Dara-Lynn Weiss has regrets. Putting her 7-year-old on a strict diet, and becoming known in her circle as the mother who would embarrass her daughter by refusing her food in public, is not one of them. In fact, she has written a book -- "The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet" -- defending the decision. It’s an expanded version of her article in Vogue last spring that brought her to the center of the parenting wars in the first place.
“I know I look like the bad guy,” she said, of the dual meaning of the title, during a breakfast (she had a decaf skim latte) near her Soho apartment. “There are lots of times I looked like a crazy, overbearing mom and I felt like a crazy overbearing mom. But it was the only way I found to help my daughter.”
The search for help began years earlier, when Bea was 3, and it became clear that she simply loved food more than the children around her. Her younger brother, for one. A year apart in age, and eating the same meals, David gained an average of five pounds every year between 2 and 6, while Bea gained an average of twice that much. By her check-up at age 6, she stood four feet four inches tall and weighed 93 pounds, which meant she was clinically obese.
Dara-Lynn knew junk food wasn’t Bea’s problem because, she insists, the girl rarely had any. “She could finish a pint of grape tomatoes or an entire small melon for a snack, so I could only imagine what kind of damage she could do to herself if I’d instead handed her Cheetos,” she writes.
Frightened and motivated by the numbers, Dara-Lynn found help from Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, whose “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” nutritional program is aimed at children. Essentially calorie counting in the form of a game (like Weight Watchers, but with stoplights instead of points) each member of the Weiss household was given a personal allotment of red, green and yellow lights that they could consume each week. Bea had the fewest, which led to months of interactions like this one:
That’s not fair!' she cried. 'Why does Dave get [insert inequitable food distribution allegation here]?' He would get two pieces of chicken and she would get only one. David would have a full-sized bagel, while Bea got a mini. He’d have pasta, she’d have only vegetables.
How to talk to children about weight? So much modern parenting advice says “don’t.” Parents are advised to use words like “healthy” or “unhealthy” when describing foods, rather than “fattening” and “non.” Suggesting that a child needs to slim down? Making a child self-conscious about their looks? Those bring the risk of an eating disorder.
As one who has had her share of odd eating behaviors herself over the years (see chapter three), Weiss says she is sensitive to the risks of shaming her daughter into losing weight. But, she adds, Bea was already self-conscious about her looks, and was being teased at school. Fact is, she says, some foods ARE fattening, and the only way to be healthy is to eat less. So she decided to be direct.
“In our discussions of this issue, Bea and I usually used the word overweight,” she writes, “which seemed to strike the right balance between colloquial and medical. It was less harsh-sounding than fat and less clinical than obese. But Bea knew where she fell on the BMI chart.”
Knowing is different than wanting, though, and Bea pushed back. It was bad enough when the skirmishes happened in the privacy of the family’s one-bedroom apartment. But inevitably they also occurred out in the world. “Food is public,” Weiss says. “So this became public.”
At a dinner party at a friend’s home, for instance, the children were served first, and Bea ate her modest plate of vegetables and pasta while her brother had a larger portion covered in cheese. The children went off to play and the adults sat down for their meal -- salad nicoise. While they were eating, Bea came and said she was hungry, and the hostess offered her a bowl of the salad. Weiss describes what happened next:
“I’m sorry Bea,” I interjected. “It’s got a lot of dressing on it, and --”
“Just olive oil!” my friend interrupted. “It’s super healthy!”
I forced a grim smile. “I know, but --”
“Just a little!” my friend insisted and pushed the bowl into Bea’s eager hands.
And then there were the processed treats. Trying to stick to the allocated calories and keep Bea from feeling deprived, Weiss found herself relying on things like prepackaged 100 calorie snacks and diet sodas. “The glares were far worse when I was the mother handing a seven-year-old a Diet Coke than when I was the mother saying no to salad,” Weiss says. “And I get it. I used to judge parents who let their kids eat artificial stuff. I also used to judge parents whose kids were fat. That’s the crux of it. Parents are 'damned if I do, damned if I don’t.’”
Whatever she thought she knew about being judged didn’t come close, though, to what happened when she wrote about Bea’s diet in the April 2012 issue of Vogue. It is one thing to have your friends raise their eyebrows and quite another to be called “hateful”, “self-absorbed”, “a recipe for eating disorders” and “one of the most fucked up, selfish women to ever grace the magazine's pages.”
Even the doctor whose plan Weiss followed distanced herself from how Weiss carried it out. “The success of my program is based upon its promotion of flexibility and sensitivity... not severity and emotional distress,” Dolgoff wrote here on HuffPost.
Weiss spends several chapters of her book discussing the Vogue article. If she had to do anything over again, she says -- here is where we get to the regrets -- she would not have told her tale in Vogue, a publication that has long been a target of those who feel it idolizes super-skinny above all else. “If it had been in Parents magazine,” she asks, “would it have gotten the same reaction?”
Her other regret was that she allowed Bea to pose for the photos accompanying the article, wearing makeup and designer clothes. At the time, she writes, she turned to a trusted friend who was a therapist for advice, and he said that Bea should absolutely not be in any photos. But, having already asked the girl if she wanted to participate, Weiss gave in when Bea pleaded to be allowed to do so.
“We should have stood firm,” Weiss writes, “We should have listened to the therapist’s advice."
This time around, the rules are different. When I ask how Bea, now 9-years-old, is doing, Weiss says “fine, she’s great” but doesn’t offer any details about the girl’s weight. Bea will not come along on any of her mother’s promotional appearances, nor do any photos of mother or daughter appear in the book.
“I’m realizing that this is a parenting story,” she says, “about how what is best for your child is not always easy and sometimes feels mean.” In other words “this is my story, not Bea’s story. One day, if she wants to, she will have her own story to tell.”