Fathers, Daughters, and Eating Disorders

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One session from the NEDA Annual Conference in October left me with a tear stained face and a validated soul. For the first time I felt heard and understood on a topic that I had never successfully unpacked, all without saying a word. When selecting the conference sessions I wanted to attend earlier this summer I was surprised to see a panel discussion titled “Still Hungry After All These Years: A Retrospective and Prospective Look at the Father/Daughter Relationship and Eating Disorders.” In all my years of being sick I hadn’t thought much about how complicated this dynamic might be for others struggling. I figured I had a rare scenario, the death of a mother at the very brink of adolescence combined with a tricky father daughter relationship. All the articles and research I had read talked about the mother daughter relationship. I immediately signed up to attend and was really looking forward to what I would learn.

The panel consisted of Margo Maine, PhD and the author of Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, and the Pursuit of Thinness, Michael Berrett, PhD and clinician who specializes in eating disorders, and whose daughter suffered from bulimia, and Don Backwell, a 54 year old attorney from Florida whose daughter Ashley fought severe anorexia in and out of treatment and hospitals, almost losing her life several times, for years. The panel was wonderfully lead by Beth Hartman McGilley, PhD. I settled into a chair close to the front a little apprehensive, but excited for the hour to come. I left changed.

When research on eating disorders started in the 50s and 60s the nuclear family was a staple in American society. Many moms stayed at home while dads worked. Research studies were conducted during the day, leading moms being the likely ones available to take their children in to participate. This resulted in almost all research studying the parent child relationship focused on the mother daughter/son dynamic and leaving little to no research on the impact fathers play in child development. Since this time more scientists have studied the father child relationship, but it is still very unknown what effects the father daughter bond impacts women with eating disorders. Research has found that fathers are just as likely as mothers to pressure their daughters to diet. In some cases daughters are more sensitive to these remarks coming from their fathers because they are the leading male figure in their lives and their thoughts form their constructs of what all males expect of women.

All of the panel participants were wonderful, but I was intensely struck by Don Backwell. He told the story of when he first discovered his daughter had anorexia and the negative and ignorant reaction he had, like many fathers do. As he spoke many in the room slowly started to cry. His words validated all the pent up frustration I had trying to discuss my illness with my father, who I feel has never grasped the intensity of my illness and has been resistant to learning about it or discussing it. He described how he didn’t think it could be that hard to eat, was consumed with a way to fix the issue versus trying to understand why it had happened, wrote it off as a body image issue that all women deal with to some extent, and as something his daughter should just simply get over. As his daughter deteriorated his eyes slowly opened to how complicated eating disorders are. He described Ashley as extremely independent and successful in everything she attempted, the exact profile of an anorexic. How could such a intelligent and strong young woman be brought to such dire states that she was no longer flirting with death, she was knocking on its door? I am sure this question plagues many fathers with anorexic daughters. Hearing the story of an eating disorder from a fathers perspective made me have so much more compassion for my own father and all of the fathers out their with children suffering.

Several insights he gleamed while battling anorexia with his daughter really resonated with me.

  1. It’s hard for fathers to connect with daughters during puberty. Their bodies and personalities are changing. They are no longer children, but women. Fathers want to remain close with their daughters, but they struggle to have the same playful connection they did when their daughters were girls. What is appropriate? What is the balance between being involved and letting them find themselves while becoming women? Many father daughter relationships suffer during adolescents and when it comes to issues of the body it can be even trickier. The reaction fathers tend to have is to avoid broaching these uncomfortable subjects and leave mothers to tend to daughters in this way.

I vividly remember comments my father made about my looks and body during my teenage years that I’m positive were said with no ill intent. I took them so personally and repeated them in my head over and over again. I already thought so much was wrong with the way I was wired. He seemed to be frustrated with how emotional I was after my mom died, which at 12 was hard to understand. Now looking back, I can’t comprehend the battle he was fighting trying to suddenly deal with my mother’s death and raising three kids alone, similarly to how he can’t understand what it was like to be a child losing their mother. His quiet and private demeanor combined with my intense internalization and fear of disappointing and upsetting others left us living in the same house with what felt like galaxies between us. We were both hurting and isolated ourselves. In many ways my father and I are very similar, both introverted we retreated to deal with our pain that was inconceivable by the other.

2. Children who seem to have it all together, are successful, independent and give the impression that they can parent themselves may need more emotional nurturing and connection than children who verbally express struggle and needs.

During high school I yearned so badly for my dad to show he cared about me. My father has always loved me very much, but at the time I truly questioned how much he cared about me. I was valedictorian of my graduating class, co-captain of the basketball team, editor of the yearbook, and involved in a million more after school activities my senior year of high school. I had a wonderful group of friends and often spent time with them and not at home. I’m sure it seemed to my dad that I was handling life very well and didn’t need as much parental involvement. I’m sure I gave the impression that I didn’t need it as well. I never wanted to “bother” people by needing love or attention. I had learned that being upset and emotional lead to a negative reaction in others, whether they got angry or felt sad for me. I thought the more I handled things on my own the less of a burden I would be. I felt isolated from the rest of my family during these years and found the love and support I needed much more from friends than I did from family. Of course a portion of this is typical teenage behavior, but I was still adjusting to life without my mom. At times it felt like I had lost both parents. My father and I barely fought, but we were so distant emotionally that I truly felt I was left to figure life out and care for myself all on my own.

3. Dads need to be invited to participate in the treatment of eating disorders.

Since eating disorder symptoms show up physically this can be another uncomfortable subject for fathers to approach. They don’t have a woman’s body and they don’t understand the pressure from society on women to have the perfect body. They aren’t programmed to equate thinness with success and being “good,” let alone worthy of love. This leaves dads feeling inadequate to discuss the topic and needing more education to develop empathy for their daughters struggling. Mothers are usually the ones who take daughters to appointments and speak with counselors and doctors. Fathers are basically left out of the healing process, even if they really want to be involved. By not being a participant in the recovery process they appear to not care as much as mothers, which is couldn’t be farther from the truth. Practitioners need to advocate for the father’s involvement and invite them into the treatment team.

This common scenario wasn’t real in my case since I didn’t have a mother and I was dealing with my eating 100% on my own, but the lack of understanding my dad, similar to most dads, had about eating disorders and women’s bodies in general rings true. He had some harsh words to show he cared about me when first bringing up my illness. I’ll never forget what he said sitting at the kitchen table in my house at the end of sophomore year of college. Those words, as harsh as they were, still showed he cared because he was giving me the attention I was subconsciously desperate for. In that moment of him showing he was hurt and worried made all the days of starving worth it to me. I had finally gotten him to notice me. Like any addict, I denied I had a problem and dismissed his concerns. As time went on I became thinner and we became increasingly distant. He seemed to look at me like a foreign creature. I was no longer the daughter he knew. This distance accompanied with perplexed concern kept me pursuing my eating disorder. I irrationally thought if I got better I would no longer be sick, meaning he would no longer be worried about me, meaning he wouldn’t care about or notice me again. Silent concern from my dad meant he loved me and this beat out love for myself every time.

Through recovery my relationship with my father has grown stronger and stronger. In the ways that we are similar we grew apart, both completely misreading and misunderstanding each other.  As an adult, and especially after the father daughter session at the conference, I reflect back on what my eating disorder must have been like from his perspective, how debilitating and confusing it must have seemed. I have a new empathy for my dad and I hope that one day he will want to learn more about anorexia and the pain and devastation it caused me, and he will return that empathy for me.

I love my dad and he loves me. I still have a very independent relationship with my dad compared to most of my friends, but that is how we both are and always will be. This independence no longer comes from a lack of feeling loved, but a deeper understanding of how we best relate. I no longer question his love, it is a known thing. I am complex and require a lot of emotional support even though I never show or ask for it. It’s a two way street, for me to receive support I know I need to verbally ask for it, even though this is a really hard thing for me to do. If I reach out to my dad he is more than happy to help and love me.

Last year on my birthday my dad wrote to me and told me how proud he was of his beautiful daughter. I cried. Those words were the ones I had been searching for all along.

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