Ask Virginia: The Thing Your Husband Really Needs To Read
It's tough to implement intuitive eating at home when your thin, white, male partner hasn't done the homework.
Today we have another installment in a series of Q&As tackling issues like how to feed your kids, combat diet culture in schools and family life, and navigate fatphobia (your own and other people's). Got a question you'd like me to tackle? Hit reply and send it over!
NOTE: This post talks about the communication challenges faced by heterosexual couples raising children, around food. It’s a response to a large number of questions and comments that have been coming in recently from straight women, struggling to get their straight (and usually thin and white) male partner on board with a non-diet approach to family meals. I apologize to readers who may feel marginalized by this discussion, especially queer couples or single parents. A good bit of the advice here extrapolates to any kind of family, but I also wanted to discuss the intersection of diet culture and toxic masculinity—hence the very hetero-focused conversation. Next week we’ll return to our more inclusive usual programming!
Q: How do you talk to a partner who is still pretty ingrained in diet culture? I'm married to a typical skinny white male here, though he has a LOT of food/body issues that I think stem from him being made fun of for being "too skinny" as a kid, and pressured to finish his plate. He's also very much a "science says calories in/calories out" person and...it's difficult sometimes. Said husband would also rather not have sweets in the house cause he feels he can't control himself around them.
A: Recently, I asked my Instagram followers what was stopping them from taking a non-restrictive approach to food* with their kids—and the most common answer, by far, was “my husband.”
So! You are not alone. But also! This is very enraging. As some Twitter followers later observed, it's unlikely that these same men are also doing their share of the mental load of meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking. One reason that men tend to have more “old school” (read: restrictive) ideas about, say, making kids clean their plates to earn dessert, is that they just aren't keeping up with the changing conversation around these issues. Mothers do more of the research on how to feed children (because we're socially conditioned to feel responsible for it), which means we're more likely to encounter the intuitive eating/responsive feeding perspective that now dominates the scientific literature on feeding children. Then, we're put in the crappy position of having to get someone on board with the approach when he hasn't done the same homework.
So my main piece of advice is: Ask him to do the work. Have a conversation (okay, this may be several conversations) where you share why these issues matter to you—maybe that's your own history with disordered eating and dieting?—and why raising kids who love their bodies and don't obsess unhealthily about food is a core parenting value for you. He'll likely have questions and you can answer them if the conversation stays open-minded and respectful. But if you start to feel like you're on trial, it's also okay to say, this really matters to me and I need you to read some things.
For a general exploration of diet culture's impact on people from all walks of life, I'd start with my first book. For a meticulously researched explanation of why dieting doesn't work and weight and health aren't as synonymous as he thinks, I'd point you to Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison. (She does a great job of specifically tackling your husband's "but science says calories in/calories out!" belief and many other myths.) For a thorough introduction to the harm caused by fatphobia, he needs to read What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon.
If he won't read a whole book or three, you can just forward him this newsletter because I'm deliberately weaving in every other article link I can think of that might be useful so we've got them all in one place (Hi Skinny White Husband! Don't be scared, I'm here to help!).
If he doesn't want to read anything, that's fair—but that means he's got to cede this territory to you. In Virginia's Perfect World, feeding kids would be a shared family project based on shared values. But if it's going to be a task that you silo, then he's got to back you up. He can’t backseat drive your mealtime decisions and food parenting strategies, just like I never question Dan's choice of laundry detergent. Backing you up means respecting your boundaries: No discussing his own diet stuff in front of the kids (because stopping that is the number one way to protect your kids from inheriting your body issues) or with you, if you find that triggering (or just boring because let’s be honest, diet talk really is!).
Part of this conversation should also involve you trying to understand his food and parenting values. I almost didn't bother to write that because I'm guessing 97% of the women reading this are like, duh, yes of course, all I do is understand and unpack other people's emotions. There's our social conditioning again! But I do want to spell out that his experiences around being pressured to clean his plate, or getting bullied for his childhood weight (whether he was too thin or too fat) are all influencing his feelings about how he eats now, and how he thinks the kids should eat. Those experiences, and the feelings they bring up for him, are entirely valid. They are just also what make him so vulnerable to rigid food rules like "no sweets in the house." Finding those food rules has felt like the answer for him, for a long, long time. And he may not be ready to see that it isn't. Men are not immune to diet culture, as I wrote in this piece last year. The problem is "we don't have a script for how to talk to men about diet culture," as Jaclyn Siegel, PhD, a social psychologist who studies eating disorders and gender, put it when I interviewed her. "And there's also no script for men to express their own concerns, because it isn't seen as normative for men to develop these issues."
So it's important to keep in mind that you can be supportive to someone else on their own food journey, but you cannot solve their problems for them. Of course, it's tempting when you share meals with them on a daily basis. But it won't work. A better approach is to hammer out where your values do align on food—maybe you agree on how often you want to order takeout in a week, or you both care about being vegetarian or celebrating holidays with certain dishes that are traditional in your culture. Wherever you overlap, use that as a starting point to figure out some shared family food values. Then add on whatever boundaries you each need, whether that's about the language you use around food and bodies (especially in front of kids) or an agreement not to second guess each other's food/parenting calls in the moment (even if one of you is wildly uncomfortable watching the other let a child eat nothing but butter for dinner) but instead to hash it out later, after the kids are in bed.
Having these conversations and figuring out your food values is likely only the starting point. There are going to be tough moments where it's hard to enforce a boundary or hard to make a decision that honors both of your feelings about a situation. Neither of you will get this right all the time, and that's okay. Kids are resilient and they can handle our mistakes as long as they know we're showing up for them, loving them, and accepting them for who they are.
And P.S. for the Skinny White Husbands: If you have more questions, don't bug your wives. You can hit reply and send them my way. I may cover them in an upcoming newsletter, or my next book (which yes, you'll also need to read).
*This came up in a conversation about why it can backfire to make kids "earn" their treat foods. ICYMI and want to catch up, it's saved in the FAQ Highlight on my Insta. If you need more, this article and this article should help.
Vaccine eligible: And for Elemental, I reported on the problem with using BMI as a vaccine eligibility metric. Yes, I will be getting vaccinated ASAP to protect my at-risk child, and no, I will not be reading the comments. Read more here.
Listen up: And earlier this week, I went on The Takeaway to discuss fatphobia during the Covid pandemic, from the pernicious fear of the “quarantine 15,” to the fat-shaming and sub-par treatment of Covid patients. Listen here.
You're reading Burnt Toast, a newsletter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia is a feminist writer, co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast, and author of The Eating Instinct. Comments? Questions? Email Virginia.
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