By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor
It starts as a rather common tale: woman grows up yo-yo dieting, bouncing up and down in weight and between mass-marketed diets throughout her teens, college, and early adulthood. When she has a daughter, she’s terrified that poor body image and high BMI will haunt the child like an evil legacy. And by the time the little girl turns 6, her fears are confirmed: her daughter has a weight problem.
Last fall, I wrote about a new study that revealed that many parents find talking about weight with their kids more embarrassing and frightening than talking about sex or drugs. I also cited a stat that 37 percent of parents are worried that at least one of their children will be overweight. So I was interested to learn that the April 2012 issue of Vogue (not exactly known for promoting healthy body image, but bear with me), featured mother and writer Dara-Lynn Weiss’ story of fearing, acknowledging, and tackling her 7-year-old daughter Bea’s weight problem.
Before I saw the article, I read the reactions to it. True to form, the New York Magazine article responding to Weiss’ four-page confession was well written and compelling. After reading it I was convinced, as the anonymous writer put it, that “Weiss just handed her daughter a road map to all her future eating disorders.” I was persuaded, too, that the conclusion - “There's only one possible bright side to this maternal travesty: Years from now, when Bea is in therapy, she won't have to waste those early sessions explaining herself because she'll just be able to hand over that article and say, "SEE WHAT I HAD TO DEAL WITH?" - summed up the whole sad situation perfectly.
Other blogs and comments from BabyCenter to Jezebel make Weiss sound like a monster. “Call CPS!” one commenter proclaimed. Others lamented that adults always push their issues onto their kids.
But Weiss isn’t just projecting her own flaws. A child is “obese” if his or her BMI is in the 95th percentile for their height and age – and Weiss' daughter was in the 99th percentile. The child's doctor said the girl’s weight was a problem. Overweight kids face greater risk of debilitating health issues, like type 2 diabetes, and psychological issues, like depression and low self-esteem. One study Weiss cites found that 80 percent of kids who are overweight in adolescence remain heavy at age 25. And the kicker: “If a child becomes overweight before age eight,” Weiss writes, “his or her obesity in adulthood will be even more severe.”
Most parents want to do everything in their power to help their children live happy, healthy lives. We know the scary facts and stats about obesity – and we know that living with these challenges can hamper both health and happiness. Further, despite this article’s publication in Vogue (which typically covers only high-class “problems”), everyone from Congress to Michelle Obama is taking note of the childhood obesity epidemic and searching for solutions – some drastic. Just last year CPS intervened in a childhood obesity case – and removed an overweight child from his mother’s care. So what’s a parent to do?
Weiss is bruisingly honest about her efforts to help Bea lose weight. Sure, they saw a child obesity specialist weekly and followed a diet-for-kids regimen aimed at regulating Bea’s eating while teaching her about nutrition. But Weiss also candidly shares her public, heated responses to friends, family, and even strangers when they’ve offered Bea unaccounted-for treats, proffered Weiss unsolicited advice, or failed to provide nutritional info (in one example, Weiss angrily threw a Starbuck’s hot chocolate in the trash when a barista couldn’t tell her the exact calorie count). It has not been a happy journey, for mother or child. Weiss sounds unhinged at times – and admits her lack of perfection as a parent and as an eating/weight role model. But she also names the countless ways that parents don’t have control over their kids’ diets – especially at school, where a healthy snack of nuts is prohibited to protect allergic kids, but any number of birthday cupcakes, pizza parties, and school lunches with zero nutritional info are the norm.
I’ll admit it: I’m part of the 37 percent of adults worried that my kids will have weight problems. In fact, I think 37 percent is actually low. The more we learn about weight-related health problems (not to mention the acceptance of weight-related mocking, intolerance, and discrimination) and the inexorable memories of our fat cells, the more crucial it seems for kids to have healthy eating habits from the start. So I don’t think Weiss is a monster. I wish 7- and 8-year-olds didn’t have to worry about weight, but some do. After a year, Bea lost 16 pounds. Weiss has taught her child to think of her weight problem as a condition like asthma that she’ll have to deal with for life. It’s easy to judge - but if it were your child, what would you do?