Dara-Lynn Weiss, the woman who became infamous for writing in Vogue about putting her daughter on a diet, wants it both ways: she repeats over and over in her new memoir The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet, how much she loves every inch of her daughter, including her pesky belly, but then painstakingly details the lengths she went to in order to shrink it. That dichotomy surely wasn’t lost on her daughter, and there’s no telling how that will affect her in later years. Weiss’s attitude is that she had to take extreme measures to combat the extreme problem of childhood obesity, but it’s the very extremity that concerned me. I felt anxious reading it as Weiss panicked and seemed completely consumed by this project when her four foot four, 93-pound daughter was pronounced obese by her pediatrician.
On the plus side, Weiss doesn’t shy away from her own eating issues. I can’t fault her, or any woman, for those. However, she blithely disregards what I consider some pretty basic tenets of good health, like, for instance, exercising. Here’s what she has to say about that: “But as for exercise as an important tool in weight loss—I just cannot get on board.” Because someone who’s exercising has to increase their caloric intake to keep up with what they’re burning off, Weiss sees this as a wash, and not worth the effort. She advocates eating steak over salmon to save calories, and proudly defends serving her daughter foods like Cool Whip Free and a sugar-free popsicle rather than a 20-calorie all fruit one, even though she “wasn’t that happy that the reduced calorie content also brought with it maltodextrin, aspartame, artificial flavors, red 40, yellow 6, and blue 1.” She was willing to ignore this because it “served the purposes of our larger goal” (meaning weight loss). I’m not a parent, and am not saying there is one single solution to battle childhood obesity or instill healthy eating habits, but Weiss’s thinking seems circumspect; she follows the popsicle anecdote by basically praising Mark Haub, Kansas State University professor who lost 27 pounds by eating Twinkies!
Weiss places almost all her faith in the medical community and its standards, without ever addressing the body acceptance movement and the idea of Health at Every Size, which, according to Linda Bacon, author of the book by the same name, “acknowledges that good health can best be realized independent from considerations of size.” Weiss takes BMI numbers to heart, never mentioning the fact that they’ve come under increased scrutiny; see New York Times health columnist Jane E. Brody in her article “Weight Index Doesn’t Tell The Whole Truth.” It’s hard to reconcile her closing statement that she loves Bea’s belly with the knowledge that, in all likelihood, at some point Bea will put on pounds, whether the freshman 15 or at another time. Will her mother swoop in like a hawk to remove any trace of highly caloric foods?
There have to be other avenues for guiding Bea than ignoring a doctor’s caution and going berserk over .2 pounds on a scale. Weiss only expresses remorse for having allowed her daughter to be photographed by Vogue, defending her methods and mindset, and simply hoping for the best when it comes to the long-lasting messages she’s imparted to Bea. She is so certain that the scale is the only thing that matters, she loses sight of the way Bea’s weight loss appears, in her book, to have overtaken any other parenting goals.
Marci Warhaft-Nadler, author of the book The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents, wrote last year at YorkRegion.com, “Dinner used to be a time for families to catch up on events of the day, but has now become a source of anxiety over every calorie and fat gram ingested. Banning certain foods and labeling them as bad only brings them more attention. By demonizing food we attach emotions around them. The message the child gets is: If a brownie is bad and I eat a brownie, then I’m bad.”
Exactly. Weiss admits that she became obsessed, but then fails the logical leap that, whether consciously or unconsciously, Bea is sure to pick up on at least some of her mother’s anxiety, stress and extreme myopia around this issue. When Weiss tells Motherlode blog, “I didn’t want her to be like me and end up obsessed with food and weight,” she misses the point that by ignoring things like exercise and nutrition in favor of a numbers game with calories, she is sending her on the path to becoming just as obsessed with food, if not more so.
The Heavy did illuminate the many issues embedded in making food choices for one’s children, and the various ways parents can approach the issue. I agree with Weiss that parents shouldn’t simply not speak of weight, body image and food, as if they will go away. I recall Jennette Fulda’s memoir Half-Assed, where she describes how she came to weigh 372 pounds, largely from ignorance about food and basic nutrition. Yet even if one were to agree that Bea winds up physically healthier at the end of The Heavy, and that is a very big if, it’s near impossible to close the book without concern for her mental health.
My grandmother recently passed away. We were very close, and I loved her immensely. However, almost every time I saw her, the first thing she commented on was my looks or weight. There was no way to avoid the knowledge that this was extremely important to her. While I didn’t feel she loved me less because of it, I felt like nothing I ever did in any other area of my life would be as valuable to her as being thin. Could I be projecting when I say that I see that same attitude in Weiss? Sure, but I don’t think I am. Weiss clearly loves her daughter and wants her to be healthy, as I imagine all parents want for their children. But her extreme methods as well as her extreme way of expressing her approval to Bea, of her accomplishments and her body, sends a message that she does, indeed, want Bea to follow a single, restrictive way of eating for her entire life, with little to no wiggle room. When Bea tells her mother, “I have a new understanding about my fragility,” and Weiss acknowledges that her daughter became “less carefree, more responsible, more knowing” over the course of her weight loss, rather than feeling happy for Bea, I felt sad that she was inducted into the cult of body obsession so early.
The only good thing I can say about The Heavy is that towards the end, Weiss relinquishes some of her extreme control over Bea’s diet by necessity, when camp counselors simply ignore her increasingly hysterical attempts to get information. Bea is on her own and seemingly makes healthy choices. It’s hard to know whether she does so for her own satisfaction or to gain her mother’s approval; hopefully, for both. As Weiss told Babble, “She’s maintained her healthier weight, and she’s still on a ‘diet.’ It’s something we think of all the time, everyday, every meal. There are choices to make, sacrifices, negotiations, and plans. My greatest source of pride is the extent to which she has learned to manage it on her own.” Again, I have to wonder what the line is between thinking about calories (vs. overall healthy choices) at every meal and “obsession?”
I hope that as she grows up, Bea will learn that she can be beautiful and healthy by listening to her body and intuition (and, yes, exercising and perhaps consulting a nutritionist if she feels the need), and does not have to measure, literally and figuratively, every morsel she puts in her mouth, but can use her mind and body for more enriching activities.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is the editor of over 40 anthologies, including Only You: Erotic Romance for Women, Orgasmic, Fast Girls, Instruments of Pleasure: Sex Toy Erotica, and is the Best Sex Writing series editor. She writes widely about sex, dating, books and pop culture, and can be found blogging at Lusty Lady and @raquelita on Twitter.