What would you do if a doctor told you your seven-year old child was obese? Would you shrug it off, hoping your kid would eventually just grow out of the problem, and that the excess weight would somehow magically disappear? Or would you take charge of the situation, enforce a strict diet, and mercilessly police your child’s food intake like some kind of heavy? Alarmed about her little girl’s health, Dara-Lynn Weiss opted for the latter. And because the Manhattan mother of two knew that childhood obesity was rampant, and that many parents were struggling with how to impart healthy eating habits to their kids, she decided to start writing a book on the subject. When her editor happened to tell a Vogue magazine editor about the project, Vogue suggested that Weiss write an article for the fashion bible about the experience of putting her daughter on the big diet. And once Weiss’s daughter Bea lost the required weight, the magazine invited the mother and her little girl to take part in a glam fashion shoot, to show off the impressive results.
The exercise ended up becoming a red-hot controversy, and Weiss was publicly accused of being a monstrous mother, with horrible parenting skills and superficial values. In her new book, “The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet”, Weiss, a New York writer and media producer, chronicles the passion, pain and pride that were all part of her and Bea’s journey. Weiss was in Toronto recently, and we spoke about the perils of parenting, her regrets, and her triumphs.
Jeanne: Chronicling the adventures and misadventures of child rearing is something I’ve done in my columns for years, as I wrote about raising my girls. Sometimes they don’t seem to mind that you’re writing about them and sometimes they get their backs up. Did you have any reservations about what you were doing while you were going through the process of writing this book?
Dara-Lynn: I thought that anything I was writing about Bea was out of pride and love, and that she certainly would have nothing to be embarrassed about. Writing about my own actions could certainly be more controversial and called into question. But I thought this was an important issue that we’re so afraid to talk about. We stigmatize children who are going through childhood obesity. And I didn’t want to subject myself and Bea to that same sort of shame and self-censoring that would stop us from talking about this. So I put the story out there in as honest a way as I could for that reason.
J: Did you have any reservations when you heard that Vogue was interested in having you write about Bea’s diet in the magazine?
DL: No. As a forty-something mom, I respond to Vogue as like, ‘Wow! What a beautiful magazine, with really intelligent articles for women like me, who like fashion… ‘ I think I lost sight of the fact that when I was twenty-two and read the magazine I thought ‘Oh, I’m so fat and ugly and I don’t look anything like these women!’ It was a much more challenging magazine for me then. I think I approached it in this very naïve way. I didn’t remember how loaded Vogue is in terms of topics like weight and beauty and little girls and how we feel about ourselves. I think I might have been a little more sensitive to that had I really thought it through.
J: Fashion is the first arena where people want to point fingers, and tear you apart for anything to do with issues of weight loss. They just think it’s a bad thing, even though it can be a good thing—a life-saving thing. Certainly in the case of your child, it was a very healthy, positive thing for her to do.
DL: Yes, I think the venue is important and I think that if my story had been in a parenting magazine, it would have been received quite differently. I do definitely take responsibility for having put the story in Vogue.
J: What did you go through emotionally when you first realized that this had struck such a sensitive chord in people?
DL: Well, I expected there to be some debate… but I did feel that the story was interesting because why should it be controversial to make a decision like this? It seemed so straightforward: Your child is obese. Your doctor urges you to help her. A pediatric nutritionist gives you a program. You enforce it very strictly so that your child will be healthy. You make mistakes along the way and you confess to them. Why should this be so emotional for people? But I think everyone brings to it their own baggage of their own history, their own fears, their own childhood, their own parenting concerns. And it was very unpleasant to see my story go beyond the kind of controversy I hoped to get out there, and reach this level of condemnation of my parenting and my motivations that so strongly diverged from what I had experienced with my daughter.
J: And Bea’s reaction to the initial negativity?
DL: Unawareness. We managed to sort of shield her from an understanding of what was happening. We explained that there had been articles written about our story and that people disagreed with how I went about it, which she was very surprised by. It seemed to her to have been a good decision. But she was unaware that I was under such personal attack.
J: Saying no for any mother is incredibly hard. But I think saying no to the food issue, for a Jewish mother…well I can’t even imagine it! I kept trying to put myself in your shoes, as I’m sure all mothers reading this will. I can’t imagine the strength that you had to have to have done this…
DL: I had to be the heavy. And I think that I made a decision very early on that I was going to hold the line very firmly, and very consistently, because I felt that for this to work on a physical level, we needed to be consistent and stick to a diet the doctor had given us. From a parenting perspective, I needed to set the example—like ‘We’re doing this! We’re not wavering. I’m doing it with you. I’m right next to you. But the answer is going to be no….the answer has to be no. And every time I go ‘okay’, I’m undermining our progress. I’m undermining my authority. I’m undermining her willingness to participate in this.’ It was incredibly hard. I take great joy in food. My daughter takes great joy in food. It played an important part in our relationship. Not just ‘Oh mommy can I have a snack?’ But ‘Let’s do this food thing together. Let’s go out for ice cream together. Let’s bake cookies together.’ And to have to change that aspect of our time together was a little scary.
J: It’s ‘so far so good’ with Bea now, right? She’s at her necessary weight, and she’s continuing to maintain that, correct?
DL: Yes. She is healthy and increasingly, as she gets older, she’s independently managing her diet on her own, which is great.
J: And aware of foods that are healthy, and foods that aren’t?
DL: Yes. And making good choices.
J: But was there a lot of this journey that you regretted, despite the fact that it did really have the desired effect in the end?
DL: I would say, as a parent, there are moments of regret every day, and those peppered this experience as much as any other. We have our children, and we want them to go to bed at a certain time. Sleep is important, and we try to enforce their bedtime and whether we’re strict or we’re lax or we put our foot down or not, these are decisions we have to make. And sometimes we fall short. And sometimes we’re impatient. And we need to accept that about ourselves. No one’s a perfect mom. No one always says the perfect thing. The fear I had of saying and doing the wrong thing around this issue was so enormous that it took me a long time to really intervene in an appropriate way. I’m honest about all the things I did wrong, and all the things I regret. But hopefully, those things are overshadowed by the larger picture of what I did do for my daughter. I hope that will help some parents deal with their day-to-day anxiety.
J: The whole idea of doing the Vogue photo shoot, once Bea lost the weight, became another area of attack for you. Do you regret that?
DL: Bea wanted to be part of the photo shoot. And the way I approached it was, ‘You know what? This girl has gone through a lot. She has accomplished something amazing. She should get that recognition. She should have that moment and that fun day, superficial as it is, just that day of fun and then that moment of being immortalized for her achievement and having conquered childhood obesity.’ That was something I wanted to give her. I was very proud of her, and I still look at that moment, through that lens. And when you then look at it in retrospect as being this sort of pivotal image of an incredibly controversial and vitriolic argument it seems. ‘Oh dear, why did I put her in the middle of that?!’ But I wanted her to have a great time and be celebrated. And it was the reaction that made me question the move, rather than my intentions at the time.
J: A lot of us worry that one day, our kids are going to end up on a shrink’s couch. We’re doing the best that we can as parents who love their children, and want the best for them. How much do you worry about how all of this will affect Bea’s perception of herself, and her relationship with food in the future?
DL: I worry about it all the time. I would not say for a second I’ve done this all perfectly, and she’s going to grow up with perfect self-esteem and a wonderful relationship with food. I’m concerned about it. I’m concerned about the factors external to me, and how she will process those as she gets older. I feel that the issues I had with food which were significant, were not at all from my mom. They were from me internally, they were from society, they were from my peers. So I worry about how she will fair. But I do think that the steps we’ve gone through, the relationship we’ve established, the dialogue about food and body and weight that we are in everyday, it all actually bodes well. It gives her tools, it gives her a conversation, a vocabulary, a person to talk to about her feelings. And so my hope and honest belief is that she is on a better track towards self-esteem and body image positivity and relationship to food than she would have been had we not addressed this issue in such an intense way. But I have no guarantees. I’ll just have to hope as we do as parents that things work out okay.
J: What are you hoping this book helps achieve ultimately?
DL: I think it gets at such a key aspect of parenting, which is being the heavy, and the willingness to take that role, to do the unpopular, unpleasant thing that you don’t want to do. No one wants to put their kid on a diet. No kid wants to be on a diet. No parents want to see someone else’s kid on a diet. No grandparent wants to hear their grandkid is on a diet. But that was the right thing to do. And having the strength and love for your child to do that is so key to parenting, whether it’s about weight, or anything else. Having that strength and putting up with the backlash whether it’s private or public, is a very important aspect of raising a child.