I’m actually glad I read this book – even though I expected it to be a complete food-and-weight-obsessed take on how to handle helping your child with a weight problem. I feel like it’s given me a lot to think about, changed some of my views on this delicate subject, and given me Dara-Lynn Weiss’ side of a story that you had to have your head in the sand to have missed when it broke last year.
Weiss famously wrote an article in Vogue magazine about how she put her then six year old daughter, Bea, on a diet, when told by her paediatrician that Bea was clinically obese. She was absolutely vilified from all quarters. There were supporters of her side – but they were mostly drowned out by a worldwide cry against her – she was called abusive, disordered, cruel, a bad mother, people said that child protection should be notified and so on.
I have to admit, I was one of those who was horrified. After reading Weiss’ book, I’m still not ‘with’ her, but I’m not against her either. What is certain to me in reading is that her actions came from a deep love for Bea and only wanting her child to have the best life possible. Bea was definitely aware of her size, aware and sad to be ‘different’ from the other kids, already had experienced comments and teasing. And there were also the health issues to consider. Obese children do mostly grow up to be obese adults. Now I know that a lot of people will argue the health at any size and Obesity isn’t necessarily unhealthy points here – but let’s just put those picket signs down and remember that this is the story of one mother, and her own daughter, a daughter she is charged with making health decisions for. Parents struggle with so many difficult choices when it comes to health – to immunise or not, for example – and judgement is rife. But it comes down to her right to make the choice for her child, depending on what she thinks is the best choice.
Weiss did take Bea to a nutritionist – in fact, she started out doing everything the way I’d probably have hoped someone whose child was obese would do – take the whole family to the nutritionist. The entire family have various issues and they work hard to follow the plans given to them – at this point their program is of the ‘green light, red light’ kind where they are allocated certain numbers of green lights and yellow lights to eat each day, and taught which foods and how much of them constitute each green, yellow or red light. Fruit and vegetables were ‘free’ as snacks.
I think this is where Weiss strays off the path. She has said that she has her own disordered relationship with food – and it’s obvious throughout this book. Weiss panics if Bea is wearing different clothes when she’s weighed – for example jeans instead of leggings – because of the weight difference. She refuses to allow Bea a snack before an after school appointment at one stage in case Bea weighs slightly heavier. She obsessively plans and re-plans her and Bea’s food plans, and obsessively embarks on a mission that many people with full blown serious eating disorders will remember well – to find out the calorie counts of as many different foods as possible, and to seek out ever lower calorie items. She gushes about the use of frankenfoods and artificial sweeteners in place of real nutrition because ‘low calories trumps nutrition’ and panics over lapse as small as 100 calories or so for Bea. This is not normal behaviour.
Especially, this is not normal behaviour for so young a child. Bea is growing. She’s 6 years old, 7 years old. Not only is she growing, but her relationship with food IS going to be affected by this for the rest of her life. And she IS pulling against the forced restriction. She’s constantly asking for snacks (fruit being free) to the point of having four or five or six snacks of fruit between each meal, and binge eating fruit into the night to the point of being uncomfortable. That is the behaviour of someone who is either starving, or deprived. I know from my own feelings of deprivation and consequent lashback into bingeing or hoarding food – that it can stick with you for LIFE. Bingeing and hoarding behaviors are also very common in foster children who have been deprived of food or food has been tightly controlled.
Then there is Bea’s lack of honesty when quizzed about what she’s eaten away from her mother. She’s scared of ‘owning up’ to having had three slices of pizza at a pizza party and tries to tell her mother she had only one at first. And when an unplanned ‘event’ happens in which Bea is faced with an array of food without her mother and herself having a ‘plan’ of what she can eat – she eats pretty much some of everything. Given that the point of some of these events was for the children in Bea’s class to try out food from other cultures, sampling a little of each offering was actually normal behaviour, but Bea probably would have been aware she was doing the ‘wrong’ thing, and definitely aware when she had to ‘own up’ to it to Weiss.
Then there are situations like at parties – where Bea wants another dessert or is still hungry, but has already eaten everything she’s ‘allowed’ to have. Weiss cops a fair bit of criticism from the other adults for not allowing Bea another cake or even to have the salad offered because it’s covered in a dressing. I do have to say, the other adults were not helpful. We don’t know what another child’s dietary issues might be. Bea might have been on a special diet for allergy reasons or she might have been diabetic and I’m sure the other adults wouldn’t have been so unsupportive then. And waving a food under the nose of a kid whose mother has just said NO to, is definitely not helpful, thoughtful, or kind.
Personally, I know very little about weight loss for kids. What I have heard (and believe) is that it’s not weight loss that’s important – it’s weight stabilisation – and allowing them to grow into their weight. In calculating what her daughter’s weight goals should be, at least Weiss kept her projected height in mind, but she was way too stuck on 77 pounds. If it was 77.2 pounds, that wasn’t good enough. To her credit, this weight was barely out of overweight into ‘normal’ for Bea’s height, so at least she wasn’t unrealistic on her weight – but just the general obsessiveness and inflexibility was a huge red flag for me throughout the book.
In the end, how is Bea? She’s lost the weight. She definitely seems happier, but at the same time, she still feels like a fat kid – she’s said she will always feel like one on the inside. She still needs to have her mother control her food intake – or it inches up again fast. Over time, though, Bea shows she is able to control her food intake herself and demonstrates this ability on a 3 week camp. This, here, is where I start to worry the most. Although Bea did very well – I feel like she’s too caught up in the ‘restrictive’ and ‘controlled’ eating – and it can very easily tip over into anorexia. That part of things just sounded off, and too good to be true to me.
Weiss was approached by Vogue magazine to write about her daughter’s weight loss journey after she expressed interest in writing a book about it. She was counselled to not include Bea in the photographs, but caved in to Bea’s pleas to be included – a choice she later regretted. I would not have liked to be in her shoes with what followed the publication of that article.
Overall, it was an interesting book, but unless you are already interested in the subject or share an obsession with food, weight, and dieting – it could be extremely boring. The book pretty much is a lengthy account of the process from beginning of diet to end. Weiss obviously has done a good amount of research for the book – but suffers from confirmation bias – in that she’s set out to justify her choices and seems to have cherry-picked whatever research backs her up and excluded that which doesn’t. Despite this, there are some good and salient points that she raises – for example, even the ‘healthy’ choices in restaurants and in school cafeteria food containing far more energy than a child needs in one meal, and actual energy content differing to the provided nutrition statement. I do now see her point in that had she been less strict with Bea, Bea would most likely still be overweight, because there just are not healthy choices there for kids to make – even those that ‘seem’ healthy are far too large or aren’t as healthy as they appear.
I still don’t think Weiss went about helping Bea become healthier the right way, and I worry about whether Bea will end up with a serious eating disorder in the future. But I now see Weiss’s side of things and feel she was justified in making most of the choices she did – and only meant well for her daughter.
The decision of Vogue to publish “Weight Watcher” in the April 2012 issue about a mother’s story of her 7 year old daughter’s weight loss journey is irresponsible. Dara-Lynn, mother to Bea, subjected her daughter to a rigid diet complete with mixed messages around food, stigmatizing remarks, and damaging body image comments. Voguemust take responsibility for publishing an article that normalizes disordered eating and contempt for bodies.Experts and advocates in the field of eating disorders and obesity do not support the approach used by mother Dara-Lynn and urge her to evaluate her own relationship with food and body image.
Vogue’s decision to run this article adds to the child’s humiliation and shame. Bea is not an adult who can determine whether or not her journey should be public. With the publication of this story, readers from all over the world are privy to BEA’s story and she will likely be increasingly judged, based on her size, over and over again throughout her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. This is worrisome for her overall health, including mental status.
Laura Discipio, executive director of ANAD comments: “Dara-Lynn stated that Bea has not exhibited symptoms of intense psychological damage, yet the article reports “tears of pain fill her (Bea’s) eyes as she reflects on her year long journey.” Dara-Lynn was engaging in behaviors that most clinicians and parents would agree were detrimental to Bea. The methods and tactics used by Dara-Lynn in front of Bea’s peers coupled with public shaming in a well-read magazine may indeed produce long-term psychological damage, including an unhealthy relationship with food and her body. ANAD advocates for overall wellness not weight, including help for emotional, physical and social well being.”
Chevese Turner, CEO of BEDA adds: “Research indicates dieting at such a young age can actually result in weight gain and eating disorders, which have the highest death rate of any mental health illness. Childhood is a dynamic period; professionals and parents need to think twice before prescribing or implementing a diet. They must also consider that research shows stigmatizing, shaming, and bullying around a person’s size can also result in weight gain and eating disorders. Every good intention can have a negative outcome”
We invite Vogue editors and Dara-Lynn Weiss to contact BEDA or ANAD so they can talk to experts and others whose life of pain and struggles around food began with eerie similarity to Bea’s experience over the last year. We also ask that concerned people respond to Vogue editors with their dismay at using this child’s experience to sell magazines.
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I would love to hear what you think. Should you ever put a child on a diet? And if you do, how would you go about it? Where would you draw the line and say you had gone too far?