My mother has never been happy in her body. From the time she was 12 years old in 1952 and developed anorexia to her mid-70s now as a cyclical binge eater and restrictor, she has been unable to look at her body or the number on a scale and hear a kind word in her own head. It was during her middle-age years that I saw her go on liquid diets for six months at a time and then pendulum swing to wild binges once she allowed herself to eat food again. And every day she would step on the scale and curse at herself or shake her head. Her body shame was taught to her by her own mother, a former Vaudeville actress who became “too old” at 16 to be a starlet any more. My mother, in turn, taught me and my siblings that our bodies were things to be controlled, judged and scrutinized. All of us developed eating disorder or body dysmorphic disorder behaviors as a result. It’s a terribly sad thing.
But the truth is mine is not a unique story. Most of those who come in to treatment at my office report stories of body shame and disordered eating behaviors in their families. And their parents are still doing all those eating disorder behaviors still, including restricting behaviors, binge behaviors, compulsive exercise, and over-valuation of body image and weight.
What does that tell us? It tells us that eating disorders are prevalent in middle age adults, just as they are adolescent and young adults. While Dr. Cynthia Bulik has written the definitive book on the subject, Midlife Eating Disorders: Your Journey to Recovery, it’s still under-researched and under-recognized.
Who are these folks? It’s the dentist who rushes out the door to see his patients with only a cup of coffee in him and works clear through lunch. He works out on his way home and eats a small dinner with his family so he shows his kids “healthy eating habits.” It’s the mother who projects her own unhappiness about her body onto her child and takes both of them to Weight Watchers. The runner who will slog through rain and muck despite intense hip pain because a run just has to be done every day no matter the weather. The cancer patient who finds joy in their emaciation as they are finally at their “goal weight.” And it’s the yoga devotee who will do four hours of hot yoga on a Saturday because allowing herself to be at home with food is so scary.
Ultimately the eating disorder is a method of managing fears that really have nothing to do with food, body image and weight. It’s about age, self-esteem, lack of finding a calling, missed opportunities to find meaning in life or develop lasting and loving relationships. The behaviors may have started when they were young but they persist after missing those developmental stages where we cultivate intimacy, self-identity, passions, and start to see where we fit in the larger world. The behaviors superficially give that person a sense of control, focus, meaning and identity – even if they don’t like that identity at all.
Families and friends who see loved ones in their midlife years still obsessing about weight, body size and shape, and become fixated on “good” versus “bad” foods need to take heed. There is a good chance there is an eating disorder at work. Recovery is possible at any age, but it requires education, support, and a solid treatment team.
My mother never believed I had an eating disorder, as she didn’t see herself as having one. As a result, she doesn’t understand how much joy and freedom I have in choosing to recover from my eating disorder in my middle-age years. She struggles to this day with her own, and lives every moment and every meal with shame and guilt enmeshed in her identity. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m proof of that. You can be proof too.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C - Founder, Executive Director, Psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 877-674-2843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.