"Do I Wear Spanx to Family Court?"
On co-parenting in diet culture.
Looking back, Heather, a mom of two in Northern California, says she kind of knew her marriage was over when her then-husband, Paul, insisted they drive as a family to his CrossFit competition two hours away when their younger son, Leo, was just eight weeks old. Paul’s CrossFit obsession had begun four years earlier after they had their first baby and it was already a stress point in their marriage. “Neither of us had ever been gym rats,” says Heather, who asked to change all of their names. “[Before kids] we loved food. We were part of this cooking club together and most of our social life revolved around building these huge multi-course meals with friends.” But when Paul joined CrossFit, all of that ended. “Overnight, it was ‘we can’t have any carbs in the house.’ And everything revolved around his gym schedule.”
Heather was frustrated, but she wanted to support her husband. “I would say, ‘Babe, it’s great you found this hobby but it’s not my jam,” she says. “I don’t have any problem with carbs.” Her frustration leveled up when Paul decided that they couldn’t “poison” their then-toddler Sam by feeding him carbs either. “I was like, ‘There is no science that this is good for a two-year-old,’” Heather says. “So we had stress in our relationship.”
Then Leo was born and Paul told Heather he couldn’t take any paternity leave from his job as a medical device salesman. But he did want them to go cheer him on at his CrossFit competition, which he spent hours training for every weekend. And, during his work day. “Paul’s assistant told me he was taking two hour lunch breaks every day to go practice his routine for the competition,” Heather says. “But he told me he couldn’t take any time off for the baby?” When they got to the competition she saw how completely Paul was wrapped up in this new world; using the lingo, talking about diet hacks, obsessing about his performance. She sat in their hotel room one afternoon trying to make Sam and Leo nap and had “this huge epiphany of ‘Oh my God, he’s gone.’”
Heather didn’t leave though. They went to couples therapy and when Paul said he wanted Heather to go to CrossFit with him—to bond, but also, to “get her body back”—she tried. They even went to CrossFit Prom. “It was so weird,” she says. “I just wanted someone to teach me to do a sit-up so I could someday not pee my pants. I don’t want to do workouts with people watching and cheering for me.” And when Leo was 18 months old, Paul told her he wanted a divorce. “I always tell people now: My husband had a midlife crisis, found a cult, and left the marriage,” Heather says. Six years later, he’s still in it. And Heather is still trying to figure out how to co-parent their kids (now 12 and 8) with an ex-husband locked firmly in diet culture.
One of the first pieces I wrote for Burnt Toast when I was starting to build out the newsletter was an essay called The Thing Your Husband Really Needs To Read. I wrote it in response to a reader with a diet-y husband, but I could have written it for Heather when she was still married, and for any number of other women who have written to me since about how to bridge the divide around food and bodies in their relationships. “To be overly gendered about it: You’ve got all these women running around healing themselves and their relationship with food,” says Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC, cofounder of the Center for Body Trust. “And no one else in their family has to come along?” To Hilary’s point: I also hear from queer and trans married and partnered folks about this issue, so it’s absolutely not just the cis men who aren’t okay. But because our culture socializes women to do most of the labor around food and health, and most of the emotional labor in a family, period, and because this same culture socializes cis men to both avoid that labor and avoid their emotions and equate self-worth with physical prowess—a lot of these guys aren’t okay. And it is both tough to be married to them and tough to be divorced from them, if you’re still co-parenting.
Of course, reconciling differences or finding compromises when our values don’t align is an ongoing project in most co-parenting relationships. We all show up to parenting with different expectations, standards, and narratives from our own childhoods running through our heads. And we often don’t realize we have a mismatch with a co-parent until we’re faced a particular hurdle and these differences emerge. But having a different definition of concepts like “healthy eating” and “exercise” is not the same as disagreeing about sleep training or homework protocols where you might have strong feelings, but you likely also feel fairly confident about what you know and don’t know. “People healing from diet culture often don’t yet have language [for what they’re experiencing and learning],” says Hilary. “So a co-parent’s questions rooted in diet culture tend to be flummoxing. Because you’re moving into an entirely different paradigm.”
Protecting (Thin White Man) Privilege
Heather can relate to feeling flummoxed. For years after their divorce, Paul would send her angry texts when the boys wouldn’t eat his carb-free keto meals, or because he heard that she let them have ice cream. She found herself trying to justify her decisions by citing their pediatrician’s advice, or the teacher who reported that Leo had a meltdown after coming to school hungry because he had refused last night’s dinner and Paul had given him the same meal for breakfast as punishment. “But me arguing with him just turned into long tirades about how the food at my house is killing them,” she says. Other women report similar personal attacks. When Raquel, a single mom in New York forwarded my essay on anti-diet parenting to her ex-husband, he responded that she needed to "drop some weight" because their daughter "needs a mother who stays healthy." Raquel wasn’t remotely surprised. “This type of comment was very common while we were married,” she says. “I now realize that in addition to making me sad, this type of comment made me feel insufficient, incompetent, and gave me a lot of guilt around being a mother in a larger body.”
Raquel’s ex’s response remind me of the “but what about health?” trolls who love to find fat content creators on social media and start disputing everything we say about our own experiences of biased medical care. And it’s textbook diet culture gaslighting. “One of the ways diet culture violates people’s boundaries is by convincing us, ‘you don’t know what you know,’” says Hilary. “You don’t have to prove what you know. You should be able to say to someone in your life, ‘this has caused me harm.’ And that’s not a debatable fact.”
It also doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you for opting out. “It’s not, ‘well [cutting carbs] didn’t work for you but our 10-year-old daughter might be fine,’” notes Hilary. “We get to say, ‘This is not the path for our family,’ based on our lived experience. Period.” I agree with Hilary that you don’t need to justify this kind of boundary, but FWIW: The research is on your side. A 2018 study by Yale University researchers found that dads were more likely than moms to agree with negative statements like “severely ob*se children are unusually untidy” and to associate “fat children” with words like “bad” and “stupid.” Thinner dads, as well as dads with more education and higher incomes, were the most likely to believe these stereotypes. This has nothing to do with health. Adolescents were more likely to diet and binge eat if their parents talked about weight, according to a 2013 survey of 2,793 kids published in JAMA Pediatrics. Other studies have shown that the more fathers report dissatisfaction with their own bodies, the more likely they are to monitor and restrict their children’s eating habits, especially sons. Privileged men need the biases that uphold their privilege.
This is not to say that these privileged men don’t also struggle with body acceptance. A lot of the dads I hear about were fat as kids, or fat before they found whatever diet or workout regimen they are currently obsessed with, and have experienced direct harm from diet culture and anti-fat bias. Olivia, a librarian in the Chicago suburbs, says that both she and her husband Steve are in larger bodies. Doing Weight Watchers together used to be how they bonded. But in 2019, they became polyamorous, a decision that coincided with Olivia embracing fat liberation. ‘At first it was a passing fancy but then I realized: Oh the whole system is fucked up and I’m not doing it anymore,” she says. But Steve isn’t ready to stop dieting even though he’s lost and gained the same amount of weight several times. “He’ll say, ‘That might be great for other people, but I don’t feel good at this size,’” she says. And he voices his body anxieties to their five-year-old daughter. “She’ll say something like, ‘Daddy, I’m growing! Are you growing?’ And he’ll reply, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be,’” Olivia reports.
Heather says Paul was teased for his weight pretty mercilessly as a kid and faced a ton of pressure from his parents to “be more active,” before finding rowing in high school. And so it makes sense, on one level, that he’s determined to protect their kids from the fat shaming he experienced. Except it also doesn’t. Because now he’s the one perpetuating it. Paul pushes both of their kids to do his CrossFit workouts with him —“not some kid version, the adult workouts,” Heather notes—every day they’re at his house. And he especially worries about Leo, who is in a bigger body just like Paul was as a kid. “This is an 8-year-old who already plays on a lacrosse travel team and gets an extreme amount of activity by choice,” Heather notes. “And Paul is always talking about how he needs to eat less and train harder.”
“Every Wednesday is a Stress Eating Day.”
Both Sam and Leo have started to fixate on food in ways that Heather worries about. The family has a 50/50 custody arrangement, so the boys are with Paul on Mondays and Tuesdays and Heather on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and then alternate weekends. “Every Wednesday is a stress eating day,” Heather says, of how the boys come back to her house clearly ready to make up for feeling restricted at Paul’s house. But the permission they have to eat at Heather’s house is still hard for them to trust, especially Leo. “The next day, Leo will not want to eat anything. It’s a lot of ‘I can’t eat that, I don’t need that.’” Sam used to ask lots of questions about the different ways Heather and Paul approach food, but these days, he seems to be making up his own mind. When Leo worries, Sam tries to reassure him that he can trust the food Heather serves. “Sam will say out loud to Leo, ‘It’s okay buddy,’” Heather tells me. She sounds both proud and heartbroken.
In the years since their divorce, Heather has spent a lot of time trying to decide when Paul’s obsession with “clean eating” and working out is just a quirky, if irritating, personal preference, and when it crosses over into something that could cause harm to their kids. This is a blurrier line to draw than you might think, in part because Paul’s eating and exercise habits, on paper, look “healthy” to anyone giving them a passing glance. “It’s hard when the one parent is arguing for what’s normative, like diet culture, or ‘watching sugar,’” notes Hilary, because every system we encounter is designed to be complicit in some way with those ideas— like the times when their pediatrician also voiced concern about the boys’ size or suggested that they get “more activity.” Hilary encourages parents questioning these norms to keep pushing: “If a kid is going to bed hungry, if a kid has different access to food based on their size, if a kid is not being believed around their own body, that would probably be where I would draw the line,” she says. “Because if it’s happening with food, it’s happening somewhere else too. These are philosophical differences about body sovereignty.”
But that doesn’t mean that the anti-diet parent will have the support or resources to fight this issue on legal grounds. Heather knows that a family court judge is unlikely to rule against a dad wanting his kids to excel at travel lacrosse, especially not in a system where a child’s high weight can be grounds for the termination of parental rights. We grade parents, and especially mothers, on their children’s body size, even though we are not, and cannot, be in charge of our children’s weight.
Family courts may also be likely to hold a mother’s body size and eating habits against her. Abby, a divorced mom in a larger body in the Bay Area, told me she debates wearing Spanx before court appearances because “I don’t need more things to other me in the eyes of the judge.” That certainly makes it hard to bring up her concerns about how her 14-year-old daughter Lucy is fed when she’s at her dad’s house. “Sometimes she’s forced to eat the same portion size as her four-year-old half-sister even though of course she’s hungrier for more food,” Abby reports. Lucy says that her dad and step-mom also police her food choices: “I remember her saying they didn’t like that one day she made toast with cream cheese and avocado and tomato and said to ‘eat something healthier next time,’” Abby says.
Lucy, like Leo, comes back to her mom’s house and eats nonstop. And Abby is happy for her to get fed, but she wonders about the ripple effects of their arrangement. “I worry about the long term health and mental health effects of the restrict-binge cycle she is essentially being forced into,” she says. “I worry about the messaging she’s getting from them, about how her body is wrong. Even if I try to counter it with my own anti-diet messaging, it’s still the kind of thing that settles deep inside someone and can take years to overcome.”
When communication lines are open with a co-parent (whether you’re still partnered or not), Hilary encourages parents to try to agree on “the bare minimum” of what your kids need to feel safe around food and in their bodies. “Make it less of a large conversation and more behavioral,” she says. You might consider questions like: “How does she access snacks at each of our houses? What time do you eat dinner? If he’s not allowed to rebel by refusing to eat his vegetables, how will you accept a developmental need for rebellion?” Agree on some shared practices whether that’s a full list of Family Dinner Rules or a more casual agreement. If your co-parent is open to learning, direct them towards a book, podcast, or other resource that can do the talking for you; scroll down for a list. Then Hilary suggests saying: “I really want us to do it this way for 3-6 months, and I want us both to be curious and observe what’s happening. And then we can talk about it. But we’re not going to assess it every day.”
It can be helpful to work with a family therapist who can mediate such discussions, and even support kids in advocating for themselves with the restrictive parent. “As a person, it’s really tempting to want to tell a parent, ‘hey the language you’re using here is potentially harmful,’” says Lainy Clark, a therapist with Equip, a virtual eating disorder treatment program that uses the Family-Based Treatment model, where therapists work with parents or other caregivers to support a child’s recovery. “But as a therapist, I know the greatest tool I have is getting that parent in the room with their child, so I can ask, ‘Sally, what comes up for you when Dad brings up his diet?’ What would it look like if, instead of going to the gym together, you went for a walk outside?’” She’s seen plenty of parents finally come to terms with the impact they are having once they hear it from their child, in the child’s own words.
But for parents like Heather, Raquel, and Abby, this kind of collaborative conversation is often a non-starter, because even raising the topic of kids and food feels risky. When this happens, kids “lean on the parent they have the deeper relationship with,” Lainy says. “So lean into your relationship with your kiddo.” This means being the safe space: “Sometimes kids are afraid to talk about what’s happening at the other parent’s house, so it’s important to break down that shame,” says Lainy. “You might say, ‘You can always tell me something that happened at Dad’s that was harder for you. I’m not going to get mad when you want to talk about what happens there.’” It’s important not to undermine your co-parent, no matter how tempting. “We get, a lot of the time, ‘Don’t listen to Dad!’” Lainy explains. “But this is a choice the kiddo can make. They’re being exposed to different kinds of beliefs around food, and we want to empower them to make an informed decision about the information they’re receiving.”
Hilary agrees. “I would be leaning on, ‘Yup, they’re doing food really differently in that house and we’re going to respect people’s choices to do things differently. But if something doesn’t feel good, you can trust your feelings,” she says. “Kids need to hear: ‘You don’t need to agree with every adult in your life.’” You can also provide practical support by asking questions like: “What happens when you’re hungry there? Do you want some extra snacks in your backpack? Can I talk to your parent about you being hungry?” This approach, which Hilary calls “harm reduction” is the strategy Heather switched to after seeing that intervening directly with Paul only created more tension for her kids. “I spend a lot of time talking to the boys about this, just acknowledging their feelings” she says. “I think it helps them have a sense of control.”
Abby uses a similar approach with Lucy and says their communication around this issue has improved as Lucy has gotten older and can text from her dad’s house when she needs to vent or troubleshoot a meal. And lately she’s noticed that when Lucy has friends over at their house, she tells them “with obvious pride” about Abby’s attitude towards food. “I heard her tell a friend on a sleepover, ‘If you don’t like something, you don’t have to eat it. My mom doesn’t believe in forcing people to eat just to be polite.’” She reports. “So. Baby steps.”
When I first set out to write this piece, I hoped—the way you always hope—to land on a more triumphant ending than this. I am personally the product of an amicable divorce, as well as a cis married lady who would nevertheless cite Tressie McMillan Cottom to explain my position on divorce.
And I don’t want the take away of this story to be any woman deciding to stay in a miserable marriage because she’s now worried it will be harder for her kids to get fed well if they spend some portion of the week in another house. But I hadn’t considered how much anti-fat bias, along with how much misogyny and other forms of oppression, is built into the various systems that both create and dissolve marriages. And how that can keep women trapped in, or at least, alongside, a diet mentality, even after you’ve done the very hard work to set yourself free. And how that means living with “a constant, low ache of worry,” as Abby put it, about your children’s sense of body trust and autonomy. There’s nothing okay about that, of course. But it does force a reckoning of sorts. “Just telling my daughter her body is perfect and that she doesn’t have to earn food over and over is good,” my friend Lyz Lenz tells me when we text about this essay; she too has an ex with a lot of firmly held diet culture beliefs. “But it’s also pushed me to model those behaviors as well. To put the scale under the bed. To eat the same dinner as my kids, and not say no to desert just because I’m so used to saying no.”
And there is a new kind of strength, and freedom, to be found there. You can’t fix your co-parent. You can’t fix the world. “But I can give my kids a place to process it,” says Lyz. “And eat some bread.”
Resources for Anti-Diet Parenting
Obviously I’ll throw a biased pitch in for my newsletter, my podcast, and my forthcoming book. But there are so many folks doing important work in this space! Consider this list a starting point, and feel free to add your own resources in the comments.
How to Raise an Intuitive Eater: Raising the Next Generation with Food and Body Confidence by Sumner Brooks and Amee Severson (and here’s my conversation with Amee).
Raising Body Positive Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Diet-Free Living, Exercise and Body Image by Signe Darpinian, Wendy Sterling, and Shelley Aggarwal (and here’s my conversation with Signe).
Body Happy Kids by Molly Frasier
Reclaiming Body Trust: A Path to Healing and Liberation by Hilary Kinavey and Dana Sturtevant (yes, the Hilary quoted above! And here’s a longer conversation with her and Dana).
Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin
Maintenance Phase (not parenting-specific but a great starting point).