My short answer is no, mothers don't "cause" eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex problems with biological, neurological, behavioral and cultural factors at play.
But I can't let moms completely off the hook. A mother's words and actions can certainly fan the flames of eating-disordered behavior. Just look at some of the statistics body image activist Mia Freedman cited last year from an article in the U.K. Daily Mail:
• Almost four out of 10 girls in a poll of more than 500 teenagers said their mother had the biggest influence on how they perceived themselves.
• Two-thirds of those girls heard their mom complaining about her own weight -- yet 68 percent of girls described their mom's weight as "perfectly normal."
Moms -- and how we feel and talk about our own bodies -- matter to girls. There is simply no denying the influence. But influence isn't the same as blame; I'm sure there are many, many mothers who modeled healthy body image and healthy habits, only to end up with a daughter who struggles with an eating disorder.
My goal, always, is to be a place of refuge for my daughter. I want to be that place she goes when she needs to know that she is loved unconditionally, regardless of size, shape or anything she might imagine makes her "flawed" in some way. I want to be the place she goes when she needs to see what a real, albeit "imperfect" body according to media standards, looks like -- and to know that it's possible to live happily in that body. I want to be the direction in which she looks when she wants to see healthy habits like good food and exercise choices, and how to enjoy a hot fudge sundae or a piece of cake without guilt, fear and self-loathing.
But to be that place for her, I must first be that place for myself.
It's a tall order for any human being. As mothers, we face no shortage of guilt about what we're "doing" to our kids or how we're falling down on the job. That -- and the above statistics that Mia cited -- is why we moms have to look hard in the mirror and deal with our own body image issues. Not because we're "causing" eating disorders, but because we have that power to influence. Our girls are looking to us, no matter what and we get to decide what they'll see. Think about that. We get to decide.
What we choose to model is the one thing that we can control. The choice to model healthy habits and a positive body image may be one we need to re-make every day -- maybe even minute by minute -- but it's always ours to make.
Does that mean our daughters will never struggle with eating disorders? No, it doesn't. But an atmosphere of love and acceptance at home may help buoy her against some of the forces that can lead to an eating disorder's development. We can be that safe place for our girls.