'This Is Us' Finale: Do Mothers Cause Eating Disorders?

'This Is Us' Finale: Do Mothers Cause Eating Disorders?
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NBC offers television viewers an honest look at so many challenging life issues in the show “This Is Us.” As someone who works in the field of eating disorders, I was interested to see how they would continue to unpack Kate’s eating issues. Tonight, I loved how delicately they handled the subject as well as how astute they are to understand the complications surrounding eating disorders and/or disordered eating. Rebecca asks Kate if it is her fault.

Throughout the first half of the season, the show’s flashbacks have been peppered with looks into Kate and Rebecca’s strained relationship, stemming from Rebecca’s policing of Kate’s eating habits. In the fall finale, for example, Rebecca almost dismissed her daughter’s appendicitis because she believed the young girl’s stomach pains were a result of her binging on cookies meant for Santa. In the car, Kate responds honestly to her mother’s pressing question. “I don’t know,” she said. ― CNN.com

The one question I am asked most often is, “Do mothers cause it?” Rebecca appears to be a fantastic role model as a mother. But we can’t fail to note the complex nature of genetics, personality and environment can pre-dispose someone to unhealthy behaviors.

In my own life, she hid the cookies deep in the farthest part of the silverware drawer. The fridge was full of food she never touched. Well, except for the Slim Fast drinks that littered the shelves. Those were the sustenance she lived on. And yet, I knew the cookies were part of her diet too, eaten late at night in the darkness of the kitchen. She pretended as if she ate, pretended for my viewing pleasure that she was consuming meals, but I was intuitive. I was paying attention to her every move.

How could I not? She was my mother.

She was the model I had to follow.

Busy was her mantra. Busy stole away the time it took to eat. Because busy was how mothers were supposed to operate. Frantically running about too busy to eat. Providing and sacrificing for everyone else, never sitting down to actually eat the meal. Never taking time to nurture or allow her body what it needed. Wasn’t that what a good mother did? Wasn’t that what a woman did?

I watched the scurrying about and the frenetic pace at which the mothering without eating occurred. And I thought this was normal. This was what I was to do too. Didn’t all mothers act this way?

Wasn’t I also required to do this, to be a mother? To be a woman was a combination of serving everyone else but one’s self. And the reward was thinness. And thinness was power.

And when I was launched from the nest into the world with food at my every turn, and depression knocking at my door… I only knew one response.

To deny myself.

To busy myself. To find power in the madness. And I adopted those words too, “I am too busy to eat.”

And Kate, as we see in the show “This Is Us,” takes a similar but opposite approach, using food to comfort and soothe.

While my mother’s disordered eating only skimmed the edges of causing problems in her life, it ruined mine. It destroyed my body and almost killed me. I wrote about this journey in my memoir, Table in The Darkness ― A Healing Journey Through an Eating Disorder.

It took me years to find my own way, to learn how to feed my body, to deny what I was modeled and instead take care of myself.

Was it her fault? Did she cause this in a daughter who watched her every move, who followed her every turn, who hung on her every conversation?

No. And yes.

No. My personality type and my addictive genetic predisposition tipped me over the edge of balance, led me to the place of not being able to stop. (Read here about the genetic predisposition of eating disorders.)

No. I also struggled with depression, and the depression further fueled my desire to not eat.

And yes. Yes in that I had one model of eating. Her. I had one model of how to view my emerging and changing body. And while she would tell me to love my body and to eat, her actions showed me otherwise. I watched, I modeled, and I even when I tried not to, couldn’t deny what I was shown. How a woman was to be.

Too busy to eat. Never satisfied with her body.

And as I wander around this world speaking to women’s groups and working with patients struggling with eating disorders, I find myself baffled at this destructive mentality that is so pervasive with women.

Women who say they are too busy to eat and does that affect their children? Women who tell me they often skip meals and do I think their children notice? Women who tell me they hate their bodies and do I think their children pay attention to that? Women who call themselves FAT in front of their children. These things DO matter.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

No, mothers don’t cause eating disorders. But, YES, mothers... they are watching!

If you are walking around talking about how fat you are or how you need to lose weight. I urge you to stop it now.


“Moms are probably the most important influence on a daughter’s body image,” said Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of Mayo Clinic’s mom’s eating disorders program and a child psychologist. “Even if a mom says to the daughter, ‘You look so beautiful, but I’m so fat,’ it can be detrimental.

“Research has shown time and time again that the same-sex parent is the most important role model for a child.

“Zero talk about dieting, zero talk about weight! Zero comments not only about your daughter’s weight, obviously, but zero talk about your weight and even other people’s weight,” says Sim.


A study that focused broadly on appearance and, more narrowly, on how a girl’s self-image is shaped by her mom’s own self-talk discovered:

Fifty-five percent of surveyed moms admitted to complaining about their own looks, frequently in front of their daughters. Weight was the most common complaint, with 76 percent of moms saying they often talk about wanting to lose weight. Such comments have a profound effect on our daughters, If a girl hears her mom voice negative thoughts about her own looks, she learns to be self-critical. She learns to seek out problems and focus on what she doesn’t like about herself. We don’t just model behavior. We model attitudes and beliefs. We model outlook.” ― child and adolescent psychologist D’Arcy Lyness, a behavioral health editor at KidsHealth who was closely involved with the study.

You might think she doesn’t notice. She does. You might think it doesn’t matter. It does. You might think it is normal and part of being a woman to not eat, to deny your body what it needs. It isn’t.

I can’t soften this message, I want to. I want to hug you and embrace you and tell you it will be ok. But, I need you to know the truth. You matter. The way you treat your body matters.

Every time a woman passes a mirror and criticizes herself, there’s a girl watching.” ― Gloria Steinem

It starts with you!

We are raising a society of girls and boys with a fear of not measuring up. A fear of fitting into this “skinny ideal” that doesn’t exist.

It starts with you. Right here. Right now.

When you say, “God, there are things I don’t like about myself. I wish I had different hair or a different color of skin. I wish I were taller, shorter, and skinnier. I wish I had more talent. I wish I could do ‘that.’ I wish I looked like him. I wish I had her smarts” and on and on. This kind of thinking is basically telling God, “You blew it! Everybody else is OK. But you goofed up big when you made me.” When you reject yourself, you are in essence rejecting God, because he’s your creator. When you don’t accept yourself, it’s rebellion against God. You’re saying, “God, I know better than you. You should have made me different, with a different set of strengths and a different set of weaknesses.” But God says, “No, I made you exactly to be you because I want you to be you — with your strengths and your weaknesses. Both of them can give me glory — if you’ll just start doing what I made you to do instead of trying to be like everybody else.” Pastor Rick Warren

Let’s stop this madness. Let’s be who we are supposed to be, who God created us to be. And let us model healthy living for our own children!

Won’t you join me?

As for where Kate’s disordered relationship with food developed, we will have to wait to find out.

But if this is something you struggle with, won’t you reach out for help?

If you are struggling with providing your body what it needs, maybe you need to talk with someone? Maybe you could benefit from seeing a registered dietician or a therapist?

I don’t want you to hide in shame about this, I want you to hear this message and do something different.

Let us raise a generation of women that are able to say, “I am hungry. I am going to feed my body and I am full I want to stop eating.” Let our little girls see us and model healthy behaviors that will carry them strongly through life!

Start now. Start today.

You are too important in that little girl’s life not to!



If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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