“Ooh, she’s so petite!” My friend Kristen was eyeing my two-and-a-half-year-old from behind. “What size is she?”
Jillian towers over Kristen’s son – born five days before her in June of 2005. On the weeks when she’s eating like a human garbage compactor, she develops a belly that would put Buddha to shame. I wouldn’t call her petite.
But who am I to judge? I have an eating disorder.
I don’t throw up every day – not anymore. I consider myself a recovering bulimic, my habitual binging and purging quelled by feelings of fulfillment, by finding my happy place. Marriage to my husband brought an end to the daily ritual, limited my battles to a few times a year.
In pregnancy I got my comeuppance. I landed in the emergency room twice for IV fluids because of uncontrollable bouts of morning sickness. For seven months, I threw up daily even though I tried everything I could to keep food down. I was prescribed medicines reserved for cancer patients to stave off the nausea caused by chemotherapy, I crafted a diet of ice-cold milk to battle the heartburn and grease-laden grilled cheeses to soothe a sour stomach. It was like having a non-stop hangover.
I still gained forty pounds. When I read the reports about proper weight gain being twenty-something pounds, I wrung my hands.
I feel for moms who shame-facedly climb on the scale at the OB/GYN’s office – the women who have been eating ice cream for the past six weeks because it’s all they could keep down, the women who for the first time in their life feel like the world has accepted their size. I also feel for the moms who have never shopped outside the juniors’ section, who are humiliated that in pregnancy they’ve stretched to an adult size small.
They may not throw up. They may not starve themselves or exercise themselves into a frenzy. But life has taken its toll on their perceptions of food, their idea of the proper weight, the proper size.
Jillian’s birth brought on the longest stretch of my adult life spent away from throwing up. I lost my baby weight the healthy way – hoisting an infant, working part-time and pure luck. But my eating disorder has been like a devil perched on my shoulder for the past three years as I’ve struggled to make the right decisions for both myself and for Jillian.
I worry constantly: Should she have another cookie? Should I buy the organic peanut butter or the Skippy that’s on sale? Am I letting her get too fat? Am I making her too thin? When the Buddha belly pops over her jeans, I find myself filling her cups two-thirds full of water, one-third of juice rather than half and half. I exchange the jelly on her sandwich for dried banana chips. I give her multi-grain rice cakes instead of cookies. On Halloween and Easter, I cringe watching her shove chocolate kisses in her mouth.
The British have just introduced a TV show dubbed Too Fat to Toddle, essentially a fat-camp approach for overweight toddlers. It sounded off the wall. Then I read the comments on the blog of London’s Daily Mail: “It is a disgrace to have let your kids get in that state in the first place!” reads one post. “I wish parents would open their eyes and quit the ‘It’s just puppy fat’ attitude,” says another.
But because of my disorder, I don’t trust what I see when I open my eyes. When I looked at myself as a teenager I thought I was obese when I was a size eight. Is my child too fat or too thin? I have no idea. The pediatrician says she’s growing just fine, but I hold my breath through every well visit until he says those words.
A report published in April 1999 by the International Journal of Eating Disorders notes that mothers who have anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorders handle food issues and weight concerns differently than mothers who have never had eating disorders. But even “normal” moms, moms who groan in the mirror or keep a scale handy for the morning post-shower ritual, run a risk of passing bad habits onto their kids.
A study in published in 2003 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition warns that parents who restrict their children from eating certain foods are in essence pushing their kids to eat when they’re not hungry. “The more severe the restriction, the stronger the desire to eat prohibited foods.”
When a mother is dissatisfied with her body, daughters will learn to base their self-worth on their appearance, says Christine Gerbstadt, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. In fact, a study published by the Association showed that girls as young as five are likely to try dieting simply because Mom has.
Yes, five-year-old girls are dieting. And not just ones at British fat camp – girls who have seen the South Beach book on the shelf or the Jenny Craig commercials.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) lists as its top causes for various disorders feelings of inadequacy or lack of control. “People with eating disorders often use food and the control of food in an attempt to compensate for feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming,” reads one NEDA FAQ.
One day in March, when I was overwhelmed by the loss of my grandmother, Jillian caught me throwing up. I never meant her to see me like that. She burst into the bathroom without knocking and found me on the floor in front of “the potty.” She ran to wrap her arms around my neck. Her voice was full of concern as she repeated the words she’s heard so many times from me: “It’s okay. I’m sorry you don’t feel good,” and she patted my back with her little hands. I wanted the floor to swallow me whole. I didn’t deserve her.
A week later, I heard her leaning over the toilet bowl coughing, and I could tell the cough was fake. I could hear her giggling while she told my husband, “I’m sick, Daddy. Have to throw up, Daddy.”
I sank against the door in the next room. What have I done?
According to NEDA, “Eating disorders often run in families. Current research indicates that there are significant genetic contributions to eating disorders.” There’s a chance Jillian will one day have an eating disorder.
But I’m fighting.
There’s a higher risk for girls who have “cold” mothers, so I smother her with kisses. There’s a higher incidence in girls with fathers who are emotionally or physically absent, so she has lots of daddy-daughter time.
I know in my head I shouldn’t throw up for me, for the health of my teeth, my heart and the lining of my esophagus. But I know in my heart I can’t throw up – for her.