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Ask Ginny: My daughter binge eats. Should I lock the pantry?

Should I lock the pantry?

Dear Ginny,

I just put a lock on the pantry because my daughter binge eats. I know that binge eating is so unhealthy for her, and it seems to be getting worse. She just eats and eats. If I buy a package of cookies, it’s gone by the next day. Same with almost anything sweet, crunchy, or carby. She mainly does this at night when we’re all asleep. The fact that she’s sneaking the food is upsetting enough, but it’s even worse when she lies about it and pretends that the food I just bought has disappeared.

Not only do I worry about her health, I just can’t afford to buy so much food right now. Last night I lost my temper and installed a lock on the pantry doors. I also told her that I will no longer buy any processed foods or things she binge eats like bread, crackers, etc. I guess we all have to go on a diet because she can’t control herself!

I’m really frustrated, and this seems like the only solution. Am I doing the right thing? Should I get a lock for the refrigerator, too?

Signed, locks are the only thing that work

Dear Locks,

I’m so sorry to hear this. I know how hard it is to work with children who seem out of control around food. And I know that you are doing the very best you can in the circumstances. Lots of parents in your situation have put a lock on the pantry because it seems like the only solution.

What I would like to do is provide you with some information about binge eating and the treatment for binge eating. I hope that this information will help you understand your daughter’s behavior. It should provide some insight into how you can help.

About binge eating disorder

Binge eating is often presented as a lack of willpower. But it’s important to know that frequent binge eating is actually a symptom of an eating disorder. Binge Eating Disorder is the most common form of eating disorder, and it impacts far more people than either Anorexia or Bulimia. This means it’s not just frustrating and costly, it’s also a mental disorder that requires professional treatment.

To learn more about binge eating disorder, please check out this article: Binge Eating Disorder and your child – what to do, how to help.

Professional evaluation & support

I recommend that you seek professional evaluation and support for your child’s binge eating. Treating binge eating with dieting or restriction of any type can be very harmful, so it’s important to work with professionals who follow a non-diet, Health At Every Size® approach. We have a directory of professionals who can help.

As for putting a lock on the pantry and refrigerator, that can be very harmful for someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. I completely understand the desire to eliminate the temptation of binge foods for your child. That makes a lot of intuitive sense.

However, locking the pantry and restricting food can exacerbate the pain and suffering of living with an eating disorder. And, in fact, most providers who successfully treat people with Binge Eating Disorder actually encourage full access to binge foods to reduce the sense of restriction that often drives the behavior.

They also institute regular meal and snack times and a mix of all types of foods (including sugar and carbs) throughout the day. This treatment is consistent with how we treat people who have anorexia and bulimia, because someone who has an eating disorder needs to learn to normalize all foods and experience natural, intuitive sensations of hunger and fullness throughout the day.

Emotional pain & suffering

Almost all eating disorders are founded on emotional pain and suffering. Eating disorders are a powerful form of self-soothing and self-care for people who are in emotional pain. We have this video about maladaptive coping mechanisms to help explain this concept:

Rather than take away a person’s form of self-soothing (the eating disorder behaviors), we want to first address the emotional pain and provide new options for self-soothing. This is why therapy is almost always a part of eating disorder recovery.

Instead of locking the pantry and not buying binge foods, make an appointment with a professional who can help you get to the bottom of your daughter’s eating behaviors.

You may be surprised to know that binge eating disorder treatment often includes two key components:

1. Remove all restriction on eating and food

Treatment often includes regular meal and snack times throughout the day. Binge eating disorder, like all eating disorders, is often based on some form of restriction.

Many people eat less than they want to throughout the day and then find themselves binge eating at night to make up for the calorie deficit. By removing food restrictions and encouraging regular meal times and eating patterns through the day, including “junk” foods, we can often reduce the desire to binge eat.

In almost all cases of binge eating disorder, we need to begin by investigating why the disorder is present. What is being restricted, physically and emotionally, to create the conditions for binge eating? How can we support the person who is struggling without exacerbating this restriction with the use of more restriction like locks on the pantry?

2. Learn emotional regulation

Eating disorders are strongly associated with poor emotional regulation skills. This means that treating an eating disorder includes learning how to process feelings and emotions in real-time throughout the day. Often, when we see a person binge eating, we also see that feelings are restricted. When repressed, these feelings become overwhelming and “too much.” Food can be a comfort and a distraction.

If a person doesn’t have healthy emotional processing skills, they may turn to restriction and food as a way to cope with big feelings. This is why psychotherapy is critical for most people who recover from an eating disorder. Learning to accept and take care of our feelings is often the single most important thing we need to do to recover from an eating disorder.

Parents make a huge difference in their kids’ ability to regulate emotions. In fact, we have an emotional superhighway with our kids that can rather quickly get them on the right track for regulating their emotions in a more adaptive way. This means that instead of focusing on the physical aspects of the disorder (food and eating), you can instead focus on the emotional aspects of the disorder and make a big impact.

My advice on whether to lock the pantry

Your daughter’s binge eating is undoubtedly scary and even infuriating for you. That makes a lot of sense. I know this is hard and I am in no way minimizing your experience of her behavior.

At the same time, it’s important to know that your response to her binge eating can make a world of difference in her recovery. I hear that you are at your wits’ end and think the best approach is to lock the pantry. But before you add any more locks or change your shopping habits, I encourage you to open the conversation with her about food restriction and emotional health. Ask her how she is feeling when she goes to the pantry at night. Meanwhile, reach out to a professional who can help you navigate your daughter’s behavior.

I wish you all the best, and send you so much love as you navigate this with your family.

xoxo Ginny

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Ask Ginny: My son is overeating and sneaking food

Ask Ginny: My son is overeating and sneaking food

Dear Ginny,

My son has a problem with overeating. Once he starts eating, he can’t stop, and sometimes he eats so much that he actually throws up. I recently found out that he has been hiding food from me and sneak-eating behind my back. He’s always been on the larger side, and now he’s gaining A LOT of weight. He’s getting HUGE! I’ve always tried to raise him as a healthy eater. What’s going on?

Signed, Scared He’s Too Fat

Dear Scared,

First, I’m so sorry to hear this. We live in a culture that demonizes food and fat, and I know how very hard it is to parent in these conditions. Parents are blamed and shamed for how and what their kids eat, and parents are shamed if their child lives in a larger body. It makes sense that you’re worried about this. I understand.

His body is not the problem

Let’s begin by addressing body size. We have been convinced that our body size is controllable, when in fact our bodies are programmed to achieve the weight that makes it biologically comfortable. We must all learn to accept body weight as something that is largely out of our control. This will reduce much of the accidental harm we cause by pursuing weight loss and weight control.

Your son has always been in a larger body, and he may always be in a larger body. Most importantly, his body size is largely out of your control, so you can take that off your list of responsibilities. In fact, he will be more likely to be healthy if you are not driven to reduce his weight.

Intentional weight loss results in weight regain, often plus more, for 95% of people. It is ethically wrong to ever prescribe intentional weight loss for any body. Luckily, there are lots of ethical ways to pursue health without focusing on weight.

If he’s received messages throughout his life that his body is a problem that must be controlled, then that’s where your work as a parent must begin. You may understandably believe that the problem is his eating and weight, but it’s very possible that the true problem is that he can’t accept his body and himself exactly as he is.

Please build your understanding of weight stigma and find ways to validate your son exactly as he is, regardless of his weight.

Let’s talk about eating

Next, let’s take a look at his food behavior. You are right to be concerned. It’s hard to know if he is binge eating or “overeating.” Let’s break down some important terms:

  • “Overeating” is a completely relative term and often is based on a biological need for food. He may simply need more food than you think he does. Everyone sometimes eats too much. It’s OK – the body can handle this and will typically even things out without any intervention.
  • Binge eating is more serious. It involves eating large quantities of food in a single sitting followed by shame and self-recrimination. Binge eating, when done regularly and over time, is a symptom of an eating disorder and needs professional care.
  • Sneak eating is a signal that he is feeling shame about food and that there is a lack of trust in the parent-child relationship. It is problematic from an emotional and relational standpoint.
  • If he is vomiting after eating, that’s a sign of dysregulation and a disconnection with his body. It’s also a symptom of an eating disorder.

Based on your letter, I encourage you to seek professional support for his eating behaviors as soon as possible. Make an appointment with a nutritionist who practices from a non-diet approach. This is critical, because any form of restriction or pursuit of weight loss can be damaging for your son’s health. Please also seek the support of a therapist who can provide an assessment for binge eating disorder.

We have a directory of non-diet professionals to help you get started.

Why do people binge eat?

The most common reason people binge eat is an underlying sense of restriction or that they cannot get “enough” nourishment. In some cases, the hunger is as simple as a healthy drive for food. Your son may not be feeding himself enough food throughout the day, which can set him up for binge eating. In other cases, hunger is driven by emotional needs.

Most of the time, binge eating is based on a combination of these factors. When a person feels they need “too much” and are “not allowed” to eat as much as their body needs, they are deprived. This leads to a powerful biological drive to eat.

Paradoxically, people who struggle with binge eating disorder often recover when they are given unconditional permission to eat exactly the food they want. This, combined with therapy and new emotional regulation skills, often provide the tools to recover from binge eating disorder.

Parents and eating

If a parent has restricted food choices in any way, or assigned judgement to soothing hunger by eating food, the child’s drive for food can become complicated and fraught with emotion. This is where eating disorders can take root.

This happens more frequently than most people realize. And it’s not that parents are bad. It’s just that we live in a culture in which we are made to feel very worried about natural hunger.

Parents are deeply concerned when a child appears to need “too much.” Parents are worried when their child is “too big.” And parents tend to judge certain foods as “healthy,” and others as “unhealthy.” This well-meaning concern can lead us to restrict our child’s choices and quantity of food, which can have the unintended consequence of leading to eating disorders. 

Food restriction seems like something we are supposed to do, and some doctors and nutritionists still recommend it. But it goes against ethical standards and has been specifically advised against by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What you can do

First, please make an appointment for your son as soon as possible.

Next, work on your own relationship with food and body weight. As I said, it’s totally normal if you are currently seeing both through the cultural lens called diet culture, but I encourage you to read more about Health at Every Size and shift your beliefs.

Now, open the pantry and let him eat. Stock your home with a wide variety of tasty foods of all sorts. Encourage your child to eat comfortably with you and in front of you without shame or judgment.

I realize this may sound strange. But remember that the restrictive approach isn’t working – he’s “overeating,” vomiting, and sneaking food. Opening the pantry psychologically and physically may result in increased food consumption for a little while, but the long-term impact, when combined with therapy, is a relaxation around food.

An open pantry combined with therapy will help him heal his relationship with food

Opening the pantry will likely make a significant difference in your son’s eating habits. You may notice that when given full unrestricted access to food he eats even more at first, but you must be patient and understand that such behavior is a natural response to restriction. His hunger will settle down once he trusts that his needs will always be met. You must truly believe that your child’s drive to eat is natural and healthy, and you must fully support his eating patterns and body size. 

Work on your parenting around this issue for a while, and give both of you time to learn new concepts and adjust to a new relationship with food and body weight.

Most importantly, please know that you are correct to be concerned about your son’s behavior. He is currently in danger. This is not a situation that will naturally fix itself, and it will take significant effort on your part to help him. It will be inconvenient and difficult for you, but it’s well worth the hassle to help your son be healthy.

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Ask Ginny: my daughter is overweight and addicted to food – what should I do?

Dear Ginny,

My daughter is almost 10 years old and overweight. I think she is also addicted to food.

While I like the ideas on your website, I’m still concerned about her weight and how she eats. We have a great relationship, and I feel like it’s time to address this with her directly before it gets out of control.

At the same time, I’m afraid that talking about her weight will impact her mental health. I’m also afraid that if I don’t do something about her weight it will impact her physical health.

She often overeats. She sneaks food. She loves high-fat, sugar, and carbs. I think she may be addicted – her world revolves around food. A lot of your advice is to let her body do its own thing, but what if her weight is to the point of being harmful. What should I do?

Signed, Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

I’m so glad that you reached out! I totally understand how challenging this is for parents to navigate. I want to thank you for thinking so carefully about your daughter’s health and for doing research that runs counter to everything we’ve been taught. Our cultural narratives about “overweight” and “food addiction” might come from a good place, but unfortunately, they can cause tremendous harm for our kids, including body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

First, let’s address the weight issue.

We have been told two things: 1) “too much” weight is bad; and 2) we can and should reduce our body weight. Both of these are incorrect and harmful for many reasons, but here I’ll give you the highlights.

1) The concepts of “overweight” and “obesity” are based on BMI measurements, which have been shown to be bogus and a waste of time. Every body is different, and a higher BMI does not correlate with worse health. In fact, people who are in the “overweight” category according to BMI are slightly healthier than those at lower weights. This is shocking but true. You can find tons of data to support this in our resource library and in these articles on our site.

2) As hard as we try, the human body does not want us to lose weight or maintain a weight lower than what it (the body) wants to be. There is not a single scientific study showing that any weight loss efforts last, and each time we lose weight, we regain it plus more. This has a surprising impact on our lifetime body weight: those of us who diet and control our weight even once in our lives are heavier than we would be if we never lost weight intentionally. You can find more about this in our article about the science to support a non-diet, weight-neutral approach to health.

There are tons of resources on this site to further demonstrate why your concerns about your daughter’s weight, while perfectly understandable, are unnecessary. Furthermore, if you can find a way to stop worrying about her weight, you will help her achieve the healthiest weight for her individual body.

Next, let’s talk about eating.

Our society has given eating a bad rap, and everyone, our kids included, is afraid of eating to their appetite or responding to hunger with adequate food. Our kids (just like adults) get bombarded with messages about what they “should” and “shouldn’t” eat, and they internalize those messages and (understandably) become very confused with what they should actually do to nourish their bodies.

Most of us who sneak food and “overeat” are typically restricting food in some way at other times. It turns out that sneak eating and binge eating has nothing to do with addiction – it’s just a natural response to undereating. Once we start to feed ourselves as much food as our bodies need (and each body needs a different amount of food), most binge eating and sneak eating issues disappear.

This may seem strange since most people assume we need to control and restrict food, but in fact, what we really need is to be free from restrictive food thoughts and behaviors.

When all foods are allowed, and our body is nourished and allowed to exist without being policed, we eat and grow according to our own biological patterns. This may mean that we grow into a larger body than we want (based on societal “beauty” standards), but we actually don’t have a choice – our bodies will find a way to weigh what they want to weigh!

Think about it this way: if your daughter were growing really tall, would you worry about what she is eating, or would you just assume that’s what her body is supposed to do?

Height and weight are both largely pre-programmed, so it’s not crazy to compare these two.

Please consider reading Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, by Ellyn Satter, which I think will answer a lot of your questions about how to proceed. I also have this article: How to feed your child without fear of “bad” food and weight gain.

Finally, I encourage you to reach out to a non-diet dietitian for at least one meeting to discuss your child (many will meet via phone).

I know that you can help your daughter regain body trust and grow according to how her body is supposed to. I understand this is not easy advice, and I send you so much love as you pursue this journey with her. 

Sending Love … Ginny

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Ask Ginny: What can I do when Grandma fat shames my kid?

Ask Ginny: What can I do when Grandma fat shames my kid?

Dear Ginny,

My daughter is on the heavier side. I do my best to help her love herself by telling her how much I love her and that she’s beautiful to me.

The problem is other people. For example, every time we see my mother she mentions my daughter’s weight. Sometimes she does this right in front of my daughter, and sometimes she does it behind her back. It’s usually just small comments, like “still going up, huh?”  

A few times my daughter has had a growth spurt that leads to a leaner appearance, and then my mom showers her with compliments that are followed with warnings. “You look great honey, now you just have to keep off that extra weight and you’ll be perfect!”

I have a feeling these comments are not good for my daughter’s self-esteem, but I’m not sure what to do. In every other way, my mother dotes on my daughter and couldn’t be more loving. Is this something I should address with my mom? What should I say?

Signed, Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

This is definitely something you should address, and quickly. I’m afraid that a grandmother who comments on her grandchild’s weight is not being loving. Her comments may come from a well-intentioned place, but they are ignorant and dangerous. The examples you gave are alarming and need to stop.

We live in a fatphobic society. Everywhere we turn, we are told to avoid being fat at all costs. Fat stigma is tied up tightly with sexism, and women are likely to criticize each other’s body size without realizing that they are hurting the people whom they love very much.

You need to talk to your mom immediately. “Mom, I need you to know that I’m not comfortable with you talking about Katie’s body. I know how much you love her, but your comments are hurtful. From now on I’m going to interrupt you, and possibly even leave, if you mention anything – negative or positive – about Katie’s body. It’s just not OK with me.”

This may be really hard for you. It’s very possible that your mom made similar comments about your body, and you have internalized them and believe them on some level. We all live in a fatphobic society, and it takes tremendous energy to overcome our subconscious weight stigma. Just remember this: weight stigma has been proven to lead to disordered eating and higher body weight. Weight stigma is much more harmful than fat ever was. Fat shaming comments are never, ever helpful, and they must be stopped.

Once you have given your mom “the speech,” speak up and even remove yourself and your child if your mom can’t control herself. You can try an assertive but polite reminder like “Mom, I’m not comfortable with you talking about Katie’s body. Please stop.”

Your mom might get huffy, defensive or angry when you do this. That’s her problem and her responsibility, not yours. You are not in control of her reaction to your boundaries, but you are responsible for maintaining boundaries for your child’s health. If your mom can’t control herself and continues to talk about your daughter’s body, remove yourself and your child from her presence. You can simply say something like “Mom, we’re going to leave now. See you later.”

In addition to talking to your mom, you also need to teach your daughter to be assertive in body shaming situations. Give her a few statements that will help her be assertive when people are rude. “Grandma, when you talk about my body, I feel uncomfortable. Can we please talk about something else?”

Grandma may respond with a defensive “well, it’s only because I care,” or even “you are incredibly rude – I don’t like how you’re talking to me!” To which your daughter can say “That may be so, but when you talk about my body it makes me uncomfortable, and I’d like you to stop.”

Practice this at home and before visiting Grandma to help your daughter learn that standing up for herself is acceptable and necessary. Being politely assertive will be invaluable for your daughter as she moves forward in life.  

Sending Love … Ginny

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Ask Ginny: What can I do when I see my grown daughter binge?

Dear Ginny, 

I have noticed something that really concerns me. When I get together with my grown daughter, she eats a lot of unhealthy food. When she was growing up, she was always on the chubby side, but she dieted a lot and generally kept her weight under control until she hit her thirties. Now she is 38 years old and quite heavy, and I think she eats too much. I see her eating all sorts of foods like cupcakes, chips, soda, and french fries. I’m concerned about her health. What can I do when I see my grown daughter binge eat? Do you think she has binge eating disorder?

Signed, Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

I can understand why you are concerned, and I can hear how much you love your daughter. In our culture, we make a lot of assumptions about food and weight, and when a person is larger we tend to blame that on their eating habits, forgetting that almost all people – including thin people – eat a variety of food, including cupcakes, chips, soda, and french fries. The assumptions we make about a person’s weight and eating habits can get in the way of diagnosing an eating disorder, so I’m going to unpack some of them.

First, regarding weight. You say that your child was on the chubby side as a child. It’s hard to live in a larger body in our society. I would imagine that she was criticized for her weight. This led her to start dieting and controlling her weight, which might have seemed like a good thing at the time. But actually, this worked against her. Dieting is a risk factor for both weight gain and eating disorders.

In almost all cases (+95%) when a person intentionally loses weight, they will experience weight cycling. They regain all the weight they lost, often plus a little more. Weight cycling creates metabolic changes that can remain indefinitely. In other words, dieting to lose weight creates weight gain in almost all cases. Dieting is the No. 1 predictor of weight gain.

Additionally, one in four people who go on a diet will develop an eating disorder.

Every body has its own unique genetic makeup, and weight is largely driven by genes. The second-largest contributor to weight is whether intentional weight loss (dieting) is a part of a person’s history.

I’m telling you this because while I know that you are very concerned about your daughter’s health, I think it’s possible that your main concern is her weight. I completely understand this. We live in a society that blames and shames people for their weight. But true health is not achieved by trying to control weight but by healing a person’s relationship with food and their body.

People like your daughter who are living in larger bodies feel the weight of our society’s blame and shame. The problem may look like it’s the number on the scale, but the real problem is that she’s been blamed and shamed for living in a body that doesn’t fit into narrow societal expectations. Weight-based blame and shame lead to poor health outcomes.

Next, I’d like you to consider your daughter’s eating patterns as if she were a thin person. If she were thin, would you worry that she eats cake, fries, and other fun foods? Most people eat these foods, but we are conditioned to notice it more and criticize people who are living in larger bodies because we assume that they are larger because of the way they eat.

This is a false assumption. In fact, people who are in larger bodies often consume the same or fewer calories and eat a diet equal to that of many people who are in smaller bodies. A larger body is typically genetically primed to have a slower metabolism and be more efficient in extracting nutrition. And if a person has dieted, they have further reduced their metabolic rate. These factors are out of your daughter’s control. We cannot change her genes or past weight cycling.

So, really think about how your daughter eats in light of this common bias. Is she really eating “too much” or are you assuming she eats too much because her body is large? Are you sure you are seeing a “binge,” or just a person in a larger body eating food?

I’m saying all this because binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, but it is also terribly misunderstood and frequently mistreated by loved ones, healthcare providers, and even eating disorder treatment providers. This is due to weight stigma and diet culture.

So we want to unpack your assumptions before jumping to the conclusion that she has binge eating disorder. At the same time, if she does have an eating disorder, then your support can help her find healing. If your daughter has binge eating disorder, then she is most likely experiencing some or all of these symptoms:

  • Feeling a sense of being out of control while eating substantial quantities of food
  • Skipping meals in an attempt to “make up” for binge eating episodes
  • Going on diets and trying new ways to lose weight
  • Eating rapidly and/or until uncomfortably full
  • Eating in secret due to embarrassment
  • Feeling disgusted, ashamed, and guilty about eating

If your adult child has binge eating disorder then she is in a lot of pain. And this pain goes beyond eating. Here are some of the signs of an eating disorder that have nothing to do with eating:

  • Avoiding social situations due to fear of being seen as “fat” and/or not wanting to be seen eating
  • Exhibiting signs of body shame like hiding her body in large clothing, trying to make her body as small as possible in social situations, etc.
  • Withdrawing from and avoiding close relationships
  • Seeking comfort from addictive behaviors like drinking, gambling, shopping, etc.

If you suspect she may have an eating disorder, consider the following actions:

  • Learn about weight stigma and reject diet culture
  • If you need it, get therapy or coaching to address your own feelings about her body
  • Keep your eyes on your own plate when eating, and don’t comment on her choices when she’s eating
  • Don’t criticize her body or suggest that it’s wrong in any way
  • Encourage her to talk about how she is feeling about herself and her life
  • Focus on her mental health, not her body

She’s an adult. That means a few things. First, she is responsible for her own health now. You can support her, but advice can be tricky. Listen more than you advise. Focus on being curious rather than making recommendations. Second, as a larger woman, she is absolutely aware of her weight already. A lot of times people think larger people need to be informed of their weight and the dangers of living in a larger body. Trust me on this: she’s heard it all. Any attempt to tell her that she’s large will infantilize her and inflict weight stigma. It will not help her.

Your focus should be entirely on how she feels emotionally. Is she happy? Confident? Living in a black hole of shame? Traumatized by years of believing her body is wrong and disgusting?

Your focus as a mother should be to give her compassion and acceptance and to recognize the stigma she faces living in her body in a society that is cruel to bodies like hers. If she expresses shame and guilt about either her body or the way that she eats, then mention that she may want to seek support from a non-diet dietician or therapist, who will be able to help her find peace and will recognize and treat an eating disorder if one exists.

It is hard to parent in a culture obsessed with weight and food, but when we learn more about the stigma our kids live in we are better able to help them find health and healing in this fatphobic world.

Sending Love … Ginny

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

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Ask Ginny: Her dad gives her brother seconds, but not her

Dear Ginny, 

My daughter has gained weight with puberty, and her dad is constantly bugging her about it. We divorced over a decade ago, which makes it hard for me to help her since I’m not there for most of the conversations. She has told me that he frequently brings up her body size, and tells her she needs to watch her weight, exercise more, and eat less. Last weekend she told me that while her half-brother is encouraged to get seconds if she wants more food at dinner, her dad and stepmom will say that she shouldn’t get seconds because she needs to watch her weight.

Now I’m noticing that she seems confused about eating and is watching her weight more closely. She asks me if she’s fat, and I often find her looking at herself in the mirror critically. She seems really vulnerable when she comes back from her dad’s house, and sometimes I find her eating a lot more food than normal. She tries to hide it from me, but I can tell that lots of food is missing. Alternatively, she will refuse food, saying that she’s not hungry, already ate, or will eat later.

I’m so upset, but I really don’t know what I can do about this.

Signed, Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

You are correct that your ex-husband’s behavior is damaging and hurtful to your daughter. Biologically, females are required to gain weight in order to begin menstruation, and so weight gain during puberty is perfectly normal and healthy. This weight gain often comes on fast and furious, but over time, as long as we don’t mess with it, our bodies find their own way to their best health. But regardless of her weight, it is never appropriate to tell someone what they should (or should not) put in their body.

In terms of the dinner table and the issue of seconds, what your ex is doing is called “food shaming” and it can take many forms. Most people have bought the diet industry’s assessment that our bodies are as simple as calories in and calories out. In other words, that if we eat less, we will weight less. This translates into the false belief that people who weigh more are eating more than they “should.”

This is factually incorrect, as each body has its own complex metabolism system, and many people who are living in very large bodies actually eat the same amount or even less than people who are living in smaller bodies. At the same time, many people who live in large bodies exercise more frequently and eat a generally “healthier” diet than many people who live in small bodies.

You’re right that it may be very difficult to stop your ex and his wife from criticizing or judging your daughter when she is eating with them. However, you should have a conversation with your ex in which you describe what you are observing and ask him to stop focusing on food and weight with your daughter.

You can tell him that even though we live in a culture that believes it is correct to tell women what to eat and how much they should weigh, it is not healthy to do this, and can cause serious health complications for your daughter. Let him know that you are observing some signs of disordered eating in your child and that you would like him and his wife to stop mentioning food and weight in any way.

Of course, they may refuse to change, or even flat-out deny that there is a problem. You can still help your daughter by giving her some tools to stand up for herself. First, reassure her that her body is fine just as it is and that the worst thing we can do for ourselves is restrict our food when we are hungry. Consider reading Body Respect by Linda Bacon together so that you can both become educated about body weight.

Next, come up with some phrases that her dad and stepmom say to her and possible responses. For example, if dad says “are you sure you want more?” she can say “Dad, when you ask me that, it makes me feel as if you don’t trust that I know how to feed my body. I’d like you to trust me, please.”

If her stepmom says “I think you’ve had enough,” she can say “Sheila, when you say that, it makes me feel as if you think you know my body better than I do. I’d like to make my own decisions, please.”

These examples are both assertive and polite. Notice that she is not telling them to “lay off” or “shut up,” nor is she withdrawing into silence or tears. She is learning to stand up for herself, which will serve her well in every life situation.

Write some options down, and do some role-playing so that she can practice this with you in a safe place. You can play-act possible responses from dad and stepmom. The first few times your daughter speaks up for herself, she may meet resistance and even anger from them. She may try to blame herself for their reaction to her reasonable requests to respect her body as her own. Help her understand that she is not responsible for their reactions to her reasonable requests.

She should not stop standing up for her bodily autonomy.

We can never control other people, but we do have the power to control our own bodies. If her dad and stepmom continue to disrespect her body, she has every right to limit her time with them and avoid eating with them.

Meanwhile, please continue to observe your child’s behavior. If you continue to see the body image disruption and disordered eating behavior you described, please consider talking to a trained professional, either a psychotherapist who has clinical training in eating disorder treatment or a non-diet dietician. You are looking for someone who follows a non-diet approach. A professional can provide helpful assessments and tools to help you navigate the coming years as your daughter’s body develops.

Sending Love … Ginny

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.

Linda Bacon has an excellent video that you all can watch to become better educated on body weight issues:

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Ask Ginny: Should I tell my daughter that an outfit is not flattering?

Ask Ginny: Should I tell my daughter that an outfit is not flattering?

Dear Ginny, 

I need to be able to tell my daughter that her outfit is not flattering! My daughter is plus size. Going shopping can be a real struggle since there are a lot of things that don’t fit and just aren’t flattering. When I tell her that something isn’t flattering, she gets really angry. How can I say it in a nice way. I’d like her to avoid buying things that make her look even larger than she is.

Signed, Shopping Mama

Dear Shopping Mama,

I understand that buying clothes when we live in a larger body can be stressful. Clothing designers have done a terrible job at clothing us, and it’s hard not to feel ashamed doing something that other people seem to enjoy so much.

I hear you when you say that you want to be able to tell your daughter that an outfit is not flattering.

But I need to challenge you immediately on your belief that your child should only buy clothing that is “flattering,” which I think you mean “slimming.” Your daughter should buy clothing that fits her body, that feels good, and that she likes. Her clothing should not be chosen to minimize her body size or make her appear to be anything other than the beautiful person she is. You need to let go of the idea that she will be more beautiful if she is thinner.

Our children are living in a disordered eating ecosystem. This means that they are bombarded daily with messages about the thin ideal and see images of models who weigh less than almost any other person can without seriously disordered eating and/or an eating disorder.

When parents tell a daughter that her outfit not flattering, what they are really saying is that their child’s body is unacceptable.

Our children live in this ecosystem, and they know what they *should* look like. They know exactly what the weight loss, fashion, and beauty industries say is “beautiful.” And there is not a single chance in hell that they will ever look exactly as they are told they could/should look.

Going into any clothing store is a stressful time for most people living in a larger body. Most of us suffer from some form of body dissatisfaction if not full-on body dysmorphia.

When a child who is living in a larger body goes shopping with her mom, she is exquisitely aware of the fact that many of the clothes she sees will not fit her or, if they do, will not look “good” on her body.

You may think it’s kind to tell your daughter that an outfit not flattering. But all kids know that “not flattering” is code for “not slimming” or, if we’re really being honest, “makes you look fat.”

If we want to raise children who are truly healthy, then we need to help them feel completely accepted and loved by their parents, regardless of their body size. When we make comments about how their bodies look in clothes, even though they may come from what we believe is a good place, we draw attention to their bodies, which does not help their self-confidence.

If you go shopping with your child, and a piece of clothing doesn’t look good to you, look at your child’s face. Look into her eyes. Does she feel happy? Does she like that t-shirt? Then let her enjoy it. Ask her what she likes about it.

Does she seem insecure? Ask her what she thinks of the color, and how the fabric feels against her skin. Ask her if the clothing allows her to move the way she wants to. There’s no need to reference her body size at all.

If she asks you “do I look OK?” tell her that what matters is how she feels in her clothes. It’s OK if she rolls her eyes. Even if she pushes you, don’t fall for the culturally-prescribed bait of women asking whether they “look fat.” Fat is not a look. Fat is not a feeling. Fat is a cellular structure on our bodies. Push her to define beauty on her own terms, not anybody else’s.

Then step back, and let her make her own choices. You may see them as fashion mistakes, but you have been engaged in this fashion/beauty/diet culture, too. So just relax, and remember that your child is wonderful no matter what she wears.

Here are some of the thoughts that may go through your mind. These are ‘normal’ thoughts, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe them. There’s a rule that says that the first thought is socially-constructed. Read on for the second thought, which is where we want to try and arrive for our child’s sake.

But she could look so much better if she wears something else. 

Your child is not an ornament to be admired. She is a human being with much more important things to think about than how a t-shirt looks on her body. Parents don’t ever need to instill cultural body ideals upon their children – our culture does that all by itself. Be a safe haven in a culture that is very cruel to bodies.

But she will be teased if she wears that. 

One of the first reasons kids get teased is that they feel insecure. If a mom has suggested that a shirt is “not flattering” and a kid wears it anyway, she will get teased because she feels insecure, not because of the shirt itself. If a child knows that she is not an ornament and a t-shirt is just a freaking t-shirt, then she may get teased, but she won’t care, and the teasing won’t continue, nor will it impact her sense of self-worth.

I know a lot about fashion, and I’ve learned a lot about what flatters me. I have so much wisdom to impart! 

It’s OK if you really care about fashion and what people think about your appearance, but please don’t impose those beliefs on your child. Clothing does not make a child healthy and happy. Parental attachment and self-confidence make a child healthy and happy. If your child wants to wear a neon yellow t-shirt with a unicorn on it, and you think the color “washes her out” and you think it makes her belly look large, get over it. She is responsible for her body’s presentation, not you.

She’ll only wear it once, and then she’ll never wear it again. 

First of all, that may happen. It happens with all people of all sizes. Everyone makes clothing selections that we later decide we don’t like. It’s not different because of her body size. Secondly, look carefully at past patterns. It’s quite possible that previously when you disagreed over a piece of clothing, you gave in and purchased the item, but first made your opinion that it was “unflattering” clear. Then, when she put it on at home, you wrinkled your nose in disgust and said something like “I still don’t like it.” Hmmmm. Maybe that has something to do with why she never wore it again.

I owe it to her to tell the truth. 

First: you owe it to her to love and accept her for who she is, not for how she looks.

Next: the truth according to whom? According to the diet, fashion and beauty industries that show body types that can only be achieved by 5% of the population and, even then, require Photoshopping? Watch your bias carefully here. We have all grown up in this toxic ecosystem, but we can also do better for our children.

Don’t subject your daughter to the same narrow view about her body to which you have been subjected. There is no objective “truth” about what looks good or doesn’t look good. Self-confidence is the greatest beauty trick we can teach our children, and self-confidence doesn’t come off the rack.

Check your bias at the door and remember: your child is a person, not an ornament. Give more love, not more fashion advice.

Sending Love … Ginny

Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.

She’s the founder of and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.