If you have an internet connection or watch the news, you’ve probably heard about “Hot Mom” and her very public and widely distributed video explaining that there should be no excuses keeping a mother from having a perfect, toned, taut body like hers. With three children under the age of three, the former pageant queen and fitness competitor has been subsequently interviewed about her opinions by numerous media outlets and utilized her now notorious Facebook page to defend her comments and clarify her intent as inspirational. She also admitted to having had bulimia - a vague disclosure, but a disclosure nonetheless that deserves notation.
Everyone’s talking about “Hot Mom” (aka Maria Kang), and I’ve observed heated conversations resulting around body shaming, realistic and healthy expectations for body shapes and sizes of women and mothers, even bullying. But much to my surprise—and dismay—no one seems to be talking about eating disorders. In light of Kang’s disclosure about her eating disorder, there’s an important conversation to be had about the connection between exercise, nutrition and this illness. For individuals that have struggled with eating disorders—past or present, there’s often a very fine line regarding what constitutes “healthy” exercise. Furthermore, cultural perceptions about exercise complicate the identification and treatment of exercise compulsion and unhealthy fitness behaviors and goals.
This fine line I reference is really well explained by my colleague Jennifer Lombardi, MFT, Executive Director of Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program. Herself an eating disorders expert and fitness instructor in recovery from anorexia for over 22 years, explains:
“In recent years, there has been a major cultural shift around the idea that exercise is going to help you—not only in supporting general health and maintenance of a healthy weight during an obesity ‘epidemic,’ but also as a tool to manage anxiety and stave off depression. Exercise also makes us ‘feel good,’ and interestingly, compulsive over-exercisers often present with higher self-esteem despite having lower body-esteem. There is also a lot of cultural reinforcement around exercise, and our patients feel good about themselves because they are excelling at something considered by most to be a ‘healthy’ behavior. But exercise is one of those behaviors that means something different to eating disordered patients when considering their temperament and brain chemistry. It’s actually quite similar to cultural narratives around wine—abundant research has found that a glass of red wine each day is ‘heart healthy,’ but clinicians with an understanding of addiction would never tell an alcoholic that one glass of wine per day is healthy.”
I don’t know Maria Kang, and I’m not suggesting that her eating disorder is fueling her fitness regimen or physical status. But what I do know is this: Eating disorders are complex illnesses and obsessive behavior plays a critical role in the development and maintenance of eating disordered behaviors. Obsession can relate to the schedule you keep to make time for exercise, the duration or frequency of the activity, the intent of the activity (ie. to “to be healthy” or “to look like “Hot Mom”), as well as the impact on relationships around you. For the average woman, the recommended daily exercise (30 to 60 minutes per day, 4 to 7 days per week) and a balanced, inclusive diet will not achieve Kang’s physique. In most cases, an element of obsession—more exercise, more often and for longer durations and/or a diet restrictive of calories or whole food groups— will likely be present to be that thin and toned. I’m not suggesting that women can’t look like her—we can. But the choices that we make to follow Kang’s suggestion are most often not a matter of priorities and organizing the hectic life of a mother or wife or business woman or student. The choices many of us would have to make to look like “Hot Mom” can easily border on unhealthy and obsessive, especially for those with a latent genetic predisposition toward developing an eating disorder.
If nothing else, pop culture crazes or controversies like these remind us that we’re all entitled to an opinion. Now, here’s one of mine. As a woman, mother, eating disorder survivor and eating disorder expert for over 30 years, I think the world would be a much better place if we were all just allowed to be who we are, regardless of our shape, size, weight or appearance. It’s hard enough to embrace our bodies and model positive self and body esteem for our children without shaming and (allegedly) inspirational messages encouraging us to pursue an unlikely, and in many cases, unhealthy state. Be yourself and take pride in what you do, but leave it at that. If you want to inspire others, focus on the stuff that matters—who you are, not what you look like. Eating disorders are so much more common that people think, and you never know how your words can trigger this serious illness in someone else.
Have thoughts or opinions about the “Hot Mom” controversy? Share them below.