How do I help my brother have a healthy relationship with food?
My parents are particularly worried about his weight and this keeps leading to arguments that are getting more frequent with time.
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AN ANGEL FROM HEAVEN:
Hi, so this could well be a lot of issues tangled together, so I'm really sorry if it's messy to work through, but basically my little brother (I'm 21, he's 11), is overweight. Everyone in my family is "big" and we're all above average height, but my parents are particularly worried about his weight and this keeps leading to arguments that are getting more frequent with time.
He starts secondary school this September (I don't know what the American equivalent is, sorry!) and my parents are worried that he'll get bullied about it, and that it will cause him health issues. I think they are both especially concerned because my dad was bullied for the same reasons in school, and my mum is extremely judgmental of appearances (which she denies). This is causing more and more family arguments/discussions about food and exercise, and my brother can be very stubborn and argumentative, but also incredibly sensitive and can cry quite easily. This concerns my dad because of all the toxic masculinity / real men don't cry issues, which he thinks will only make him an "easier target" paired with his appearance.
The main thing that worries me though, is the mentality that my parents have around food & exercise. My dad will always use food as a reward for himself and my brother, whereas my mum has attempted a fair few diets and regimes over the years, and has got to the point where she hides 'unhealthy' food from my brother and writes notes on the food he shouldn't eat without permission, as he tends to eat in secret or 'forget' that he's eaten things.
I try my best to counteract these things, I love him so much and want him to have a healthy relationship with food and to protect him from this trap that could give him a bad self-image and relationship with eating. However, my parents have taken to using me as the "good example" for emotional responses and healthy eating / exercising. We are very different personality-wise, I don't show my emotions and very rarely cry (not saying that's healthy, but a wholeeee different issue), and around 14/15 I started to lose a lot of weight and have stayed relatively fit since. Not only does this pit us against each other, which is the very last thing I want, but it makes my parents think that this approach will work. But in fact I had a serious eating disorder from 15 to about 19/20, which I am still working through now, and around 17 it began to cause me a bunch of medical issues, which my parents have always thought were unexplained and just bad luck. I don’t want him to resent me for being the “good sibling” when I in fact kinda got to that point in the most unhealthy and unsustainable ways, but I can’t tell him that outright. Due to a lot of social anxiety, and probably other issues, I have very little memory of my childhood and early teenage years, so I don't know if the way my parents are responding to my brother's weight is the same way as they reacted to mine.
Basically what I'm asking and hoping you can help me with, is a way to help my little brother get fit and be healthy whilst also trying to change my parents' outlook on food & their arguments, knowing that a lot of their ideas probably stem from their own long-standing issues? And sorry to keep adding information, but I'm going to be studying in another country from october to july, and I'm worried how arguments and changes might escalate when I can't be there to help mediate them.
It’s a photo of baby back ribs because Here’s the Thing is back baby back baby back… get it?!??!?! Also this is about food. Idk. Please sue me.
Hello hello hello!!! I have so much to say about this letter and I’m going to try to get it all down in a comprehensible way because my brain is pinging around in my head like this:
The reason is partially because I just drank a bunch of coffee, but mostly because I can relate to pretty much ALL of this letter. Firstly, I was overweight and then got an eating disorder around the ages that you say you had one. Secondly, I have 10-year younger siblings who have bad relationships with food caused in part by my parents. I FEEL YOU.
There’s a lot to address here so I’m going to try to make sure I get to it all, but the first thing that I need you to hear is this: you alone cannot fix this.
By the sound of your letter it seems like you’re aware of this logically, but I’m sure that emotionally it feels like if you just try harder and care more you might be able to make things good. You may not be able to. You will very likely be able to make things better— you very likely already are. But you, as a single person, have such a small amount of say over another person’s relationship with food. The sad reality is that one person can do a lot of damage very easily to someone’s relationship with food, but it’s much harder for one person to do a lot of good. Years and years of your parents modeling unhealthy relationships with food is going to be nigh impossible for your brother to unlearn totally, even with your help.
THE GOOD NEWS, however, is that he has you. You did not have you. You had no one to go through this with. That is wrong and fucked up and I’m very sorry. Someone should have been there giving you good messaging and love and acceptance. Someone should have been modeling better food behavior.
Relationships with food are incredibly personal, and more than almost anything else, they come up a lot because we all eat frequently and we’re around food frequently and food is imbued with a bunch of social meaning. Additionally, our world is hateful and cruel to fat people. I know because I was fat. People were much much nicer to me when I lost weight, even though I did so by starving myself. They still lauded me for my “health.” My point in saying this is: you cannot make him feel a new way about food. There is a chance that even if you do everything “right” (there’s no such thing, but let’s pretend), he may still have disordered eating for many years. And it’s not just because of your parents, although they seem to really be competing for a big role in his psyche around eating. You cannot undo the cruelty of the world with your kindness, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile!!!! It will help your brother a lot!!! I PROMISE. I’m just telling you that you can do a lot of work and try really hard and he may end up with a bad relationship to food still—it will likely be much better than had you not been there.
Please remember that you are not a failure if he has a bad relationship to food. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY!!!! HE is not a failure if he has a bad relationship to food. I know you want him to be “healthy.” Your parents also do. That’s a lot of pressure. Being a healthy human is a fucking uphill battle and no one does it 100% all the time. All of us are healthy and unhealthy back and forth, some more than others. There are lots of types of unhealthy. Some might call me unhealthy for having chronic pain and eczema and having acid reflux and weird heart issues no one is sure about and getting UTIs all the time. From the outside, I’m apparently “more healthy” than I was at 14 when I was overweight, but I know personally that that is not the case. Healthiness IS NOT worthiness. I know you understand this on the one side with his body—you understand very well that, despite what your parents think, being thinner does not mean “healthier” and that being healthier isn’t the end all be all of existence. But the same is ALSO true for your mind, and I hope you get that. He may have mental health issues around food for a while. That’s ok. It’s going to be painful and sad for you to watch, and I’m sorry. But it’s ok. Not all of us are healthy. I know you’re trying to prevent pain. Your parents are trying to, too. They’re not going about it correctly, but I urge you to not put so much pressure on yourself and your brother to Be Healthy and Have a Good Relationship With Food that you guys end up obsessing about it like your parents.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do is create a space for your brother that is not about food at all. A place where you don’t comment on what he eats or how much exercise he gets. A place where you don’t try to model what is good or bad, where you don’t try to counteract the harm your parents have done by being extra good. A place that is simply neutral. Trying too hard to model goodness still ties eating behaviors to morality. It says “there is a good way to eat and a bad way, and mom and dad are trying to teach you the bad way.” Instead, I highly recommend that you give him space to learn on his own. To discover what makes his body feel good or bad or full or empty. He’s going to get things wrong. We all do!!!! I still sometimes eat a bunch of cookies for lunch and make my stomach hurt. THAT IS OK!!! Your relaxed attitude toward his eating, your trust in him, your pure love will go much much farther towards helping him than any pontificating.
That all said, I think that there is some space for you to talk about yourself with him. I think it would be appropriate for you to tell him how you felt growing up with your parents and how you came to disordered eating and what it has done for your health. Obviously, that has to be age-appropriate, but 11 year olds are smart as shit, so don’t baby him. I would say something like this, “Hey, I’m not trying to pressure or persuade you into doing anything or changing any of your behavior. I think you’re doing perfectly and you’ve never made a mistake in your life. But I just feel like I’ve seen mom and dad say some really fucked up things (11 year olds know the word “fuck”! Don’t get mad at me!) about food and eating and it’s really bothering me because they did that to me. I don’t think they know this, but it ended up giving me a really messed up relationship with food and for a while, I even had a pretty bad eating disorder that caused me XY and Z health problem. I’m saying this because I want you to know that you can talk to me about this or ask me about this and I’ll be honest with you and I won’t be mad at you. There’s nothing shameful about having an eating disorder, but they can be dangerous and I’m worried that their words might effect you like they did me. Again, I’m not interested in policing or watching or noticing what you eat or don’t eat. That’s your job. You’re your own person. I’m just here and I’m sorry about what they’re doing. I know they’re worried about you, but they’re not being helpful and I want you to hear that from someone.”
You can also add this, but do not go overboard, “If you—not mom and dad—but you ever have questions about eating healthier or differently and you want to talk to me about it, I’m happy to help you or find a doctor or dietician who can help. I’m not going to monitor you, but if you feel like you want help with anything, let me know.” Remember, just because you’re thinner right now, does not make you a dietitian or a doctor. You are not. You are someone who is struggling with their own eating issues; be gentle with yourself.
***I know you say you can’t tell him outright about your eating disorder, but I think you absolutely can. (Unless there’s a piece of information I’m missing here, in which case I think you should lie and say that a close friend went through what you went through. Lying is fine!!!!!)***
You do not need to help your brother get fit and healthy. He’s ok. I promise he’s ok. He has enough pressure. He needs a family member he can just be an eleven year old around. He doesn’t need to learn that an apple is better than Cheez-its. We all know that. He knows that. Eat what you like to eat around him. Offer to share healthy food or cook with him for fun. Do not preach, do not lecture. Show up and be loving and accepting. Even if he’s unhealthy. Unhealthy people are just as worthwhile. You can not model or nag or manipulate someone into your version of health. It does not work.
I have a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant friend who has struggled with her weight her whole life like me and she and I were talking once about what we wish our parents had done/said/etc. And she said something so profound. I asked her, Hot Babe Angel, what do you wish your parents had said, and she replied, “Nothing. Look. They tried so hard to make me lose weight and I’m still fat and now our relationship is worse and strained and full of resentment. And if they’d said nothing, maybe I’d still be fat, but that’s where we are now, so who cares?” She told me about a teacher she had who had struggled with her own weight and who decided when she became a parent to say nothing about her child’s eating habits and who educated them about healthy choices when appropriate and then let them be. If they wanted to eat ice cream before dinner, fuck it. Adults do that sometimes! If they wanted to skip breakfast, ok. If they wanted to join in the healthy meal she made, great! But she said NOTHING. And all I could think was that it sounded like heaven.
You can’t control if your brother gets bullied. He might. His relationship with his weight is going to change throughout his life, just like yours. You cannot change your parents relationship with food—although if you feel like you can talk to them, you may want to try opening up about what their attitudes did to you and how you think it might harm your brother. I know— I KNOW—that is a huge step. You do not have to do it. But if you can, I wish you well. It’s hard for parents to hear that they’re doing something that could harm their kid, especially when their own issues are so ingrained.
Here’s what you can do: You can show up and be there and love him and offer yourself up as a resource. That’s all. That’s all you can do. You’re doing amazing. Keep showing up. Keep loving him. You’re not going to stop worrying because that’s what it’s like to have a younger sibling. But you are going to turn the worry into action and the action is going to be love. Ok? He’s very lucky to have you.