving hungry for attention, or unable to digest the attention they do get, and some daughters express this conflict through the way they relate to food.


If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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