Dealing with your child or other loved one needing to purchase new clothes in a different size as part of their recovery is one of those painful ironies eating disorders specialize in inflicting upon us. For those whose full nutritional rehabilitation includes weight change or changing body composition, needing new clothes is a cause for celebration – for you. For your loved one it is likely a very difficult time; a tangible and powerful reminder to the eating disorder that it is losing its grip, which in turn causes it to make itself as big and scary as possible in their brains – to “Hulk Up.” Even for those motivated in recovery, changing sizes can be a triggering event, so be especially watchful and supportive. And as happy as you are about this sign of progress, it’s usually wise to proceed with emotional restraint and be as bland as possible; ED loves to ruin a celebration and use progress to drive regression.
In the multi-family FBT-based program our family attended, veteran parents a few steps further down the road than we were, alerted me to how hard it was for their kids to deal with growing out of and buying new clothes as they gained weight. I was able to steer my daughter (we were dealing with anorexia and needed to weight restore) toward leggings and away from jeans, and then into sundresses as the weather changed. This didn’t mean we never had to deal with any clothing ordeals, but, it did minimize them. Basketball or other stretchy shorts are great for all genders as weight changes. Athletic and other pants with drawstrings and elastic waistbands are helpful.
If it’s in your budget to shop for your child and simply add some of these options into their closet and drawers without comment, and even remove some items you know will be problematic (too small/too tight and triggering), this is something many people have found helpful. Cutting sizing tags or using a Sharpie to cover over size labels are also options. I frequented discount stores like Ross and Marshalls for these clothes that my daughter wouldn’t be wearing long (more weight gain needed), so I could bring home a few inexpensive things to go along with her brightening mood as her brain was renourished and rewiring; thrift stores are another budget option.
When Shopping Is On The Menu
A family culture can include spending time shopping or in malls and, especially when siblings are involved, this may be something the person with the eating disorder doesn’t want to give up. Sometimes it can be a bonding activity between parent and child and they want to keep that piece alive at a time when everything is so hard and awkward. Sometimes a teen uses clothes as a form of expression and it’s important to their self-identity to assemble their look themselves. All of these are reasons to at least try to manage, rather than avoid, the mall. I often encourage parents to steer fashionistas toward accessories at this time – it’s a great time to invest in shoes and maybe even make a coveted pair of sneakers or heels as part of a behavior contract. I think a pair of Rainbow flip-flops were one of my daughter’s early rewards. While research shows kids vulnerable to eating disorders are often resistant to rewards, making consequences more effective, it made me feel better as a parent to include a “carrot” for progress, so it’s a win-win. Scarves, hats, and jewelry are all fun to try on and buy and don’t require a dressing room.
Depending on where the person is in recovery, you can also make shopping part of a challenge by saying yes to the new sunglasses, but only after a food court snack or meal. Thrift shopping can be a fun outing even with ED lurking if you put the focus on finding great deals versus paying attention to sizes, which are often intermingled and less of a focus in normal retail stores. If you are planning on a trip and aren’t sure if your child will cope, see how they handle buying clothes to prepare for it; beach vacations with skimpy clothing can be rough for some.
It’s Time for New Jeans/Swimsuit/Prom Dress/Tuxedo
There comes a point where shopping for potentially triggering items becomes a necessity and there’s nothing to do but put on your big person panties and head out armed with a “cope ahead” plan. Discuss ahead of time what you will be looking for and be fairly specific – it can be overwhelming even without an eating disorder to have to make all the decisions involved in a shopping trip. Maybe limit to one store, or one item you are on the hunt for; an all-day trip is likely not going to end well. Our cope ahead initially was that she would point to what she was interested in, I would choose sizes and tuck tags and start her with the size up from what I thought she would wear. One brilliant mother told me she took painter’s tape to cover up sizes on tags before her daughter tried them on. I encouraged a quick try on over endless mirror examination from multiple angles. We went between snack and mealtime at first so we weren’t doing two hard things at once, and we went when neither of us was tired, or in a heightened emotional state.
Think about how you will respond if things start to go south and encourage your child to think ahead about what skills they might use to get through this experience, even though anxiety will be high. More than one child has had a panic attack and fled in a crowded mall, and you are working to both avoid that and be prepared for it should it happen. If your credit limit and schedule allow it, you can purchase multiple sizes and try them on at home and then return; again, unflattering lighting can make shopping hard even for those not impacted by an eating disorder, so if your child is still fragile this can be a way to make trying on clothes less stressful.
A Sign of Progress
There are a variety of approaches to dealing with too small or other triggering clothing; a sweatshirt that is huge, but was a “security blanket” when the child was very ill, for example, or shorts that will never fit again but the child is attached to in a potentially unhelpful way. The parental approach to handling this should be based on the parents’ own experiences with their child and what they’ve learned about how their child reacted to other aspects of nourishment and treatment – there is no one approach that works for all, and it’s valuable to learn how your child deals best with tough situations. As previously mentioned, with some kids, especially younger ones, simply eliminating and replacing clothes without even a mention can work. Many parents are surprised to find their child or teen never even mentions the switches. Older teens and young adults may need to take more responsibility and have more control over how they let go of things – sometimes in stages. When my daughter, in her late teens, passed on the clothes she’d worn when ill, it felt like an important marker even though they’d long been relegated to a top shelf in her closet.
Further in recovery, parents may be shocked that their child wants and wears clothing that reveals more skin than they may have in the past, or that they drastically change styles. I’ve seen that be an important piece of “fake it til you make it” body positivity – and being simply observant and curious, rather than judgmental, about what it means can be helpful.
Something to Think About
In my search for leverage to move recovery forward in the face of anorexia’s constant attempts to pull my daughter back, I developed a philosophy that “normal” life is for “normal” people who do things “normally.” I had seen that if someone can have both anorexia and the trappings of normalcy, they may lack the motivation to change. I tried to be conscious of this, and at times this extended to clothes. You may have to move between encouraging socialization when they’ve been isolated (so not pushing back on them for wearing clothes that seem to be tied to their illness) and insisting that clothing be appropriate to the event (shorts to summer barbecue rather than sweatpants and sweatshirt).
Parent peer support forums are a fantastic place to hear how other parents have dealt with various aspect of the illness, treatment, and recovery of eating disorders. Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders (F.E.A.S.T.) is a wonderful place to connect with experienced people that are happy to light the path to recovery with their lanterns fueled by their own lived experiences. Peer support that helps you tolerate yours and your child’s distress and gives you tips and tricks, can make all the difference in helping your loved one in their battle against an eating disorder.
*FBT is Family-Based Treatment; rather than getting a pure form of this manualized outpatient protocol, many families receive FBT-Influenced treatments, and that is what we had at the Partial Hospitalization Level. I am a huge fan of Family Empowered Food First Treatments (my term), whenever possible.
About The Author:
JD Ouellette is an Expert by Experience and educator who provides Parent/Caregiver system navigation and skills training support around the globe; you can read more about her qualifications and her Full Metal Apron eating disorders services at JDOuellette.com, as well as reading testimonials from families she has helped. Her daughter is living free of anorexia and pursuing her dream career.
Weir, K. (2016, April). New insights on eating disorders. Retrieved June 23, 2019, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/04/eating-disorders