by Lisa M. Pearl, MS,RD,LDN, CEDRD, CEDS
I believe Margo Maine, PhD, was the first eating disorder specialist to correlate a woman’s experience in the relationship with her father and her body image. Maine’s seminal book, Father Hunger, asked us to look at this relationship more closely for healing opportunities in our patients. Unfortunately, a brief review of the literature revealed few additional articles or research on the father-daughter relationship and eating disorders or body image issues.
Since the publication of Father Hunger in 1991, I have been inviting fathers into my office for conversations about their daughters’ disordered eating and body image concerns. Mostly I have been humbled by their genuine distress and encouraged by their desire to be more helpful to their daughters.
I also have learned a great deal about how excluded fathers can feel in the treatment of their child’s eating disorder. They often want to be more involved but don’t want to “step on anyone’s toes.” There seems to be a cultural expectation that moms understand this issue better than dads by virtue of their gender.
The more I have spoken with fathers, the more I realize that as clinicians we need to continue to foster better communication and understanding between fathers and daughters. The daughters in my office frequently do not know what a better relationship with their fathers might look like. At times, they even dismiss the invitation to consider this question. Moreover, why are some dads at such a loss for how to be more helpful to their daughters? Why has the impact of a mom’s eating disorder been researched but not a father’s? For example, many dads have told me about the significant impact their own body image fears have had in their lives. Yet, they never have talked about it with anyone nor have they ever been asked about their eating and body image concerns in the context of their child’s illness.
Fathers each have unique relationships with food and body that impact their parenting. For example, we know that adolescent girls look to their fathers for reassurance and validation of their growth and development. How do fathers provide that kind of validation if they feel unsure about their own experiences of eating, growth, and development?
A 19-year-old female in recovery from anorexia told me that one of the most effective parts of our work was to include her father. She reported,
“It was really helpful for him to understand the process; that it wasn’t just a black and white kind of thing and that I was working hard. And it was really important for me to hear that he wanted to understand me. That what I thought and felt mattered to him. That I mattered to him! And that he wouldn’t judge me or assume anything based on my appearance.”
Within our group at CNC, we are committed to creating the kind of therapeutic environment necessary for building relationships that foster positive and healthy self-regard. We do not have all the answers, but we will keep asking questions and providing resources* for patients and all of their parents, regardless of gender.
* Body positive messages for fathers: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/habits-body-positive-dads-how-fathers-influence-body-image.