One subject that deserves mention when examining the roots of eating disorders is the role parents play, especially mothers. One needn't appeal to secular psychology to recognize the influence mothers have over their daughters. Furthermore, the mother generally tries to transfer her worldview, values and ideals about weight and beauty on to her daughter. As females, our perception of aesthetic beauty and how we view ourselves is usually formed by our mothers, very early on.
This is all well and good in a family where the mother views people in the image of God, strives to instill a pursuit of spiritual beauty above physical in her daughter, and does not demean her daughter verbally over what she perceives as physical flaws. Some of the biblical passages affirming one's great worth to the Creator, apart from physical appearance, include: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well, Psalm 139: 14; The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart, 1 Samuel 16:7; and the wonderful exaltation of inner beauty from the apostle Peter, himself a married man: Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. 4Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. 5For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful (1 Peter 3:3-5).
Of course, many (if not most) of us who developed eating disorders in our youth did not grow up in Christian families, and our mothers did not know what God's Word teaches. Even if they had, the unregenerate spirit cannot see the things of God through spiritual eyes, and continues to walk in darkness without the illuminating grace of the Holy Spirit. Still, you may say, many non-Christian mothers teach their daughters it is what's inside a person that counts; not what's on the outside (I heard those words on a Sesame Street episode in the '70's. I never once heard them from my own mother). Most mothers love their daughters unconditionally, regardless of their religious convictions. Others, sadly, do not.
Recently, while relating details of my abusive upbringing to my pastor's wife, she cautioned me "But Marie, your parents aren't saved. You're holding non-Christians to Christian standards." I considered this statement for a moment, but disagreed. "No, I think I'm holding them to the standards of basic human decency." While I appreciate her noting their spiritual state in the context of our discussion - when unconditional forgiveness is appropriate - the fact that my parents do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and reject salvation by grace does not justify child abuse.
Discussing details of the treatment I endured for 18 years would probably be counter-productive, but I can say without a hint of irony that emotional abuse is far more damaging than physical. The scars that a mother's hateful, derisive verbal tirades can inflict in a vulnerable young girl take years to heal, if at all. One of my earliest memories, at the age of four, was of the look of disgust on my mother's face as she surveyed my naked stomach, telling me I was "going on a crash diet." She spat out the last word, as if it tasted bitter. At the tender age of eleven, as my changing body grew both vertically and horizontally, she repeatedly told me that "[I would] never have a boyfriend if I don't slim down, because boys don't date fat girls." (Ironically, in high school, I never had a boyfriend - perhaps because of my emaciated, anorexic state.) The title of this post was a jeer from my mother that came that same year, on the way home from a piano lesson. I'd mentioned off-the-cuff that modeling seemed like a fun profession, and my observation was met with contempt: "What would you model, maternity clothes?"
I was in the sixth grade, 5'1" tall and 110 pounds. (This was before my growth spurt). Because of this jab and innumerable others like it, motherhood and pregnancy terrified me well into my twenties.
Towards the end of middle school, I "slimmed down" just enough to be acceptable to my mother - or so I thought. I rigorously exercised and kept my daily caloric intake below 1,200 for over a year. Still, at the yearly check-up and weigh-in before beginning high school, she insisted I ask the GP for dietary instructions, which I shame-facedly did. At this point, the woman who had by now become my nemesis, leaned forward and loudly interjected, "She knows she's overweight!" At 5'5" tall and 130 pounds, the doctor didn't agree. Glancing down at his growth chart, he countered, "According to my chart, she's perfectly normal."
She had lost the battle, but not the war. Exiting the doctor's office, my mother insisted we stop at the Armenian cafe next door and proceeded to inhale a large wedge of baklava in front of me. Sipping a diet soda, I silently wondered whether to count the morning as a victory or not.
In high school, when my clothes sizes slipped from the double-digits to sizes not stocked by regular stores, for the first time in my life my mother was proud of me. Throughout childhood, approval and affection were doled out incrementally, based solely on performance and particularly on the way my weight was going. I am sure, to this day, that she would have much preferred that I stay anorexic rather than becoming bulimic (the dental bills sure would have been lower). It didn't happen that way. Repeatedly, especially in the offices of mental health professionals, she tried to rationalize her relentless emphasis on my weight as being "concerned for my health" (I swear I am not making this up). In my entire life, the only period in which I was significantly overweight was in seventh grade, when I had grown 4 inches and gained over 20 pounds within a year. I had lost the excess weight, with interest, but in my mother's world a size 8 was still "overweight".
Interestingly, in the late 1980's an eating disorder specialist was quoted in a book as saying, "In my experience, nearly every woman who has driven her daughter to an eating disorder has couched it in 'concern for her health'."
My experience is far from unique. I could continue all day relating humiliating incidents, careless and deliberate words spoken, tricks, strategies and coercions invented by my mother to force me to lose weight. I am sure most other women reading this have horror stories of their own to tell, but we cannot change the past. What, then, are we to do with what we endured at the hands of those who were supposed to love and protect us? What, then, do we do when mothers (mine included) refuse to repent; deny their culpability; in their mis-placed pride and self-righteousness, decline even to ask our forgiveness?
I must, for a moment, back up in order to do justice to the question "what do we do with it?" What DO we do, indeed, with the evil that has been inflicted upon us? I became a Christian in 1990. Assuming my readership is primarily comprised of born-again Christians (there is no other kind of Christian, by the way), let up appeal to the Bible. You see, we cannot change the past, how it affected us, or whether another person will respond to conviction. If your mother (or other abuser, if there was one in your life) confesses and repents of her sin, rejoice. However, be forwarned that that day may never come. You and I have been transferred from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of Christ (Colossians 1:13), but my mother, perhaps like many of yours, still belongs to the father of lies (John 8:44). Until she humbles herself and cries out to God to save her, she is walking in darkness and is still, literally, a slave to sin (Romans 6). This is a spiritual reality that we cannot change. No matter how many times I share the Gospel with her, my mother's eyes remain closed. Her confidence, like that of the Pharisees, is in man-made religious ritual and "good works". No humanly generated "good works" can make up for the inherent evil in one's soul before a perfect God, but try telling an unsaved person that.
We, however, who are saved are called to walk in the light (Isaiah 2:5) and die to self. Whether we want to admit it or not, this entails giving up our "rights" to anger and unforgiveness towards those who have hurt us. Unlike secular psychology and therapy methods, which essentially encourage addicts to see themselves as "victims", Christ's Royal Law is unequivocally clear: only forgiveness brings true healing. Relinquishing our anger and going even further - loving and praying for our enemies - is the standard to which He calls His disciples. If we claim His Name, obedience is not optional.
If this sounds harsh or clinical, it is not. The Bible calls God the Father of Compassion and the God of all Comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3), and the entire canon of Scripture makes it clear that He does not tolerate injustice. Biblical counselor Ed Buckley writes:
"I want you to know that God cares cares about your suffering and is full of sympathy for your pain. Matthew quotes a portion of Isaiah that gives us a hint of Jesus' compassion for the suffering: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. (Matthew 12:20). Are you a bruised reed who has been trampled on by those around you? Jesus cares. Do you feel like a smoldering wick in a lamp nearly out of fuel? Take heart, my friend. Jesus understands.I have found, nearly six years after walking away from my eating disorder and related sins, that the temptation to unforgiveness is still there. Years after the urge to starve or drug myself with food or alcohol has disappeared, from time to time something will trigger an old memory of a demeaning staement my mother would make repeatedly. As a college student, I saw trained psychologists actually cringe when I would dryly repeat, verbatim, some of the horrible things said to me growing up. Nowadays, I have found that forgiveness is neither something I can offer based on my own personal desire nor is it a one-time deal. What I find hardest about staying spiritually healthy is not keeping myself from idols (1 John 5:21), but choosing again and again to forgive someone who is completely unrepentant for the misery she has caused in my life (and continues to wreak in the lives of others).
You can choose to remain a victim the rest of your life, or you can choose the path of victory by following One Who was abused as no other. We are told that Jesus was beaten nearly to the point of death, was spat upon, humiliated, dragged bleeding through the dirty streets of Jerusalem, and hung on a Roman cross. Yet Jesus did not curse those who tortured Him so cruelly or walked by laughing at His suffering. Instead, He prayed for them, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). How could Jesus love His abusers? By faith in a loving God. We are reminded in Romans 8:35-37 that nothing can separate us from God's love. Not "trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword." Though we suffer in a cruel world, "in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us".
That sounds wonderful in theory, doesn't it? But how do we make it real? John says, "for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith", (1 John 5:4). You can become a victor instead of a victim as you live by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps you're rolling your eyes, shaking your head in irritation, and muttering, "Another nothing-butterist is dispensing his simplistic solutions by quoting Bible verses." Think what you will, but God's holy Word has given you the key to your liberty. I am not suggesting that it will be easy, for it involves a paradox: Living by faith is hard work, but the reward is unbelievable freedom and joy. (Emphasis mine).
- Ed Buckley, "Why Christians Can't Trust Psychology", Harvest House Publishers, Eugene Oregon 1993. pp. 122-123.
The fact is, in regards to eating disorders or other addictive sin, we are guilty for the actual behavior. There is no biblical basis for blaming another person for our personal sin, no matter how evil an influence the offender may have been. Ignorance often plays a part - in which case we do well to pray "they do not know what they are doing" with our Savior. This does not excuse an abuser, but it puts the focus back where it belongs: on our own relationship with God. Technically, the only difference between our abuser and ourselves is that we have been forgiven (yes, repentance is a pre-requisite for God's judicial forgiveness, but He will deal with our unrepentant abusers - not us). I can truly look at my mother now and think, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Apart from Christ, I might be just as lost, deceived and empty as she is. When I consider this fact and look objectively at the past through the lens of God's sovereignty, I can genuinely feel pity for my mother.
A good book I recommend on the biblical pattern of forgiveness (and why it is so important in overcoming spiritual problems and old wounds) is John Macarthur's "The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness". I wrote an in-depth, 3-part review and analysis of the book on my theology blog, the first of which is here. As hard as it is to walk away from what was done to us in childhood and resist ungodly anger, it is an important (and ongoing!) ppart of recovery. No, you cannot change what was done to you or the effect it had on you...but you CAN change how you deal with it in the future. Allowing God to redeem others' mistreatment of you will result in His being glorified in your life!