By Oona Hanson
I thought we had created a positive food environment in our home. Dessert was available every day, we didn’t refer to foods as “good” or “bad,” and we never disparaged someone’s body size.
But I live in a diet culture, and even though I never verbalized it to my kids, I still wanted to control my weight. I believed in all kinds of wellness propaganda that led me to see foods in a hierarchy and to believe that specific dietary choices might have immediate health impacts. Longstanding body image concerns, combined with oversimplified nutrition beliefs, made certain choices feel like second nature: always ordering a salad (dressing on the side, of course), reading food labels to avoid nutritional boogeymen, choosing clothing based on what made me appear smaller. When Oprah became a spokesperson and shareholder at Weight Watchers, I quickly signed up, and my chronic disordered eating took on a good-for-your-soul glow.
When my child became ill with anorexia, everything changed, including the way I related to food. Mealtimes turned into appetite-blocking stress sessions, and we stopped going out to restaurants. Eating became a chore, I stopped sleeping well, and I somehow functioned on an unsustainable cocktail of caffeine, cortisol, and adrenaline. For the first time in probably thirty years, I didn’t want to be losing weight, but I was, nevertheless. I was still using willpower, only this time, it was to remind myself to eat so I could function during the most terrifying and exhausting challenge of my life.
Despite its cause, my unintentional weight loss elicited (you guessed it) frequent praise, compliments on my “cute outfits” (the same ones I had worn for years), and even requests for my “secret” (um, have a child become hospitalized for a life-threatening illness? Do. Not. Recommend.)
Losing weight and my appetite was the last thing I wanted to be doing, and it was painful to be reminded of how much value our culture places on thinness and restrictive eating. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that part of my brain was happy I could fit into smaller clothes I hadn’t worn in years. I’m here to say that even someone whose child needs a feeding tube can’t always turn off decades of ingrained diet and body beliefs. I developed an even deeper level of empathy for anyone recovering from an eating disorder in a culture where weight loss is celebrated at nearly every turn.
After our child had exhausted nearly every treatment option available–multiple outpatient providers, PHP, residential, and inpatient hospitalization (by way of the ER and a medical stabilization unit)–we signed up for a one-week intensive program to learn about Family-Based Treatment (FBT). Everyone in the family would receive psychoeducation, peer support, and training in FBT.
Lucky for me, I had already been trying to absorb everything I could about supporting recovery. By devouring books, podcasts, and blogs, I learned about diet culture, the wellness industry, weight stigma, Health at Every Size®, and the neurobiology of anorexia. Unlearning so many harmful myths about nutrition, weight, and health helped prepare me to get the most of our FBT training, and I was able to hit the ground running when we got home.
As we worked to restore our child’s weight, challenge food phobias, and extinguish harmful behaviors, we were eating in ways we never had before. I joked that my cooking style went from Dean Ornish to Paula Deen. I felt strongly that to help my child heal, I couldn’t prepare separate meals for myself or let on that I was having any kind of anxiety around these foods. I had to face my own fears about “fattening” foods and weight gain.
Throughout this process, we were incredibly fortunate to work with a local FBT therapist who is HAES®-aligned and a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. (At first, I even falsely assumed that FBT automatically incorporated this orientation because it seemed to fit together so well). In our case, I know that taking this approach was crucial not only for our child’s weight restoration but also for long-term recovery; it changed the food culture in our home. And the anti-diet framework gave us a vocabulary to fight back against the toxic messages coming from the outside world.
Anorexia is a tricky devil that will find even the tiniest opening to sneak back in to someone’s life. This illness can find countless reasons to justify restricting food or over-exercising because those behaviors are normalized and even encouraged. Making our home a safe haven from diet culture was an important foundation for supporting our child’s recovery. By rejecting false beliefs about food and bodies, we found the key ingredient for a life-saving treatment–and for healing the whole family.