When Dara-Lynn Weiss wrote an article for Vogue magazine last year about putting her then 7-year-old daughter on a diet, she created a firestorm of controversy. “One of the most (bleeped) up, selfish women to ever grace the magazine’s pages” is how Jezebel summed it up.
Weiss described policing everything that went into her daughter’s mouth, depriving her of meals as a punishment for overeating, and humiliating her in public.
“I stopped letting her enjoy Pizza Fridays when she admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week,” she wrote. “I dressed down a Starbucks barista when he professed ignorance of the nutrition content of the kids’ hot chocolate whose calories are listed as ‘120-210′ on the menu board. Well, which is it? When he couldn’t provide an answer, I dramatically grabbed the drink out of my daughter’s hands, poured it into the garbage, and stormed out.”
Ultimately her daughter lost 16 pounds, and mother and daughter celebrated with a shopping spree for new clothes.
If all of this sounds over the top, brace yourself because Weiss recently published a full-length book, “The Heavy,” that chronicles in much more detail her efforts to help her daughter lose weight. And I’m beginning to think she doesn’t deserve the vitriol that’s been heaped upon her, because it’s often incredibly difficult for parents to know how to address a child’s weight in ways that are constructive rather than shaming, bullying and falling prey to America’s collective horror of excess pounds.
Full disclosure: I didn’t read Weiss’s article in Vogue last April and the magazine’s website doesn’t appear to have it available for nonsubscribers. So I’m relying on excerpts, secondhand accounts and published interviews with Weiss herself.
What comes across is a mother who’s trying to make her way through an emotional minefield of food, obesity, other people’s judgments and expectations, and her own desire to help her daughter without being either too permissive or too rigid.
She tells New York magazine that she accepts much of the criticism that erupted in the wake of her essay in Vogue: “I am strict. I was abrasive at times. I made a million mistakes.”
She talks about the awkward position parents find themselves in when they have a child who’s overweight: “Parents of obese children have this extra standard that’s very uncomfortable: If you tell a child he can’t have a piece of cake you’re embarrassing him by drawing attention to his problem; the same limit-setting would be considered fine for parents of normal-weight children.”
She points out how hard it can be to tackle a child’s weight issues: “It’s so awkward to talk to a child about food and weight, that’s why so many parents don’t do it.”
She’s candid about her own issues with food and body image and her fear of passing them on to her daughter.
Elsewhere, she discusses the “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” dilemma foisted on the parents of children who are overweight. “You can’t get it right, you can’t be perfect – you’re going to make some people feel like you’re denying your kid her childhood, while others are standing there staring at every cupcake she eats,” she tells Motherlode, the New York Times parenting blog.
She expresses frustration with school lunches and children’s party menus that often undermine parents’ efforts to help a child adopt healthier eating habits. She describes how some of the common advice – “make better choices”, “stop when you’re full” – was too unstructured to be helpful.
And she challenges people to examine their assumptions about overweight children. Her daughter wasn’t lazy and didn’t eat unhealthy food, she said in a recent interview with USA Today: “She was a child with an enormous appetite… She has a brother a year younger, same parents, same food, who doesn’t want to eat sweets.”
Public opinion polls and research seem to back up Weiss’s observations about how we view children and weight.
A study published last year in PLOS One, for instance, found that obese children are more likely to be stigmatized than middle-aged and older adults who are obese – and that obesity among children is more likely to be blamed on external factors such as parenting style or environment.
There has been public debate about whether extremely obese children should be removed from the custody of their parents. And a couple of years ago a legislator in Illinois went so far as to suggest that parents of fat children should lose their state income tax deduction (although he later backed down, saying he was only kidding).
At the same time, a billboard campaign in Georgia that used pictures of real children and messages such as “It’s hard to be a little girl when you aren’t” was widely criticized for its fat-shaming approach and the lack of evidence that this strategy even works; the billboards ultimately were taken down.
And a poignant story that appeared last month in the New York Times revealed that children often feel bullied by adults about their weight, sometimes at the cost of developing eating disorders and obsession with body image.
As Weiss told the Motherlode blog, “People are so critical of childhood obesity, and then you try to do something about it – to help your child – and they’re critical of that, too. Parents can’t win.”
Whether you applaud Weiss’s story or deplore it, it seems to have launched a conversation about parents, children and weight. Perhaps it can lead in a more rational direction that reduces the judging and the bullying in favor of approaches that are actually helpful, both for kids and their parents.