Dear Carolyn: I love my brother — he and I are the only family we have in our area — but am gradually seeing less and less of him because of my food- and weight-fixated sister-in-law.
They have been married for decades and she's never been my favorite; however, over the past 10 years she's increasingly obsessed with everyone else's weight and how much they eat. She consistently comments on my nieces' food intake — her children are adults — my eating speed or amount of food I order, my perceived weight gain or loss, the amount of food prepared for a meal, her brother's weight, ad nauseam.
No one in our family is obese, and she, my brother and their kids actually look pretty thin. I'm in good health at 61.
I've tried ignoring her comments, replying with body-positive statements, confronting passive-aggressive remarks about "too much food," but she apparently just can't stop. I don't want to break with the only sibling I have.
Please help me not to stab her with my dinner knife.
Carolyn says: "Less and less" means you are breaking with the only sibling you have. It's just happening in stages.
And it's common: You've tried dropping all the polite hints about what's bothering you, and she hasn't shown any signs of picking any of them up, so you're moving toward just not dealing with her at all, at the high cost of time with your brother. I must see some version of this in my mailbox at least a few times a week. I've done it myself.
But it's a progression that skips right over what is arguably the most effective recourse of all (without all the legal and moral kerfuffle of your dinner-knife solution):
Say what you mean.
Ignoring and healthy cheerleading and strategic callings-out all have their place. But, wow, there's just nothing like:
"That is none of your business."
Say this gently anytime she remarks about anything having to do with your body or food. Verbatim. It's true no matter how thin any of you are or how healthy you seem.
When her harping poisons the larger conversation, or targets someone else, shift to the "Why?" axis. Again, gently: "Why are you asking that?" "Why is that important?" "Why don't we talk about something else?"
These are rhetorical questions, of course, because we all know why she's so fixated. She's not well. The part of it you see is obnoxious but the part inside her is just sad.
You can't make someone else's sick worldview healthy — she needs to see the problem and take steps herself to fix it — but you can take the most compassionate view possible, then express your concern to her and to your brother. "This preoccupation with food alarms me." Again, it's saying exactly what you mean, and it's powerful. It may alienate your brother, but, remember, you're already avoiding your way to estrangement.
You can also show compassion for yourself by setting limits on what you'll discuss and then not flinching. When she starts in, you just walk away or change the subject as blatantly as you need to. Dysfunction gets zero oxygen from you.
This is really just integrity, so it applies to anything. Before you go dark, see what sunlight can do.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.