My Take on Genetics and EDs

Before L started treatment I was aware of the link between genetics and eating disorders and I know when I mentioned my own struggles with food, and that of my mother, to the professionals treating L, they made notes of this and said it was ‘interesting’.

I have no scientific knowledge and only a basic understanding how the chromosomes dealt out to us by our biological parents influence the people who we are. As a left of centre feminist, I always believed we were made not born and genetics might influence our hair colour, but not our behaviour. How could they?

And yet, two things cause me grave doubt. Firstly, I have two mothers. A biological one and an adopted one. I was adopted as a baby and spent my first two weeks of life with my biological mother, the next seven weeks in foster care and then went to live with my adopted family, consisting of my mother, father and two brothers, both the natural sons of my adoptive parents.

For reasons I won’t dwell on here, it wasn’t great. I genuinely don’t think my adoptive mother had thought this through. She seemed to think that she could replicate her own close mother daughter relationship, and that my gratitude at being taken in and fed, clothed and housed would produce an eternally obedient and biddable child. It didn’t. Things were different with my dad; we saw ourselves as the outcasts and were really close. Overall, though, it got better as I grew older.

At the age of 30, I traced my birth mother. I waited for many years, assuming it would be a long search, coupled with the likelihood of rejection. Adopted children often grow up with a sense that they were adopted for a reason and they are not likely to be welcomed with open arms. In the event, it was an easy search and I found a mother who was delighted to be found. She had not wanted to give me up and it had been the cause of a huge amount of pain. We quickly became close and she is absolutely “my mum”. As is my adoptive mother. If we can have two children and love them equally, why not two mothers?

As I got to know my birth mother, I was astonished at how similar we were. Not in looks, but in mannerisms and most of all, our approach to food, to cooking it, eating it. Our likes and dislikes are similar and it can take us forever to order food in a restaurant. Not because we are picky but because we want it to be delicious and not a disappointment. And we both struggle with weight and food, but neither of us has either been especially overweight.

Surely learning about food is due to nurture, not nature? How can part of us that no one sees, except a scientist under a microscope determine our behaviour. Yet my mum and I, dissimilar in appearance, will both make the same frown in response to a food we don’t want to eat, or in deciding whether we can allow ourselves to eat.

Which brings me to L and the second cause for doubting nurture over nature. She and K are twins, born at the same time, in the same house, to the same parents and have had the same upbringing. Yet they could not be more different. If nurture is a factor in an ED, then why are K and J not struggling with food. And I remember the shock I felt to realise L’s obsession with recipes mirrored mine exactly, even though I had never discussed my eating disorder with her. I know that this is explained by us sharing an eating disorder as well as genes.

None of this helps me or L, however, except it means sometimes, I don’t just understand how she feels, I know it because I have been in the same place. I can understand the twisted non-logic of anorexia and use it against her. And perhaps I can help her in the future, should her own daughter or son go through this. But I can’t take a pill which changes my genes, nor one which changes her upbringing for that matter. I can just hold her hand and tell her that her grandmother and I are proof it gets better and that she will get through it, like we did. At the moment, as L wonders if she will ever be free of anorexia and is really doubting her capacity to recover, this could be the most valuable thing we do


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