A sacred cow is an idea, custom or institution believed to be above criticism. Sacred cows are firmly believed to be absolutely and factually correct, but they do not stand up to critical evaluation. Overcoming sacred cows requires endless practice. Even when firmly shown to be false, they often survive due to the unconscious beliefs that drive them.
When your child has an eating disorder, it’s time to critically evaluate your sacred cows. While no parent is ever responsible for a child’s eating disorder, the disorder found life in your ecosystem, and thus there is good reason to consider the elements that may have contributed to its development. Parents are never to blame, and yet when we evaluate our child’s ecosystem without prejudice, we are able to be of tremendous help during the healing process.
Here are three sacred cows that need to be evaluated when undergoing eating disorder treatment:
Sacred Cow 1: Thin is good
We live in a culture that believes 500% that being thin is good, and fat is bad. Thin people are believed to be in better physical health, of higher intelligence, and, of course, more attractive. This sacred cow goes so deep that it can feel overwhelming to topple it, but we must in order to heal from our eating disorders. The facts are that:
Equal Health: People who live in thinner bodies are not actually healthier just because they have less adipose tissue. Many people who live in larger bodies are physically healthier and live longer than people who are living in thinner bodies. Neither body type is better than the other from a health standpoint. If this statement is making you stutter in disbelief, then good. You have just identified a sacred cow. Now go find out more about it. Read more: Facts about eating disorders and weight
Equal Intelligence: People who live in larger bodies are not less intelligent, but they are believed to be less intelligent based on the fact that everyone “knows” that all it takes to lose weight is to take in fewer calories than you put out. This is the baseline of the belief that people of size are less intelligent, but it is actually completely false. Saying that weight loss and maintaining a low body weight is simply a matter of intelligence and willpower is a vast oversimplification of the complexity of the human body. If you think that everyone should be capable of losing weight and maintaining a thin body, then you have just found a sacred cow. Now go topple it! Read more: Facts about eating disorders and diets
Equally Attractive: People who live in larger bodies are not actually less attractive than those who live in thinner bodies. How do we know this? Because there is no single standard for human beauty. Beauty standards are societally driven based on the preferences popularized by those in power. In our society, the beauty, fashion and health industries push the thin ideal everywhere we go, and thus we have internalized the “belief” that being thin is more beautiful. But, just like all sacred cows, you can dismantle this one thoroughly by spending some time learning about fatphobia and societal forces and feminism, and the other movements that serve to educate us about our unconscious beliefs. This is a sacred cow, and you can genuinely see all bodies as uniquely beautiful, regardless of their size if you drop the social construct that thin = beautiful.
Sacred Cow 2: A child’s body is the parent’s responsibility
Many parents believe that their child’s body is a reflection of their parenting. This damaging belief begins at the first visit with the pediatrician when your child is just hours old and the doctor mentions the child’s height to weight ratio and starts monitoring your ability to feed your child appropriately. When a child “fails to thrive,” parents feel guilty. When a child gains weight “too rapidly,” parents feel guilty.
Our doctors immediately link our child’s body weight to our ability to parent. Every single pediatrician visit begins with a height/weight analysis and questions about the child’s eating patterns. Even parents who have children who fall directly on the “average” line of weight get the lectures about how often to feed, what to feed, and are told that they need to watch the child’s weight.
But this belief that parents should monitor their child’s weight and keep it low on the scale is a sacred cow. Bodies are naturally diverse, and the more parents mess with their kid’s weight, in the form of diets, criticism, and teasing, the more likely their kids are to have problems with weight as adults. That’s right. Parents who obsess over kids’ weight when they are children have kids who are more likely to become medically obese based on BMI.
Our children must be responsible for their own bodies. Our kids must learn to exist in our world in the midst of countless tempting foods and constant messages linking their body weight to their worth. When we don’t help our kids embody their self-worth regardless of what they eat or what they weigh, they are at high risk of developing an eating disorder.
Parents are responsible for offering their kids a healthy selection of foods. We are responsible for helping our children notice how food makes their bodies feel. We are responsible for never labeling foods “good” or “bad,” which can lead kids to binge eat when given access to “bad” foods. When children are fed in this way they become natural, intuitive eaters who balance out their diets for optimal nutrition based on their individual bodies. For more about feeding kids, please visit the Ellen Satter Institute.
Sacred Cow 3: Good parenting is natural
The sacred cow that good parenting is natural, or that love is all you need to raise a child well, needs to be thoroughly toppled. Good parenting is often not natural. Most of the reason for this is that none of us is born with a knowledge of psychology, brain development, and the other critical skills that are necessary to parent well. Most of us were also parented imperfectly, and thus should carefully evaluate what we think is “right” before automatically assuming it is healthy.
Great parents spend time thinking critically about parenting and make constant adjustments based on how their kids react to their parenting. They read articles, pursue training, and get therapy to help them dismantle their assumptions and exchange them for compassionate parenting approaches.
It doesn’t matter how much you love your child – love is not enough. All of us make mistakes, and many times we commit crimes against the people we love simply because we don’t realize that while having love for our children is natural and automatic, giving love appropriately is a conscious, intentional action. Giving love takes practice and patience, and we must adjust our love-giving for each child and each circumstance. If this sounds exhausting, it can be sometimes, but it is also absolutely what our kids need from us. Read more: Give More Love
If your child has an eating disorder, then this is the perfect time to check your sacred cows about parenting and learn some new skills. It’s never too late to become a better parent, and our children have tremendous capacity to accept a parent who learns new parenting skills.
Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders. Ginny is also a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.