Dear Auntie Sparknotes,
I think my little sister, "Anne" has anorexia, and no one seems to believe me. My evidence:
a) she refuses to eat with others or eats only a little,
b) she is stick thin,
c) she calls herself fat,
e) she now bruises easily and faints fairly often (she didn't before high school, when all of this started),
f) she exercises twice or three times a day for one to two hours per session,
g) she has been declared too underweight to give blood, and
h) I just found out that her hair is falling out.
Mom has even noticed that Anne is too thin, but refuses to say anything to her. Neither she nor Anne think Anne maybe needs to see a doctor.
The wrinkle is that I’m 5’1” and 150 lbs, i.e. overweight. My parents have criticized my body in the past. We have just reached a place of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” style peace. I was gaining back my self confidence and focusing on things less weighty, until I noticed my sister.
I know that if I talk about Anne’s problem, I will open myself up to more talk of how I’m too fat. I know because I tried, and immediately, my weight was the subject. So I’ve been biting my tongue. Is that what I should be doing, since it’s this risky? Or am I being a coward? I feel like I should be doing something, but I don’t know what. And sometimes I feel crazy. Am I making this up or overreacting out of jealousy or something? How do I stop from slapping Anne with a punishment salmon and then forcing her to eat it next time she talks about the horrors of more than 100 calories?
Okay, let me make sure I’m getting this: Your obviously underweight sister is starving herself, exercising obsessively, fainting on the regular, and losing her hair... and your parents’ response when you bring it up is, “Well, yeah, but you’re fat”?!
...Would you excuse me for a second? I need to shout several unprintable words and pour myself a nice tall glass of what the hell is the matter with people.
And unfortunately, what you should do in this situation is constrained by what you can do... which is severely limited by the fact that you’re living in a household where thinness is emphasized, fatness is criticized, and a younger daughter’s possible mental illness is considered less important than the older one’s love handles. I mean, even if she isn’t anorexic, the change in Anne’s eating habits combined with the dramatic loss of weight/hair/consciousness should have triggered some major concern with the people who are supposed to care for her. The fact that it didn’t... just, ugh. Your parents’ approach to this issue is so screwed up and unhealthy, I can hardly stand it.
So, what should you do? First, steel your nerves and take one more stab at these awful conversations: one in which you express your concerns to Anne directly, and one in which you express them to your parents—this time with prepared responses to the nonsense you know they’ll counter with. And if your mom tries to derail you, then either...
Redirect: “This conversation is not about me or my body. This conversation is about Anne: she’s painfully thin, she’s not eating, she exercises obsessively, and her hair is falling out. I love her, and I'm worried. Why aren't you?”
Or, call her bluff: “Okay, fine. Schedule a doctor’s appointment for both of us. I will gladly go discuss a weight loss program if it means that Anne gets seen by someone who can make sure she’s okay.”
Hopefully, this will inspire your folks to at least have your sister seen by a doctor (which, eating disorder or not, is what you’re supposed to do when your kid is passing out and losing her hair. GEEZ.) But if they ignore you again, and if Anne continues to restrict and refuses to acknowledge a problem, then here’s your Hail Mary: go to an adult who knows her (like a teacher or coach), explain your concerns, and ask if they’ll keep an eye on her. Not because it’s a magic solution—it’s not—but because it’s what you can do. And when you can’t make things better, the next best thing to do is whatever you can to make sure they don’t get worse.
Have you ever been concerned about a family member or friend’s disordered eating? Tell us in the comments, and to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.