Not long ago I got off the phone with a mom who called me for advice about her daughter, who's being treated for anorexia. Like anyone in that situation, she's worried and concerned and upset. We talked for a few minutes, and then she asked me where I would suggest she look for recipes to help her daughter regain weight and recover. I asked if she'd seen these, from the Maudsley Parents website, which is run by several parents, including myself.
Pause. Then she said, "I looked at those, and honestly, I found them nauseating."
"Yes. I don't eat that way. They have so much fat in them." Her voice dripped with disgust.
Pause, while I thought about exactly what to say next, and tried to keep my head from exploding. I settled for reminding her that right now her daughter feels like every molecule of fat she puts into her mouth is poisoning her, and that it's crucial that she not convey her own ambivalence about fat to her daughter. That her daughter needs to hear and believe from her mother that food is nourishing, good, and will help her get healthy again.
Another pause, and she responded, "I'm glad I said it to you, then, and not to my daughter."
Eventually we hung up, and I sat in my kitchen, head in hands, and thought about the conversation. Let me be clear: I'm not blaming this mom in any way. My headache came from the resonance between our current all-time-high levels of fatphobia and what I know about eating disorders. Which is that people recovering from anorexia need to eat everything—protein, carbs, and fat. Especially fat. That neural cell membranes are made from fat, and a healthy, functioning brain requires fat. That the rest of the body needs fat, too, from the endocrine system to, yes, the cardiovascular system.
It's hard enough, when you have anorexia, to endure the physical and mental pain of eating anything, especially fat. Imagine how hard it is in a culture where frankly most people are afraid of fat to some extent.
Be honest: Have you ever thought, as you forked a bite of cheesecake into your mouth, "I might be killing myself with this"? Have you ever referred to a cheeseburger as a heart attack on a plate?
I'll raise my hand and say yes. None of us is immune to the relentless drilling messages we get about the demon fat. And yet there's very little science behind this demonization.
Others have addressed this concept eloquently, like fellow PT blogger Pattie Thomas. I don't want to argue that point here. But I do want to emphasize the fact that we all suffer from the moral panic about fat—both dietary fat and body fat. We pay the price in disordered eating (three-quarters of American women cop to this), body image problems, and, yes, obesity, because the deprive-binge cycle of yo-yo dieting will over the long run make you fatter.
But imagine what it's like for someone who is trying to eat her way back to health, in a culture that essentially views eating as a necessary evil—especially eating fat. When your personal fear is magnified a thousand times by the zeitgeist. Recovery from an eating disorder is hard enough, without all the negative cultural reinforcement of those fears.
I wanted to tell that mom, Relax, a little fat won't kill you, and it may save your daughter's life. But I know she won't believe me. I know she hears the opposite message from so many sources and in so many ways that my voice alone won't persuade her. I just want her, and all the mothers and fathers out there, to think before they badmouth fat, especially around their children. Because the truth is much more complex than fat = death, especially for those with eating disorders.
Harriet Brown's latest book is Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia.