Raising a Daughter With a Body Like Mine

I worried that any child of mine could become collateral damage in my eating disorder. Instead, she’s allowed me to see myself through the eyes of a mother.

Drawing of a woman and a young girl with similar body shapes, both wearing purple dresses, holding hands in front of a mirror
Illustration by Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

Updated at 10:55 a.m. ET on May 9, 2023

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Long before I had any children, I worried about how my eating disorder would affect them. Anorexia is a greedy disease. It has a way of taking over. It wants to be the organizing principle of your life and the lens through which you see the world. That anorexia would have something to say about my children—what I should feed them (in or ex-utero), how I should think of them—seemed inevitable.

I was diagnosed when I was 14 years old. I think of that time of my life as the raising of a pendulum that, when dropped, sent me careening between extremes for years to come. It has never quite settled in the middle, but by now, I think an outside observer would have trouble seeing that I’m swaying at all. I’ve come a long way.

My relationship with food has evolved slowly and jerkily over the years, but it is nothing like it once was. I don’t mean that I have a great diet per se; I don’t really know. Detaching from the entire enterprise of monitoring or restricting the food I eat is the only way I managed to break from more extreme patterns of disordered eating. My progress crystallized for me a couple of years ago when, while rummaging through my pantry, I found a forgotten packet of shortbread I’d received in a care package a few months prior. That sort of nonchalance about food—the ability to forget about it—represents a triumph that a younger, sicker version of myself could not have anticipated.

My relationship with my body is a little more complicated. I wouldn’t say that I’ve learned to love it so much as I’ve trained myself not to think about it. Instead of arguing with the voice of negativity that inevitably pipes up any time I linger a little too long at the mirror, I simply direct my attention elsewhere. I dress my body in ways that help me forget about how it appears to other people. I avoid looking at it too often or too closely. So I worried about what any child—and in particular any daughter—I brought into this world would look like, certain that my unresolved antipathy toward my own body would find a new target, and incite in her the sort of bodily shame I’ve spent the better portion of my life working to overcome.

I didn’t exactly think that I would give my children my anorexia. That’s not really how it works. As with other psychiatric conditions, people who develop anorexia tend to have a genetic predisposition that can be stoked by their environment. Parents can certainly shape a child’s attitude toward food and body image—how they talk about their body, whether they’ll consider a diet. They can influence an eating disorder, but it’s not quite right to say they can cause one, Michael Enenbach, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute who worked on the inpatient eating-disorder unit for adolescents at UCLA for 12 years, told me.

It would be more accurate to say I worried that my children could become collateral damage in my own eating disorder. There, my concerns weren’t entirely unwarranted. But the impact of a parent’s eating disorder on their child is not straightforward, Stephanie Zerwas, a psychologist and the former clinical director of the University of North Carolina’s Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, told me. For moms who have had an eating disorder, pregnancy can be extremely challenging. And having an active eating disorder during pregnancy does seem to pose risks to the child’s health and development. Even after birth, it can make the job of parenting much harder. “It really does take control of your life,” Enenbach said. But parenthood isn’t always triggering for someone with a history of an eating disorder: In fact, sometimes, parents find their children’s uncomplicated relationship with food inspiring, Zerwas said. And having experience with eating disorders makes one well suited to spot red flags in their kids. “They’re able to pick up on those early signs and signals and intervene way earlier,” Zerwas said. In other words, it can play out in many different ways.

Still, the possibility of my relationship with my child becoming part of the enormous social apparatus of physical scrutiny that makes our culture such fertile ground for disordered eating was more than I could bear. I thought maybe it would be best for someone like me not to have a daughter at all. So when I found out I was pregnant for the first time, I hoped for a boy.

Months later, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. It didn’t take long for panic to set in: I bristled at the casual doting remarks—“those thighs!”—people made about her tiny body. I still worry that my sensitivity to such comments may inadvertently assign them more value than they are due. I fear I won’t be able to stop her from internalizing harmful ideas about the way she looks. And the truth is, I don’t think it’s possible for me to know with any certainty how my history of anorexia is or is not affecting my daughter. I will leave it to her to render that verdict. But the idea that she—and then her younger sister—could become an object of my repulsion as I once feared now seems laughable. And that’s remarkable because, with each passing day, the little girl I’ve fallen in love with only looks more like me.

It didn’t start out that way. When she first arrived, I remember feeling a kind of relief when I couldn’t make out anything of myself in her little figure. But that soon changed. A week or two after she was born, as I set her on a changing table and removed her diaper, I noticed that the remains of her umbilical cord had fallen out. I didn’t think belly buttons were the sort of thing that could be passed from mother to daughter, yet there it was, my strangely symmetrical belly button, which looks like the top view of a pumpkin, staring up at me.

The unsettling recognition I felt standing at that changing table became a feature of my life as her mother. To anyone else, I imagine she looked like any other pudgy toddler awkwardly growing into her body. But I could see—and a glance at old family videos and photos confirmed—that her body was organizing itself in much the same way mine had. Limbs tilted and interlocked at the same angles; flesh and muscle settled in the same pockets and proportions. The resemblance has grown more striking with time. It’s disorienting, heartbreaking in a way, to see the body you spent so long trying to obliterate emerge in another human and to discover, after all, so much beauty in it. She’s still only in primary school, but even now there is no angle that permits me to escape my reflection. And there is no angle that escapes my love.

Zerwas wasn’t surprised to hear any of this. In her clinical work, she encourages people struggling with bodily shame to “imagine their body in a place of compassion” as a means of shifting their perspective—to see themselves in their entirety, as more than a mere collection of body parts. Parenting may tap into a “wellspring” of such compassion, she said.

It’s difficult to speak about parenthood in universals, but there is something to motherly love, I think. It has a way of taking over too. It has a reputation for blinding those overcome by it, obscuring obvious flaws and rendering even the most frustrating idiosyncrasies endearing. But maybe that’s all wrong. Maybe it allows you to see a person more clearly. I am grateful to my daughter for allowing me to see myself through the eyes of a mother. In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis wrote that unlike the bond between lovers or friends, who often feel that they were made for each other, the love of a parent for a child is of a sort that can reconcile even the least compatible people. A mother and a daughter; a mother and herself.

This article previously identified Stephanie Zerwas as the director of UNC’s Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders; in fact she is the center's former director.