By now, many of you may have read Vogue’s annual “Shape” issue and had some reaction to the story of Bea, a seven-year-old girl whose mother was intent on curing her “obesity,” which was, in reality, 16 extra pounds of baby fat.
“One day Bea came home from school in tears, confessing that a boy at school had called her fat. The incident crushed me, but it was a wake-up call. Being overweight is not a private struggle. Everyone can see it,” said Bea’s mother, Dara-Lynn Weiss.
Weiss immediately put Bea on a Weight Watchers-type diet designed for children. Reading this, I felt a familiar pang in my gut. I was also an overweight child who came home from school and complaining about being teased. It was fifth grade, and I was the new kid in school. I didn’t know I was overweight until one of the popular boys spit on my new pair of Vans and called me “fat ass.” The girls were even worse. They attacked me in the bathroom with a barrage of spitballs. I spent most of the school year alone, writing in my journal. There’s one heartbreaking entry I’ll never forget: Dear Diary, Please let me be popular. Please let me not be fat anymore.
Although I’ve moved on and healed from these experiences, which happened more than 20 years ago, it still hurts to write about them. They’re a reminder of how cruel people can be, perhaps without even meaning to. What’s more painful for me, though, is remembering how my mother reacted to these incidents.
Like Bea’s mother, instead of instilling me with the self-esteem and grit to endure these taunts, she filled me with shame. She took me to Jenny Craig, she watched every french fry I put in my mouth, she made my dad take me out for daily walks, and she rewarded any weight loss with new clothing.
Weiss says of her choice to put Bea on a diet:
“The struggle is obviously not over. I don’t think it will ever be for either of us. Bea understands that, just as some kids have asthma, her weight is something she may always have to think about, unfair as it seems. She will probably always want to eat more than she is supposed to. She will be tempted to make bad choices. But now she has the foundation to make these choices in an educated and conscious way. Only time will tell whether my early intervention saved her from a life of preoccupation with her weight, or drove her to it.”
What pains me is Weiss’ lack of insight about how she handled the situation. She says that 16 pounds lighter, Bea has the “foundation to make these choices in an educated and conscious way.” I would say that’s wildly inaccurate. Going on a diet does not give you the tools you need to battle food issues. And I disagree with Weiss that being overweight is a public struggle, because it’s actually very private. It’s not really about food or making “bad choices”" — it’s about the feelings underneath. It’s about love, control, feeling nourished, feeling satisfied. Weiss doesn’t seem to understand this about herself, so how could she possibly teach Bea to understand it? Perhaps if she grew, changed, learned how to empower herself and her daughter, it would make the fact that she received a book deal out of this easier to stomach. Within minutes of the story hitting the shelves, her forthcoming memoir, tentatively entitled The Heavy, was announced.
Similarly, my mom did not know how to understand or deal with having an overweight daughter. I’ve chosen to publish this essay anonymously for that reason. I don’t want her to feel attacked or exposed. I love my mother very much, but this was one area where her own blind spots greatly inhibited her ability to parent well. My mother never struggled with her weight as a child, or even as an adult, but growing up, she was told that she was beautiful, not smart or funny or talented. Her praise was all external. That, coupled with not feeling nurtured by her own mother, led my mother to become an overeater and a junk-food addict with a persistent fear of getting fat. Although she never did get fat — at 66 years old she weighs less than me — I believe she has serious issues with food. I have forgiven her. I understand now that I — specifically, my weight and my body image — tapped into many of her worst fears about herself. I know, in her way, she was just trying to help me, to love me, to guide me, but she didn’t know how to. Because she didn’t know how to do it for herself.
In retrospect, she could have done two things that would have been very helpful to me. Two things that I will do if I ever have an overweight child. First, she could have modeled healthy behavior for me, both about nutrition and about body image. Her body snarking was routine. She would announce every time she gained weight: “I gained four pounds, I feel so disgusting.” Or she would look in the mirror, a thin woman mind you, and say something like, “I used to be so thin.” This was how I learned to relate to my body, as an entity that was never OK how it was. I learned to always be striving for it to be better, for the number on the scale to be lower, to never be satisfied.
And then there was all the junk food in the cabinets that I was forbidden to eat. The cookies, the potato chips, the crackers, the sugar cereals. I watched my mother, father and siblings eat it all. I felt deprived, left out. On top of that, no one cooked, so we either went out to dinner, or I got fed something that could be prepared in the microwave. Anyone who knows about nutrition gets that this is a no-win situation for an overweight child. Without being taught proper eating habits, there is no chance of intuiting them. It also created a dynamic where I snuck cookies when everyone was sleeping. I thought of junk food and health food — all food — as reward or punishment, not nourishment.
It was only after years and years of being on my own as an adult that I finally got it: You should eat because you’re hungry, not because you are sad, angry, happy, or bored. Not to celebrate your new job, or mourn the loss of your relationship. The moment I realized this, realized it viscerally, was the moment I stopped struggling with my weight. It was the moment when I began to eat consciously. When I began asking myself, Why are you eating this? And How much of this do you need to eat? I had to learn this though, because it wasn’t taught to me. It was not an easy thing to learn and I would say I didn’t fully grasp it until I was in my 30s.
The other thing I wish desperately that my mother did was put other kids’ behavior into perspective. It would have been immensely helpful, even as an eight-year-old, to know that you shouldn’t take other people’s behavior personally. My mother could have told me that these kids were making fun of me because they had their own problems and insecurities. Am I suggesting that she should have been in denial about the pounds I needed to shed? No. Just that she emphasize that there was nothing wrong with me for being overweight.
It seems obvious to many of us as we read this, that Bea’s mother didn’t do right by her daughter. One anonymous mother wrote a response in New York Magazine where she accused Weiss of projecting “her own self-loathing onto her daughter.” Perhaps I could accuse my mother of the same. But I am past the stage of blaming. While this weight/body image thing follows me around — and will always follow me around — like a shadow, I’m strangely glad it’s my shadow. Struggling with my weight as a child made me a kind person. It made me sensitive to other’s feelings. It made me strong and self-reliant. It made me develop my intellect and wit. It taught me discipline and self-control. It made me dig deep and learn how to love and accept myself, even when my mother didn’t.
I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t have residual anger at my mother. For a long time I mourned our relationship. Why couldn’t she have just loved and accepted me the way I was? But eventually, I had to turn that question on its head: Why can’t I just love and accept myself the way I am? Why can’t I just love and accept my mother the way she is? Attempting to answer those questions have been much more difficult. Ultimately, no one else is responsible for my body image and self-esteem but me. Not my mother. Not the men I love. Not the media.
I know Bea has a struggle ahead of her. I know the pain and suffering she will go through. I know that she will dig through layers of emotions. That she will look to others for validation, that she will turn to bags of potato chips for comfort, that she will always dread setting foot on a scale, no matter what the number, that she will grow up not feeling totally accepted by her mother, but she will be better for it. If she can change and not repeat the cycle, she will be fine. That’s how we all become better people. All of us, whether it was weight we struggled with, or something else entirely, we have to learn how to overcome our issues.
One of Bea’s quotes from the piece makes me think she will be OK in the end. She possesses precocious wisdom that her mother doesn’t seem to. In response to a picture of her former self, she says: “That’s still me … I’m not a different person just because I lost 16 pounds … Just because it’s in the past … doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
The anonymous mother in New York Magazine interprets Bea’s quote as follows:
“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?’”
My outlook for Bea is more hopeful. We need to give children more credit. Maybe she will be in therapy at some point, especially after she reads her mother’s memoir. But I imagine — or hope — her outlook will be a lot less victimized and more empowered. I imagine she’ll say, “SEE WHAT I HAD TO DEAL WITH? It made me who I am today.”