Have you ever wondered are eating disorders genetic? I have since the day I gave birth to my first daughter because the last thing I wanted to pass down to my girls were eating disorders. Many of you know that I have been in recovery from bulimia and anorexia for nearly 20 years, with very few slip-ups. But eating disorders don’t just magically leave, they plague you for life. It’s impossible to unlearn those behaviors and almost as hard not to act upon your instinct. I know that’s not what anyone wants to hear but it is my truth.
Today, it finally happened. The day I’ve been dreading since she was born. The day she compared herself to me. The day I had to really consider …
Unfortunately, my research says, yes, eating disorders are, in fact, genetic just like Bipolar disorder, depression and so many other mental illnesses. We like to think we can protect our children from illnesses but what do we do when we are the very people who gave them the genes to develop the disorder? It’s through no fault of our own. We can do everything right and still not be able to protect them from these kinds of things. I’ve tried my best to do everything right and I am super aware of the behaviors because of my own experience but what if none of that can stop any of it?
For me, there is no competition. She is better than me in every single way. She is a tall, leggy blonde with blue eyes that smile, a sweet voice and the perfect peaches and cream complexion. She is everything I hoped to be as a young girl. She is smart, graceful and strong. She is independent, cultured and not afraid to stand up for herself and for what’s right. She is my idea of perfection.
In many ways, we are alike. That strong, independent bossy streak that runs deep in her, is all me. Her smile, me too. The intelligence, well she got that from both of us and the culture is something I have been instilling from birth. However, the tall, graceful leggy blonde is not me at all.
I have always been average to tall, 5’7”, dark hair, hazel ish-brown eyes and small boned. My parents are not big people. My mom is 5’3” and my dad is probably around 5’10”. So, I was always the youngest and often one of the smaller kids in the class.
Today, as I was cleaning out my attic to prepare for the yearly garage sale, I was pretty excited because I have a bunch of “vintage” clothing that my newly 12-year-old can rock. These are pieces I loved but just will never look right on me again. I’m not 21 anymore and I’ve birthed 2 children; half tops and low-rise flared jeans are just not appropriate for me in my current situation. Read; an adult with some junk in the trunk and a tiny spare tire.
Anyways, as we sifted through the tubs, I got very excited because I was excited to pass these pieces on. Then it hit me, she is bigger than me now then I was at 21 ( because I was 3 years deep into my eating disorders; I was anorexic.) I knew this might happen, I’d planned to adjust for it but I forgot.
You see, a few months back, I told my oldest about my eating disorders as a preemptive strike. Now, I really struggled with whether or not I should tell the girls because I don’t want them to think less of me, think its ok or, worse still, be responsible for planting that seed in their brain. But I told her because she is starting to outgrow me in height.
Her feet are passing me by and I noticed that when I tried to give her a pair of my shoes, she compared her feet to mine. Firstly, we have different builds. Secondly, she is a ballet dancer who dances in pointe; wide feet are a by-product. But none of that matters because she was comparing herself to me and I was the bar by which she was measuring herself. She judged her difference as a deficit. I assured her that different does not mean less than, it only means not the same.
Today, as we sifted again through the bins, she began trying things on. Things she knew I wore to my bridal shower and on our honeymoon and I could see her judging herself. It broke my heart. I had to jump in and explain that we have different builds and that I was not healthy when I was that size, the size that is smaller than a 12-year-old child. In all honesty, my 9-year-old happily accepted and fits into one of my favorite outfits from when I was 25. I was sick. I could have died and none of that is ok.
I’ve tried to explain that I had already gone through puberty and my shape was different than hers is now. I also explained how I had no boobs and hairy legs when I was her age; to give her some perspective. Still, I saw the defeat in her eyes when she tried on one of my favorite skirts from the 90’s and she couldn’t fasten it.
I know that feeling because even though I was not a huge tween, I was huge compared to my mom. I outgrew her clothes around the same time. This was also the same time; I began my lifelong battle with body dysmorphic disorder so all of this is scaring the shit out of me. Like, I am literally lying awake at night wondering how this is all going to play out and praying that eating disorders are not genetic because they never go away. You are never cured. You are just in a constant state of recovery for the rest of your life. I don’t want that for my girls.
To this day, I follow girls in recovery on Instagram. I’m invested in their recovery from eating disorders. Part of it is because I miss being in control like that and part of it is to cheer them on in their recovery. I want them to get better; to survive and have a life and a family and be able to eat food without mental anguish; cruelty-free without torture. But then I get this thought in my head, what if I’m cheering them on and they see me, overweight now, and relapse?
The same way I am terrified that my clothes are going to push my daughter in that direction. She is almost as tall as me and she is going to be much taller. She is also built more athletically than me. Her father is bigger than my father. She is buying S/M in clothes and I am L/XL and I am afraid she is going to see the gap narrowing too much and see herself as bigger than she is. So, I have to get healthier so I don’t negatively affect the way she sees herself.
Believe me, I know this might sound crazy to many of you, especially if you’ve never had eating disorders but if you have, you know what I am talking about. And if it came down to it, if one of us has to be sick or feel bad or unhappy, please God, let it be me.
I may not be able to change her genetic makeup and predispositions but I can certainly be aware and be present and try my hardest to not let genetics outrank my nurturing. Maybe the answer to the question, “are eating disorders genetic?” might be yes but the outcome doesn’t have to be the same as it was for me.