I had a happy childhood, so why do I have an eating disorder?

Research has long shown that childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, triangulation, parentification, and codependency contribute to the development of an eating disorder. But what about those people who had a happy childhood and still develop an eating disorder? About half of our adolescent and adult clients suffering from anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating disorders report having loving parents and a safe home environment. Clients often feel guilty about having an eating disorder when they encounter others who have a history of serious trauma. These clients sometimes feel as though they don’t “deserve” to have their eating disorder.

There are two camps of eating disorder etiology. One half of those with eating disorders have discernable trauma. They can point to experiences that led them to escape into their disorder, such as alcoholic parents, poverty, neglect, and abuse of all kinds. The other half develop disordered eating for good reasons but don’t know what those reasons are! Those clients have a more difficult time taking their symptoms seriously and often feel guilty for having a problem.

Here is why

To put it bluntly, our culture has gone mad. We are hardwired from years of evolution to follow the natural signals of our well-designed physical bodies – to eat and move in response to those signals. Before the onslaught of society, human beings cared about what our bodies were physically able to do not how they looked. Consider the fact that for hundreds of thousands of years we never looked in a mirror, stood on a scale, or took a photograph or body fat measurement. We had no reflected images of ourselves and lived instead from our experience – our sensory body that feels the world around us.  We were not designed to focus on the external perception of ourselves based on a reflection, picture, or number on the scale.  We didn’t have food labels or nutrition facts, which are yet another form of externalization that distracts us from our internal sense of hunger and satiety.

 In modern society, we are overwhelmed with ways to measure and quantify. We exercise on equipment in a gym staring at a computer screen as the seconds tick away and the calories burned accumulate rather than feeling the wind, the ground, and the water as we move through space. The constant bombardment of ever new dieting myths and the endless images of what we should look and be like, including photo-shopped images of body parts that simply don’t exist for 98% of people, program us to believe that there is a “right” path and a “healthy” way to exist in this world. We then construct our behaviors around these faulty belief systems in an attempt to fit into this limiting cultural mold.

OK, but everyone lives in this culture…why am I affected?

Families who are uninterested in weight, body fat, nutrition labels, gym workouts, and diets can buffer this cultural pressure. However, if either parent or caregiver is strongly focused on “health” habits, dieting, or talks about their own or other people’s weight, calories or cholesterol, grams of fat, or about “good” and “bad” food on a regular basis, something interesting happens. 

Even though the parent means well, they unknowingly concentrate the surrounding culture’s pre-occupation with physicality, infusing their children with a neurotic, externalized focus on so-called “healthy habits.” When the parent sanctions the demands of the surrounding culture, the child or teenager absorbs those demands on a deeper level. This “concentrated insanity” overexposes the young person in the area they most need special mentoring. Children want to please their parents, and teenagers are highly conscious of image. Both groups therefore absorb the parents’ attitudes as truths and incorporate them into their core belief structures, sometimes taking those beliefs to an extreme level.

Examples of parental attitudes that can lead to disordered eating

  • If a parent diets, talks about dieting, talks about other people’s weight, or complains about their weight or their partner’s weight.

  • If parents, even once, comment on the child’s or teenager’s weight —especially fathers to daughters. Parents often do so ‘out of concern’ for their child, but comments absolutely never have a positive or constructive outcome.  They tend to increase the self critic in the child, and it is self criticism that drives disordered overeating and underrating!

  • If either parent is intently focused on exercise in a way that relates to body image or excessively talks about workouts, body fat, and fitness. Trying to get the child/teenager to exercise to lose weight has an even more detrimental effect.

  • If one parent tends to be critical of the other parent or another family member’s weight or overeating.


How to combat peer influence

Peers also play a huge role in the development of eating disorders. Studies show that when peers subscribe to the cultural ideal, girls in middle school become increasingly vulnerable to developing an eating disorder. However, we can fight society’s negative impact by becoming activists for the internal Self and vocally praising positive aspects of  the child/teen/young adult, such as their sense of humor, willingness to do chores, eclectic style, and even their love of loud music! Praising your child for the things they do well or are passionate about is one way we can actively fight eating disorders.

Children run a risk of developing an eating disorder just by living in our externalized world. We are not fated to follow the cultural pull to fitness, image, or “health” for the rest of our lives.  In fact, growing up means growing away from cultural and familial programming and deciding what is true for you, what creates meaning, what makes life truly rich. Most of us have to de-program ourselves and start fresh, learning step by step how we want to live.

What we teach in eating disorder recovery is how to transform our lives from the inside out. Little by little, we learn to connect to our intuition instead of reading an article on how to eat. Instead of following the ‘rules’ on clothes sizes, workouts, “good” and “bad” foods, we decide in what unique way we want to inhabit our bodies and live an authentic life. So no matter what kind of childhood or youth people had, eating disorders, body image obsession & exercise disorders exist for a reason – they call us home to ourselves if we have the courage to break out of the falsely constructed cultural mold.

For more information on this topic or our program and philosophies, contact Ai Pono Hawaii today.

Written by Francie White, MS, RD, Co-Founder of Central Coast Treatment Center; edited by Ai Pono Hawaii Staff Contributor