The Personal is Historical
Parenting and Disordered Eating: How I am Trying to Break the Pattern

Parenting and Disordered Eating: How I am Trying to Break the Pattern

My blood pressure is amazing. My fridge and pantry are full of whole fruits and vegetables, whole wheats, and a very small amount of processed food. My family regularly hikes, camps, and actively adventures (whenever grad school isn’t consuming me). We are a healthy family. My body shows the after effects of childbirth — my stomach has some loose skin that sags and is rippled with stretch marks. Years of breastfeeding have changed the landscape of my breasts. All of these things, including my strong legs and back that carried my child, create a body I am proud of and happy to have. As I dig into rich, dark earth with my daughter so that we can sow beet seeds, I do not doubt that I am modeling and creating a healthy life for my child.

I began reading and researching immense amounts of information about healthy parenting when I was pregnant. I thought about what I would teach her, the music we would listen to, the sunscreen I would apply to her, the food she would eat, etc. I aimed to establish the healthiest eating habits with her, right away. She was breastfed exclusively and extendedly; food was introduced in whole form and not mush; and she always fed herself or decided when she was to eat. She knew where food came from, due to early involvement with a community garden’s children’s program and our own plot in which we cultivated a range of organic produce. She is the kid that sneaks raw kale from the cutting board, and truly wants to munch it like a dinosaur. A treat to her is whole wheat pancakes or dried dates. There is no processed food intake, no juice, no crap. Her taste buds sense the deliciousness of miso soup, greens, homemade whole wheat  bread. That was my goal with her: to show her the deliciousness of real, whole foods, and the ability to eat when she is hungry.

When I was in my parents’ home, this freedom was never allowed. My hunger was seen as an imaginary thing that the fat child made up in order to further pad the stomach that so disgusted them. A photo on the fridge showed my stepmom as a 20-year-old, before what two children and all that life brings does to a woman’s body. Even as a young teen, I thought her attempts to mold her 35-year-old self into that impossibly younger body were ridiculous. Yet it became the overriding principle in our household. The goal of impossible bodies, and the shame and verbal abuse of the normal bodies embedded within it, broke me. Dieting seemed to always be part of my stepmom’s life. This is not surprising, as the history of women’s eating has been rife with social pressure to look a certain way, and ‘experts’ telling them what to eat or not to eat in order to fit that mold. Her yo-yo dieting guided our meals, which were full of ‘low fat’ processed products that (in my opinion) poisoned us. High sugar, high salt, white flour, food colorings, and preservatives filled the food we ate.*

Édouard Manet, "The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil."

Every dinner was eaten as a family, which, according to Paula Ford-Martin (2005), was supposed to lead to eating more vegetables, fruits, and dairy products. But this doesn’t have a positive effect if the parents are uneducated about what truly healthy food is and shame their children into eating highly processed ‘healthy’ food. Even with yard space and a big deck, no food was grown by my family. Meat, pumped full of hormones and byproducts, was served every day. Diet Coke was always in the fridge, my stepmom’s ‘healthy’ addiction. It was very standard Midwest eating. The kitchen would be ‘closed’ until dinner time, creating a strange space of fear and lack of power over my sustenance. I would hide food in my room, a way to get power back, and when they found an empty food container, it became reason for a month-long grounding. These extreme rules created an obsession with food. In an effort to gain control, I would binge-eat junk food if it was found outside of the home.

Everything was so extreme and so negative that it became self-destroying. They viewed my body as a visible failure of their parenting, and then took it out on me with disordered eating as the end result. In “Mommy Made Me Do It: Mothering Fat Children in the Midst of the Obesity Epidemic,” April Michelle Herndon states that a “Duke University psychologist studying school age children in North Carolina found that extra weight (in girls in particular) was highly associated with the degree to which parents tried to restrain their children’s eating.” (Herndon 2010: 343) Restraining the foods made the child want them even more. This is exactly what occurred during my childhood. In an article for Pediatrics, Kirsten Krahnstoever Davison and Leanne Lipps Birch looked at young girls and their parents to assess the girls’ self-image and what, if any, correlation there was to parents’ concern about their child’s weight and restriction of access to food. They found that parental concern and restriction were associated with their daughters’ negative self-evaluations. (Davison and Birch 2000: 225)

children-210658_640Exercise was seen as punishment; I would be locked out of the house so I would bike for an hour. My involvement with a floor hockey league ended with my father telling me I “ran strangely.” The shame this comment produced pervaded any physical activity I attempted. It still stays with me. Self-confidence was never nurtured. Honestly, I hated myself and my body until I left their home. It pains me to look back and realize how normal I was, and how I wish that I could have embraced that and lived a better life. Nowadays, any time spent outside is a gift that my own family gets very excited about. A mountain hike becomes a learning process about ecosystems and the weather, as we spot animals and sing songs. We celebrate how strong our bodies are and how fun it is to move them up a mountain. The focus is not on our failures, but instead on our accomplishments (not matter how miniscule).

This is my message to parents. Be truly educated regarding healthy living and eating. Be aware of ingredient labels and their contents. Grow food as a family. Foster healthy eating early on in your child’s life. Celebrate them for who they are and what they can do, not what they are not.



* Even though low fat diets have been celebrated as the key to healthy weight and good health, the evidence does not support this. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “Over the past 20 years in the US, the percentage of calories from fat in people’s diets has gone down, but obesity rates have skyrocketed.” The problem with low-fat diets is that they are high in problematic carbs like white bread and white rice.

Sources Cited:

Ford-Martin, Paula. 2005. The Everything Parent’s Guide to the Overweight Child. Avon, MA: Adams Media Corporation.

Davison, Kirsten Krahnstoever and Birch, Leanne Lipps. 2000. Weight Status, Parent Reaction, and Self-Concept in Five-Year-Old Girls. Pediatrics 107(1): 130-42.

Tufts University. 1993. Warning- Keep Dieting Out of Reach of Children. Tufts University Diet and Nutrition Letter 11(10): 3-4.

Herndon, April Michelle. 2010. Mommy Made Me Do It: Mothering Fat Children in the Midst of the Obesity Epidemic. Food, Culture, and Society: An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research 13(3), 331-349.


Image Source:

Featured image: James Peale, Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kids, harvesting kale. Woodleywonderworks

Édouard Manet, The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil.

Children running on dirt road.

Krista Heinitz is a mother, artist, and graduate student pursuing her MFA at the University of Oregon. She received her BFA and MA at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She currently resides in Eugene, Oregon with her daughter and partner.