1. Dara-Lynn Weiss was one of my closest childhood friends. We grew up in the same town, slept over at each other's houses, spent a summer together, traveled to Europe together, and, as with many friendships, after many years as kids, then pre-teens, then teens, ultimately grew apart. Nothing dramatic, just... after we both went to college, we completely lost touch.
2. We re-connected last year, after a 24 year hiatus, a few days after her explosive, highly controversial article came out in Vogue magazine. We had a lovely coffee, and it was wonderful to see her. We've emailed a few times since.
3. I am not unbiased when it comes to Dara-Lynn, nor would I ever pretend to be. But she has been such a lightning rod based on whether or not she should have written about her daughter's weight struggle, and whether she is a good mother, that the broader issue -- what to do about obese children -- is getting completely obscured. That's a shame. The issues are unresolved, hot, important, and worth discussing.
4. I'm here to talk about the issues, not whether or not you think Dara-Lynn is a good person, and not whether you think she made a good or ill choice in writing about her daughter's struggle with her weight.
5. Please keep your tone respectful, as you always do, in the comments.
I've almost never had to struggle with my weight. I'm not exactly sure why, but I'm fairly sure genetics played a huge and blessed role. My siblings are all slim, as are my children. And because my boys are thin, I've never had to count their calories, take them to an obesity specialist, or consider which weight-loss regimen would best put them on a path to longterm health. We have plenty of other issues, as all families do, but I can honestly say that weight has been a total non-issue in my role as a mother.
But what if it weren't? What if I had a child whose weight set off the pediatrician's alarm bells? What if my boys' doctor watched the scale tick ever upward, over several years, and pulled me aside, telling me, one day, when my kids were seven years old, and weighed 93 pounds, that the time had come for us to change course and intervene in order to safeguard their longterm health? What would I do?
Such is the premise of Dara-Lynn Weiss's new memoir, The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet (Ballantine Books, 2013). The book has been explosive, in large part because Weiss chose to pen a feature last year in Vogue magazine about her struggles to get her young daughter's weight under control. Weiss and her daughter Bea were photographed for the spread in designer clothes, and the blogosphere erupted with hatred and vitriol. The main criticisms leveled against her were twofold: 1) 7-year-olds should never be put on a diet, and 2) a mother shouldn't write about her daughter's weight, publicly, ever, much less in a fashion magazine.
I get that. Completely.
That's all anyone's talking about. And it's a shame that a broader analysis, and cultural soul-searching, have been completely absent from this discussion.
The Heavy (which I purchased myself, and was not asked to write about, for the record) paints, at times, an unflattering portrait of a mother in crisis. (Weiss is bracingly candid about her own struggles with weight and body-image.) But it also raises extremely valid points that are being completely overlooked in our headline-grabbing, sensationalistic culture. Even Dr. Oz, who hosted Weiss on his television show last week, missed an opportunity to pull back from the media hype and discuss the substance of her book: the deep conundrum parents of obese children face when they're advised to intervene.
At issue is this central paradox:
When a mother is told by a medical professional that her child is clinically obese, should she re-vamp the child's food environment (to the extent possible), restrict caloric intake, and work to the best of her ability -- however imperfectly, for we are all imperfect parents, aren't we? -- to set that child on a path to weight loss?
Should a mother remain more passive, hoping that the child will grow into her weight and discover independently how to make more healthful choices? Should the mother remain a private cheerleader and supporter solely and primarily, but not actually restrict calories or mandate a more active lifestyle?
Finally, is it even possible to handle this issue privately, when a child spends a large part of each day outside the home?
The media tells us every single day that this generation of children is the first whose life expectancy is lower than its parents'. That the risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other weight-relevant medical conditions are worse now among children than they've ever been in our nation's history. At the same time, here's a mother who took action -- making the best choices she felt capable of making -- and the backlash has been severe.
You can disagree with Weiss' style, with her approach, with her intense hypervigilance about every food her daughter consumed, and certainly with the public airing of her family's struggles on this issue. You can question whether she overstepped reasonable boundaries in her efforts to get her daughter's health under control. But at the end of the day, we're still left with a few crucial questions.
At the end of the day, it's still important for us to ask:
Can we really have it both ways? Flash headlines and statistics about the obesity crisis 24/7, but then demand that parents take only baby steps when faced with this issue in their own homes?
What would you do if it were your child?