Where are the Voices of the Mothers with an Anorectic Daughter in Chinese Societies?

By Zenobia Chan


This paper revisits the voices of four mothers who have an anorectic daughter in Hong Kong by a feminist perspective. This literature review examines the mothers' role under a Chinese gender familial perspective. Some vignettes about the voices of these mothers are extracted from my field notes and presented. The paper ends by calling for an understanding and supporting attitude toward this category of mothers who are neglected in Chinese societies.

Where are the Voices of the Mothers with an Anorectic Daughter in Chinese Societies? The voices of the mothers with an anorectic daughter are unheard in Hong Kong and other Chinese societies. We concern the experience and recovery of the anorectic daughters, but how about their mothers? Hence, I intend to reveal the voices of these mothers who have been written out from the previous anorexia studies.


I work with 28 anorectic families as the roles of a nurse, research assistant and doctorate candidate almost daily for two years. Meanwhile, my attention has been shifted from the anorectic daughters to their mothers because of three points: I am a mother of the son at 7 and feel the pain of the mother who has a sick child. Second, by continue observations, I find these mothers who are neglected in the mental health services and the society at large. Third, to unfold the mothers' experience can enrich the understanding anorexic symptoms in relation to a gender-familial sphere.

I like to declare my attitude toward this writing that is about, by and for the mothers. Writing about these mothers uncovers their unique experience from their perspectives. Second, writing by them adopts a collaborative approach during the data collection and report writing. Finally, writing for them advocates the society should pay attention to this minority group of people.

Literature review

In Chinese societies, usually men are the in-charge while women are the helpers in taking care of the family affair in majority of families. So marital and familial bliss is internalized as women's success and happiness. Moreover, Chinese women strive to be a good mother - an ideal woman. For example, women, as caregivers, should commit themselves to the family affairs. If they behave not in such expectation, they will probably be categorized as a bad mother. In view of the ideal women's role in the family, two aspects will be discussed: crystallization of female role in family sphere, and preparation of meals as a woman's job.

Crystallization of female role in a family sphere Social roles have been formulated by the activities of family-centered for women and society-centered for men. Women are socialized to place primary emphasis on the family, and to respect and honor the specific family roles assigned to them as supreme. Indeed, most of the gender role researchers view the family as a major site of oppression for women. Furthermore, women are subordinated to men in every society because the public sphere is highly valued as success in the notion of private and public domain.

In the traditional Chinese society, women should obey their father when still single, their husband when married, and their sons when widowed. They basically serve as an instrumental and supportive role in managing the home and reproduce male heir. With such emphasis on the family domain of women, women are likely locked up in the family. For example, household chores suppress women's creativity, and make them lack of mobility, low self-esteem, over commitment to family responsibilities and over-dependency on family members. Consequently, the center of women's identity, which is socially constructed, will concentrate on their role of nurturing family members and of normalizing the self-sacrificing for their family.


Women were historically placed a high positive value on self-sacrificing. Sacrifice for others are significant values in womenˇ¦s socialization. Such connotation makes it difficult for women to know who they are and to acknowledge their own feelings. In particular, women sacrificing for their family are a belief of being an ideal mother in the Chinese culture. When women focus on the primary importance of identity and commitments in their lives, these become effective counters to magnify self-sacrificing tendencies.

Meal in association with women's role

Meal plays a core function in every family life. It not only acts beyond physiological needs of human beings, but also serves as a socialization process, a ritual for sharing feelings and communication with each other family members. Specifically, the norms for gender role are to expect women who have to feed and nurture others, but are not for themselves. Culturally, women are assumed the responsibility for the preparation of food including deciding the menus, buying the food and preparing it for the table. As children grow, many a time their food intake continues to be closely monitored by their mothers in order to ensure their good health. For instance, the mother's role has been evaluated against the body weight of her children. When the children are too thin, it implies that the mother does not care the children in a social desirable manner. It means that the mother is not good enough to bring healthy and well-built children up. As a result, the mother will often shoulder the blame for the development of the anorectic symptoms of her daughter more than the father because she has been taken for granted for caring the children's health and preparation of food.

Meal can be used as a means for power struggle between the anorectic daughter and other family members. For example, the anorectic daughter who refuses to eat can be viewed as a power struggle with her mother because the mother is usually the one who prepares the meal for the family. Moreover, the father will put the blame of his daughter's food refusal on his wife because this dieting issue of the daughter has been thought as the wife's responsibility. By using such illustration, food refusal and the role of preparation of meal have become a family politics for the anorectic daughter either to acquire power or to blame the incompetence of the motherˇ's role.


This paper explores the voices of four mothers with an anorectic daughter. Interpretive approach with idealism as ontology, the epistemology is that there is no objective fact waiting for detection, rather the facts are constructed by the informantsˇ¦ subjective feelings and experience. The client-driven approach which appreciates the informants who play a pivotal role in generating vivid and authentic information that can enhance the understanding of their daughtersˇ¦ food refusal and their powerlessness in the anorectic episode. The findings have been extracted from my field notes. Some vignettes are presented below.

Case One

The anorectic daughter said,
"Only I have recovered, otherwise, my mother will be blamed by my father. Blaming her for not flattening me up, blaming her for her inadequacy to be a good mother."

Her father told the mother regarding the anorectic daughter,
"You know what the good mother does in the family. She should look after children and should be family-oriented. You have to talk and offer psychological support to the children. However, you never do the things that I expected you to do. These are the reasons, why the children do not love you but love me."

The mother replied,
"I already tried my best to be a good mother, I guess I was a good wife. Unluckily, I never reach the standard of a good mother from the expectation of my husband. I did not huge my children, that it does not mean I did not love them. People have different representations of loving their children. My point is that I like them to grow up in a natural way."

And then, she continued,
"Working outside and part-time job is an outlet to me, is a kind of relax, I feel being under a great pressure at home, always being blamed as a bad mother. Cooking soups on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I make desert on Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday. Then Sunday is for Chinese medicine. I do all my capacity to the family. I buy so many things and carried heavy things from the supermarket after my work. I think I should have a little room for my work. This is my freedom."

Case Two

The next mother, 53, did not work once she has been married, with an anorectic daughter, 22, a university student, a younger sister and an elder sons, 19 and 25. Her husband is a supervisor of a shipping firm.

She narrated,
"I never buy any cloth to myself, any things for own pleasure. I spent money for the family needs, especially for my children. Now, my daughter has anorexia, that make me feel bad, no matter how hard I work for the family, she still came up with this disease..."

This mother offered another piece of information.
"I see she so thin, I cry quietly in the bathroom or bedroom. I am afraid other members see me cry because I suppose the one to look after the family, I suppose can handle this crisis because I am the mother, if I cry or breakdown, who can help my daughter to pass this battle of anorexia."

The elder sister of the anorectic daughter mentioned,
"You know, my mum every time see my sister (means the anorexia patient) did not eat, she will become upset and lose her appetite also. Mum will force me and my brother to eat. All we can eat hoping that my sister will eat too or follow the quantity as we do. The family is under a high pressure. Especially for my mum, she never refill rice for herself and just looks at my sister during the mealtime, everyone has to participate in this hard time of looking at each other for eating any mouthful of food."

Case Three

The mother uttered during the causal talk with me during a telephone conversation,
"Being a mother, it is not a good feeling to see the daughter is getting thinner and thinner. My neighbors and relatives always ask why your daughter so thin, you as a mother should buy nutritious food and cook more variety of food for her. When every time I leave the home, walk through the long corridor (she lives in a public housing), I am afraid that my neighbors look at me as if I did something wrong and then friendly ask about my daughter. Many times, I answer the same wordings, thank you for your concerns, she is getting better now, or sometimes I will say, she still without any improvement. My intention is to response them, really by random thoughts to make some fresh meanings but actually, all remain the same. But my pressure on her food refusal is getting more and more prevalence."

She carried on,
"My daughter is very heavy and cute when she was a child. Now she looks like a bony frame hanging around. I can't believe she has changed to this state. I question myself a thousand times, what wrong with me? Why my daughter turns like that? I cannot believe I have a daughter like that. This defeat me, I feel very powerlessness in fighting for her weight back."

She sighed and paused then continued her narration,
"I take the order by my daughter to go to the wet market to buy vegetables as the quantity as she had prescribed. Then cooking the way she prescribed, without oil and salt with plain water boiling all the food together. I have to prepare food to her separately. Actually, cooking is the mother's job, I feel very unnatural that she orders me how to cook and what to buy. She has intruded into my boundary particularly in the kitchen."

Case Four

The mother said,
"I have to work after my husband died. I have to shoulder the whole family affair. Now my daughter has turned to anorexia, but I have to work, I let the food preparation and the supervision work from my maid. When I went to work, my head comes with the concerns of how much she eats that worried me a lot. I have a guilty feeling because I have to work and I cannot look after her for during the mealtime. That make me sometimes feel bad and self- blamed for her symptoms."


Most of the husbands of the above cases are bounded to concept of the traditional role and functions of a good mother. They think that their wives should responsible for the home affairs, children health, kinship and affective function of the family. Under the above expectations, the mothers have a little room for their social mobility. They had no an individual identity, but only have the family identity. They also blamed themselves for their inadequacy of being an ideal mother.

What wrong with these mothers? They are victims of the traditional Chinese expectation toward women. If they were grown up in other social context, they had an upward mobility that they might not be suppressed in their families and societies. They are the main characters in the anorectic family script.

As a woman myself, to expand our concerns beyond the anorectic patients to their families, an attention should be paid to the mothers. Otherwise, we cannot realize the sorrow and difficulties of this category of mothers. At last, I call for revealing the voices of the mothers with an anorectic daughter in their unique familial context and seeing things from their perspectives.

Zenobia Chan RN
PhD candidate The Chinese University of Hong Kong
December 2001

"Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Their articulation represents a complete, lived experience."
- Ingrid Bengis

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