The Children are Watching: Parenting with Disordered Eating

*TRIGGER WARNING: Eating Disorders*

I was in the 8th grade at my very, VERY small private school in my ridiculously small town, when a classmate’s mother- a nurse- performed scoliosis checks for all nine (yes, NINE) of my classmates. At some point, she stepped out into the hall and announced, in front of a few of my classmates, that she needed to recheck the “chubby girl.” She was talking about me, and everyone instinctively knew it.

I didn’t learn that she’d said that until later that day, but I vividly and painfully remember the mortification I felt at the time. If I could have folded in on myself and simply disappeared, I would have.

In retrospect, I can recognize that an adult made inappropriate and hurtful comments about a CHILD’S body in front of that child’s peers. In retrospect, I can recognize that my body wasn’t chubby; it was simply well-developed earlier than normal. Retrospect might help me realize that, in the eighth grade, I had a flat stomach, large breasts, and womanly hips and thighs- an hourglass figure- but it doesn’t change the trauma of that experience. It doesn’t change that I was shamed for it among my thinner, not-yet-fully-developed, classmates.

So began my life-long struggle with disordered eating and body dysmorphia.

As a high school-aged child, while my parents were away taking care of my sister who was fighting cancer, I had the unfortunate freedom to whittle my body down to its very smallest- because I simply did not eat very much, if at all. I felt a sick sort of pride at finally fitting into those size 4 shorts, though I was still not seen as “small” because I wasn’t a size zero, and I was cursed with a DD chest. I was starving, and yet I felt that I wasn’t thin enough. It is a shame I am still trying to heal at nearly 40.

You can be happy and still not be healed.

I met my husband at the very end of my senior year of high school when I was at the height of my disordered eating. He thought my body was beautiful, even as I packed on what some may call “happy weight.” On me, it was simply healthy weight- a gain that came with actually consuming any food at all. He loved, and still loves, me in any shape I am. I have never understood how he felt that way.

I just wish I loved myself any shape I am.

I was the heaviest I’d ever been when our first child was conceived. My disordered eating did not mean I just restricted food intake. It meant that, at times, I did not regulate my eating AT ALL. I made poor food choices and binge ate more often than not in those years. I didn’t, and still don’t, know how to have a healthy relationship with food. And then I gained 50 pounds while pregnant, and while a great deal of it was water weight, I only saw how big I was. I ended up on bed rest for the last two months of my first pregnancy because of uncontrolled high blood pressure and swelling.

Then, pictures of me from my son’s first birthday party sent me spiraling right back into old habits, this time under the guise of a very popular “diet” program- one I took to extremes. I lost 70 pounds and then conceived my daughter.

Again, I gained 50 pounds while pregnant, but this time the weight didn’t come off so easily after delivery.

And I didn’t know how to NOT hate my body.

Three years later, I was back on that same popular “diet,” but I’d learned that in order to lose any weight, I needed to restrict my eating even further. I practically ate only “zero point” foods SPARINGLY. While I was often full, I was never fulfilled, nor was I anything approaching healthy. I was working out twice a day, if not more. I once again lost 70-plus pounds.

Reactions were mixed. Peers applauded my “health.” People told me I was weight loss #goals. Some of my students asked me if I was okay because I’d lost so much weight so quickly, and they were worried. Some knew I was on a “weight loss journey” and told me I was thin enough. Let me say that again: CHILDREN were telling me to stop because they were worried.

But when I looked in the mirror, I never saw thin, much less worrisomely thin. I’ve only ever seen the need for thinner.

The minute I stopped, most of the weight came back, too. As it turned out, I couldn’t be acceptably thin and “healthy” if I wasn’t starving myself or excessively exercising. As God as my witness, I will never eat another f*cking lettuce wrap or pre-portioned raw vegetable ever again.

Now my own children are old enough to be watching.

Fostering body positivity and true healthy eating habits in my children is a labor of love for this mama who still does not know how to love her own body.

I very carefully and cautiously provide healthy food choices to my son who is in those awkward years where a boy’s body is starting to change in preparation for puberty. Much like his mother AND father, his body has become fuller- and not without notice on his part, though we do not EVER comment on his weight or body. He may not choose to eat what we suggest, and I am learning to be okay with that. My husband and I encourage him to be active- not for weight loss, but for overall health and well-being. I never want him to feel like his body is the enemy. I never want to be a source of shame; my demons do not need to be his.

My daughter-all long legs and lithe frame- has already started making comments about her nonexistent “belly” at the ripe old age of NINE. While I have not ever criticized her body (nor will I ever), she has been witness to me criticizing my own. Maybe I am to blame. Perhaps popular culture is. Either way, I realize that I have to do better; I have to BE better, and so does society. She doesn’t deserve to carry my demons either. Thankfully, some otherworldly blessing has gifted her maturity and wisdom far beyond her years: she chastises me often for not being body positive. She often, and passionately, reminds me that I am beautiful and perfect and just right EXACTLY as I am.

Bless our progeny, am I right?

I wish I could say that I am healed and whole. I wish that I could say that I accept and love the body I am in, no matter what. I wish that I could say that I won’t ever abuse my body to conform to so-called health and beauty standards. But I would not be living authentically if I did so.

Right now, at this very moment, I am still fighting those demons from 25 years ago, the ones that first appeared in the back office of that small-town parochial school.

Right now, I am struggling with my too-generous-to-be-socially-acceptable body. I am struggling because I have been, for a year or more, overly conscientious of my food and exercise choices without being unrealistically restrictive or ridiculously and ambitiously “active.” I am struggling because, having done those “right” things, I am still very overweight according to both social and medical standards.

Though I truly hope to one day love my body as it is, I know that my struggle is not over. I know that there is still so much work to be done. For me. And for my children.

I cannot leave them a legacy of self-loathing. I owe them so much more.

It is my responsibility as the steward of their health and well-being to be a steward to my own. It is time to practice what I preach- and to see myself as they see me.

It is my responsibility to help them understand and appreciate that bodies are beautiful miracles in every shape and size. I can’t do that if they are witnesses to me criticizing my own body.

It is my responsibility to teach them that food is not tied to morality- there are no inherently “good” or “bad” foods or food choices. I’ve got to start believing that if I want them to believe that.

Because the children are watching.



Julie Lee
Julie is a mama, wife, teacher, writer, photographer, designer, and basket case—jack of all trades, master of none. She lives in Ascension Parish with her husband, her two hooligans, and her quarankitties, Stella and Luna. She’s an English teacher by day, and a lover of words by destiny. Her favorite word is schadenfreude. When she’s pretending she isn’t too busy to breathe, you can find her curled up in her hammock with a book.


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