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Parent's Roles in Development of Eating Disorders:

How Important is the Father?

Becky Honeyman


Much of the literature that focuses on the parents' role in the development of eating disorders is focused on the mother and the mother-daughter relationship. Studies have shown conclusively that a mother's body image and eating habits are, mirrored in her daughter, and that if she is obsessed wilt her own body image, it stands likely that her daughter will be the same way both growing up and in her adult life. The father, though, is often left out of the research except for in the basic family profile. Here, we will examine the active role that the father plays in the development of eating disorders in their daughters. First, we will explore why the father's ideas and how they are expressed can lead to an eating disorder. Next, we will discuss how a daughter's feelings are transformed into symptoms of eating disorders, and finally, we will conclude with how the relationship needs to change to help daughters recover from the vice of an eating disorder.

The Ideas of the Father

Since men in our society are "encouraged to achieve but not to feel" (Maine), fathering is often a difficult task for men, especially with their daughters because the relationship requires "more intimacy then most men can handle" (Maine). Men try to bond with their daughters oftentimes with gifts or compliments, but not with interaction into their lives. Daughters look up to their fathers and want to please them, so they look around to see what makes their fathers happy and try to emulate whatever it is. The first place to look is at the relationship the father has with the mother. If a girl has an average weight mother, but constantly hears her father encouraging her to diet or exercise the daughter 'will try to adapt the same standards for herself. Here, the daughter sees the father as "one family member causing another's behavior' (Palazzoli). Men, for the most part, agree with the social norms of beauty. Watching television, reading magazines, or simply walking down the street with their fathers, girls see the appreciation thin, beautiful women receive from men. In turn, the girls believe that if they were thin and beautiful, they would have a better relationship with their father. Fathers though, have a difficult time with dealing with the fact that their daughters are beautiful, even if they are, because of the facts that they do not want their little girls to grow up and also because they cannot relate to what they see as 'premature sexuality' (Palazzoli). When girls begin to express themselves sexually, then, fathers become more distant from the relationship, often seeing the situation as one the mother should deal with. If the father does feel the need to play a role in this stage of his daughter's development, it is mostly to warn her against the evils of boys her age and the threat and consequences of pregnancy and disease. There is rarely a sit down discussion of what it means to be woman from a man's perspective between fathers and daughters. This indifference leads the daughter to work harder for her father's approval, and often has disastrous results.

Transformation of Feelings into Symptoms

If a girl has a distant, but not uncaring relationship with her father, due either to unintentional things such as social factors or her father's difficulty in showing his emotions, or if a father is simply uninvolved in his daughter's life, the girl feels incredible impacts of her "self esteem, identity, emotions, and behavior" (Maine). Since a daughter has an inherent need for her father's approval, if she does not feel that she has gained it, she feels Incredibly guilty and has a drive to do whatever she can to change her father's opinion of her. Since appearance is the most obvious aspect of a person, girls feel that if their appearance was more pleasant to their fathers, a better relationship would be achieved. With

the exception of plastic surgery, ft is difficult to make a drastic change in looks unless one changes her body size. When a girl feels so desperate and guilty that she has not lived up to her father's standards, oftentimes she will attempt to change her body, no matter the cost to her health. Remember here that the girl already has psychological damage to even get to this point of severity, and her health is probably the least of her concerns as long as she can gain approval. Many girls, in fact, try to "punish themselves" (Chernin) by causing themselves the physical discomfort of vomiting in bulimics or excessive exercise and starvation of anorexics. They feel that they have failed in relations with their father and that they should make themselves pay to make things right by results of what they see as a more attractive body by way of their own pain. Most fathers do not see these symptoms in their daughters, and when they do realize that there is a problem, they do not feel that they had anything to do with Its onset. Truthfully, most fathers of girls with eating disorders care deeply for their daughter's health and would do anything to help them, but they simply do not know how.

How Can the Relationship Change?

Men can help in the battle against eating disorders. One Important way is their attitude towards their daughter. Many men feel girls only need their mothers, but the time during adolescence is one of the most crucial times for male approval, and the most Important male approval in a young girl's life comes from her father. Adolescence is the time when father/daughter relationships are challenged and the time when eating disorders are most likely to start. Therefore, fathers need to find positive ways to relate to their daughters. The following are some suggestions for the father concerned about contributing to the daughter's health.

+Evaluate your own messages you send to your daughter about weight, dieting, beauty, and body image. Be sure that you are not pressuring her to change her body.

+Set a good example by your own good behaviors involving food and exercise.

+Talk to your daughter about the pressures she is feeling to lose weight or to be attractive to please others.

+Let her know that you love her no matter what she weighs!

+Help her define her values and determine what Is really important about herself and others

+Listen to her. Don't try to impose your views on her. Show appreciation for uniqueness, and a difference in opinion.

+Respect, trust, and approve of your daughter so her self-esteem will grow.

+Show respect for all women, including her mother. When you put women down, even if you are joking, your daughter will feel put down also.

+Give her opportunities and encouragement that you would give to a boy.

+Be careful of messages that suggest women are less important or don't need to know certain things.

+Show a willingness to share responsibilities in the home and don't categorize a task as "women's work". In order for your daughter to feel good about being a women, she needs to see men and women work together as equal partners and respect each other.

+If you are separated or divorced, let your daughter know that you want to be a part of her life. Try to spend time with her and continue your relationship.

Ask-yourself these questions:

+What are my attitudes towards weight and women?

+Have I become fat-phobic?

+Do I degrade women's bodies if they are not like women on the pages of fashion magazines?

+What do I value in women? Is appearance more Important than personality?

+How much have I internalized sexist attitudes that convey women are less important than men?

+Do I understand that such attitudes may encourage women to pursue strength and power through weight and dieting?

+How much do I listen to women and show respect for them as equal human beings?


A girl's father has tremendous effects on her life and view of herself. Though many men do not realize the negative impacts they could have on their daughters through simple everyday actions, they need to be aware that their ideas will be passed on to all of their children. Though the impact on females is a potentially damaging one to health, the effect on males is to follow in their fathers footsteps and treat and view women how they have observed their most important role model do all their lives. Thus, the cycle continues unless fathers are willing to make the effort to reach out to their children in a way that teaches love and respect based not solely on appearance. Things can change, and father/daughter relationships are a crucial part of the ever-increasing developments towards the prevention and treatment of eating disorders.

Works Cited

1. Bloom-Feshback. "Historical Perspectives on the Father's Role." In Lamb, M.E. (ed), The Role of the Father in Child Development. John Wiley Press, New York. 1981.

2. Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa Association newsletter, Volume 13 Issue 3, Fall 1995.

3. Chemin, Kim. Reinventing Eye: Modem Woman In Search of Herself. Harper and Rowe, New York. 1987.

4. Maine, Margo. Father Hunger, Fathers, Daughters, and Food. Gurze Books, Carlsbad, CA. 199 1.


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