Many parents experience guilt when their teen is diagnosed with an eating disorder. Nearly every parent can point to a time they themselves dieted, opted not to have a dessert they really wanted, expressed a preference toward thinness, or discouraged their child from keeping eating. You may have done things to try to keep your teen’s weight down and you likely did it with love and good intention—to protect your child from weight stigma and perceived subsequent health and social consequences.
It is common to wonder whether such actions contributed to the development of your teen’s eating disorder. Guilt is common for parents to experience when their child has any illness. In the case of eating disorders, many of the behaviors that are part of the disorder are reinforced by our culture’s preference for thinness and so blame is even more compelling.
What is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that values thinness and promotes it as a way to increase one’s worth. It creates rules about what type of eating is “healthy” and oppresses people who don’t meet the thin ideal.
Diet culture messages are everywhere, so it’s not your fault that you’ve absorbed them and subscribed to these beliefs without ever thinking twice about them. Diet culture is the soup in which we all swim. It’s the dominant paradigm. You likely have heard fear-mongering messages from other health professionals. You see it in the news.
Why is this system of beliefs so dominant? It’s promoted by a $70 billion diet industry. It’s entrenched in our fatphobic healthcare system. It’s reinforced by the media.
Parents often become the unwitting messengers of the dominant cultural message they hear from other health professionals. But this is an important turning point. Now that you are helping your teen with an eating disorder, it’s time to question what you think you know about health and weight and eating. You were not born hating your body. You developed these beliefs and you can unlearn them. It is never too late to start unlearning and unsubscribing to diet culture. We want you to join us in helping to break down the institutions that reinforce fatphobia and contribute to the development and maintenance of eating disorders and make your teen’s recovery harder. Your teen needs you fighting for their liberation.
We believe that parents are important allies for their teens with eating disorders. Even if you have disparaged your own body, dieted, cheered when your teen started eating healthier, or encouraged them to exercise in the early development of their eating disorder, we want you to know that you are not to blame for your teen’s eating disorder. Please show yourself compassion. Your teen needs you.
This also applies if your teen has Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), an eating disorder not typically driven by weight and shape concerns. Diet culture equally impacts people with ARFID.
How to Do This
- Learn about how health is much broader than weight. Read the resources on our website about Health at Every Size ® to expose yourself to messages that challenge the weight-normative paradigm.
- Stop talking critically about any body, including your own body and especially fat bodies. Model body appreciation and respect for all bodies and for body diversity.
- Accept that your teen likely needs to gain weight and examine your fears about what that means for them and for you. Read our article on recovery weights.
- Encourage your teen to see fat not as something to be feared. We don’t want to reinforce what the eating disorder is afraid of. We need to make it safe for people to be fat.
- Curate your social media feed. The mainstream media images we see are not diverse, and the images we do see of larger bodies are often portrayed in a particularly negative and stigmatizing way, adding fuel to the fire. One way to build your own acceptance of body diversity is to acclimate to seeing a broader range of bodies portrayed in a desirable way.
- Refrain from categorizing foods as healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. Model eating a variety of foods including foods you may have previously demonized, including desserts. Model eating with enjoyment and the social connection that comes from sharing meals.
- If you previously promoted leaner, restrictive or “healthy” eating and are worried about creating confusion or appearing hypocritical with a new message around more flexible eating and more calorically dense foods, you can unapologetically explain to your teen that, in light of their eating disorder and what you are now learning, that you are also working towards a broader understanding of health and nutrition and becoming a more flexible eater. Some of the more powerful situations I’ve encountered include when a parent shares their own process in rethinking their relationship with food and their body while simultaneously doing their own work alongside their teen in recovery.
- Teach your teen to think more critically about health and media messages they observe.
- Take the Weight Implicit Association Test. Be gentle with yourself and remember we all have weight bias.
It’s never too late to change your thinking about weight and food. Many parents of teens who’ve had eating disorders have become great advocates for size diversity. Please join us in the anti-diet movement.