Care and Feeding

I’m Really Worried About My Little Sisters’ Relationship to Food

My dad’s girlfriend is sending them some dangerous messages.

Cigarettes and juice.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pineapple Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Bet_Noire/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I can’t figure out when or how much to intervene in the parenting of my half-siblings. I’m 24 and moved away for work when I was 18. Recently, circumstances have changed and I’m able to visit home a lot more. My dad is raising two other daughters, 11-year-old “Elaina” (her mom isn’t in the picture) and 6-year old “Lexi” with his girlfriend “Claire.” Claire is clearly struggling with some kind of eating disorder—she has juice and cigarettes instead of food, she talks often about trying to fit into her high school jeans, and constantly refers to herself and others as “fat” with a lot of anger. She’s tiny—5’5” and under 110 pounds. I’m worried for my sisters: Lexi often refuses to eat during my visits, and talks about being a “bad fat girl.” Elaina is the kind of chubby that lots of girls are right as puberty sets in; she looks just like me before I got tall and skinny as a teenager. But Claire has her on a “diet,” meaning that she often encourages her to skip meals, and won’t let her have “bad foods” including carbs and fruit. When I asked my dad about this, he said that he “doesn’t get involved in girl stuff,” but these are his kids! I was mainly raised by my (late) mom, so I’m baffled about what to do. How can I help protect my siblings? How can I model safe and healthy eating when I’m not around every day? Is there a way I can get my dad to act?

— Looking for Balance in Buffalo

Dear Looking for Balance,

This is a complicated situation. I think you have to talk to your father (and if you think there’s any way of getting through to her, ideally Claire) about the potential for danger here, first in terms of your siblings’ basic nutrition and then with regard to potential disordered eating.

On the first point, if you feel that this situation is in any way tending toward neglect or physical abuse, your father and Claire need to be confronted about that, and you must make them understand the urgency of changing course. Otherwise, you may need to involve the authorities—I can’t tell from your letter if you think these girls are outright being denied enough food to eat, but if they are, that’s not something you can ignore.

On the second point, it seems pretty obvious that Claire is struggling with her own body image, and she is passing those behaviors and beliefs on to your sisters. It may not feel appropriate to approach Claire herself about this (it seems like you two aren’t close), but you can talk to your father about how eating disorders can ravage the life of a young person and the specific signs you’re seeing that your sisters are already starting to have some challenges. I’m hoping this will spur him to action, but to be honest, I am not terribly optimistic about his ability to take action, to clock the severity of the issue, or to oppose his girlfriends’ decisions when it comes to family meals.

That leaves you in a tricky spot. As much as possible, you don’t want to be seen as meddling in your siblings’ and Claire’s relationship or home life, as that will likely cause your sisters grief. But I do think you need to start communicating with them about bodies, food, and weight. Without speaking ill of Claire directly, try to let them know that bodies of all sizes are beautiful, and encourage them to see themselves as such no matter how much they weigh. There’s a healthier path, and you can point them to it. Show your sisters positive examples of body diversity (plus-size models, Lizzo and her “Big Grrl” dancers) and constantly remind them that weight is not the lens by which they have to view themselves. Since you are able to make regular visits, make body positivity a regular topic of discussion during those times. You can and should be a consistent counterpoint to the messaging they are receiving from Claire, and as you are likely someone these girls truly admire, hearing these ideas from you can go a long way. Best of luck to you all.

— Jamilah