Health and Wellbeing, My head

Are body image issues hereditary?

January 13, 2015

body image

I had this childhood friend who was much older than I. She was kind, and funny, and loving, and a great big sister to her three sisters, and a good friend to me although I was just a kid.

My friend was quite a big girl and had always been so when she decided to lose weight at 17 years old it appeared that she was taking her health and diet into her own hands. It seemed like a good thing I guess.

But she didn’t stop.

I ate regularly with her family, and I saw her become very particular about what she put into her mouth and after about a year, not just what, but also how much, and she was incredibly thin with excess skin that I remember she hated.

I didn’t think too much about it though. She was my friend who was overweight and then she was not. She then fell pregnant and then I moved away and we lost touch.

I hadn’t thought about this old friend of mine for quite a while until Facebook. Her weight has now regulated and she’s just a normal person, or so I thought.

I have just realised that she’s not normal at all. She’s remarkable.

I put a call out for case studies recently for a story I’m writing about bullying and we got in touch with each other again because her 13 year old son had been severely bullied because of his weight.

He was a rugby playing lad, a forward, and those forwards are known to be stocky. When his peers began to ridicule him and make up songs about him, this fun loving, light hearted boy disappeared, and someone else was left in his place.

At first they didn’t notice the food thing that much. They just thought he wanted to get fitter for the upcoming season, but after a time it became apparent, her boy was starving himself.

By the time they got him to rehab the staff told her her son – her William – was dying.

My article is about bullying and the bystander effect and I’m not going to write about that here today, but I wanted to get onto the page some other stuff we talked about.

She told me that she had anorexia when she was 17, which she gained control of when she fell pregnant, and her research has indicated to her that eating disorders and body image issues may be hereditary.

It made my blood run cold.

I haven’t researched this at all, maybe I should before I write it here, but I’m not writing anything scientific, just how that thought makes me feel. I wanted to reiterate how vigilant I will be about the way I speak about mine and other people’s bodies in front of my children.

I’ve written before that I will endeavour to never mention my weight or my body in a negative light to my kids, and speak only positively about others, but this reinforces the idea that if there is a crazy fucked up body image gene in there handed down by yours truly then I can’t stop that.

The genes are the genes.

What I can do is instil the most positive sunshine about who they are, on the inside and the out, so that fucked up little gene doesn’t stand a goddamned chance.

My friend could never have known that external influences were going to tear her child’s walls down.

Maybe with a heads up she could have helped build a barricade, but now it’s too late.

Her William is doing ok.

Two arduous and heartbreaking years later, with months in rehab, his little light is starting to shine again and she can see that although he is not well, he is also becoming more like himself every day.

Now, she is beginning a program to help teach children resilience, and empathy. A teacher herself, she has already started in her classroom, and her program will soon run to a specially selected few at her school… then she hopes it will run everywhere.

I pray this will be the case.

Maybe one piece of good can come from nearly losing her child to bullying, and eating disorders, and she can make a difference.

I hope by the time my kids are in school resilience and empathy are taught as equally as algebra and physics, for I know which of those subjects I’ve called upon most often in my adult years.

Hint : it ain’t the ones with the numbers.

Are you aware of how you speak about yourself in front of the kids?

Do you think teaching resilience and empathy in school is important?

Let me know your thoughts,  xxx


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  • Reply Zanni Louise January 13, 2015 at 10:18 am

    Interesting topic. Definitely, teaching empathy is essential. More important than most things taught at school, I would have thought. Bathe those kids in sunshine and confidence – you can’t go too far wrong. xx

  • Reply Carolyn @ Champagne Cartel January 13, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Oh wow, how scary and sobering. I’m glad to hear William is doing okay. I am definitely aware of how I speak about weight in front of my kids. Husby and I are both into keeping fit and we talk a lot about how great exercise makes us feel – both inside and out. That’s the main focus for both of us, anyway. I’m also aware that without exercise I am more than a bit crazy, and that perhaps my kids might have inherited that challenge. So I am trying to teach them to keep fit as a way of feeling in control of their lives and their bodies. We’ll see how that goes…

    • Reply Danielle January 15, 2015 at 7:38 am

      Oh god, imagine if I’ve passed the neurotic gene too.

  • Reply Helen January 13, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    Yep. It’s true. The latest research says there is a genetic component to eating disorders. This doesn’t cause an eating disorder, but is the fuel if the fire is lit. That is, if someone with this genetic component never diets, or never tries to alter their body weight, then they won’t get an eating disorder. But in someone with this tendency, dieting can trigger the descent into a full blown eating disorder. That said, the current treatment is the same no matter what the causes/ cause may be. I am glad your friend’s child is doing better. It is a horrible thing. Helen R

  • Reply Annette January 13, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    I think if we had a little electric shock go off every time a judge-y word or thought came to mind about our (or others) weight, food choices, or our self doubt, body whinges, etc we’d be amazed. Not in a good way.
    Non scientifically, I reckon it is all taught/caught. All that doubt and fear and shame. Babies don’t feel fat. We celebrate their gorgeous bodies as they grow.
    Programs like this one being created by your friend are so important.

  • Reply Mukta Naik January 13, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    Yes, it’s scary to think that your kids could have the same issues as you esp when it comes to something as personal and life-altering like body image! But as you indicate later in your article, it’s more learned behavior than genetics at play, I suspect. The problem is: How do you teach a child about right eating and fitness without passing judgement on size! It’s so inter-related in our heads that it’s hard to separate fitness from looks when you talk to kids. Recently, my 10-year old son challenged me to lose 10 kgs in a year because he thought I am slightly overweight! A few days later, he came back to me to clarify that he meant I need to be fitter, lose the wight but also be able to run and exercise and all of that. I was amazed that he had run this through his not-so-little head and taken care to clarify his position. I felt like he was reassuring me that his judgement of me was not about my size! He has a tendency to put on weight too, so I realized how sensitized he was to the health vs weight issue!
    Just though I’d share this…. lovely and thoughtful post!

    • Reply Danielle January 15, 2015 at 7:37 am

      I totally think language is the key. Fit, strong, healthy, powerful bodies, rather than slim, skinny, beautiful bodies. It’s hard though as media rams that down our throats constantly. I also think being active together is great for all concerned.

  • Reply Hope January 13, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    Beautiful post, and a very interesting topic. You’ve given me shivers whilst I read. I would love to hear more about her project and support it! I suffered from anorexia and bulimia for me entire years, and some of my 20’s. These day’s I’m “recovered” pretty well, but you’ll never really be fully done with this kind of thing. My parents were definitely key factors in my illness, yes genes (and bad ones) are always hereditary, but it was their negative stance that made the situation worse.

    • Reply Danielle January 15, 2015 at 7:36 am

      It’s true. It kinda always lurks, huh? Parenting is a big job but I guess people can only use the tools that they were given too.

  • Reply Sonia from Sonia Styling January 13, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Wow. Just… wow. It breaks my heart how cruel kids can be (and yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of it). It kind of shocks me that there’s a fucked up gene that can be passed on like this… yet not. I come from an incredibly dysfunctional family and there are some not-so-lovely traits my father has that – had I not been aware of them – could have spiraled out of control in me. Awareness is key, as is resilience and empathy. I’m with you: emotional intelligence should be a compulsory school subject. x

    • Reply Danielle January 15, 2015 at 7:35 am

      Kids are awful…. yeah, I think our genetic make-up has a lot to answer for but as you say, awareness is key.

  • Reply Nicole - Champagne and Chips January 14, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    I have so SO much I want to say in response to this. Then I realised I wrote a post about it
    I should have been hospitalised at 16, weighing 38 kgs (and completing year 12). I think to an extent my mother’s own body image issues affected the way she saw me. I think in some ways she was a little impressed at how very very good I was at weight loss.

    A recent conversation provided some enlightenment. She was talking about needing to find a short-sleeved jacket to wear over a new sleeveless dress. I suggested she just wear the dress (she lives in Qld and it’s Summer). She replied that she doesn’t like her arms and went on to confess her self esteem issues. I felt like screaming ‘hello, 2 years of anorexia, another 5 of bulimic tendencies,’ but I didn’t. We have never ever spoken about it. Ever. Just that I was very thin for a while ‘due to stress.’

    There may be a hereditary component but I think that often people just have no idea how much their kids see and pick up. It’s good that people are becoming more aware of what they say now.

    • Reply Danielle January 17, 2015 at 6:47 am

      Oh man, the stuff we keep quiet to protect people… This is intense, babe. Thanks for sharing. I’lll go check it out xxx

  • Reply Jessica @ Absurd, She Wrote January 18, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    If not hereditary, certainly generational. My grandmother has always been obsessed with weight and dieting, and passed that on to her kids, including my dad. While he’s the last person to admit he’s disordered, he is an excessive exerciser and engages in “fat talk.” He always had things to say about my weight and my siblings’. I am only recently in recovery from a decade-long battle with anorexia. And now I am a new mom to a precious 11 week old baby girl and I am terrified that somehow she will think, as I did, that parental love and approval is somehow contingent on her appearance (and namely her weight). Fortunately my husband and I agreed on ground rules before she was even born that include no scales in the house, no fat talk, no banning of any one food, no “good” vs “bad” food, and putting an emphasis on an active lifestyle rather than watching what we eat.

    • Reply Danielle January 21, 2015 at 9:55 am

      That sounds like you’re approaching it with your eyes wide open. I kinda think that’s the best we can do.

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