Why We Should Thank Vogue‘s Diet Mom

Dara-Lynn Weiss blows the lid off how difficult it is for parents with their own food issues to nourish their children

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Dara-Lynn Weiss with her daughter, Bea.

The newest mom-we-have-to-hate is Dara-Lynn Weiss, the New York woman currently earning widespread opprobrium for having put her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, on a weight-loss diet and having pushed, prodded and shamed the little girl into losing 16 lb. Her account of this quest, which appears in April’s Vogue, can’t be accessed online, so I will summarize it briefly:

When Bea turned 7, Weiss discovered, at a pediatrician checkup, that her daughter was technically obese, with a weight in the 99th percentile for her age and height. She decided to take matters in hand. She visited an obesity specialist. She cut her daughter’s portions. She counted each and every calorie. She signed her up for karate. She tried to get her to walk stairs. She deprived her of dinner one night after learning that Bea had consumed “nearly 800 calories” of Brie, filet mignon, baguette and chocolate at a French Heritage Day event at school. She forbade participation in the school’s Pizza Fridays after the girl “admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week.” She lost it at a Starbucks when an employee couldn’t tell her the exact number of calories in a kids’ hot chocolate: “I dramatically grabbed the drink out of my daughter’s hands, poured it into the garbage, and stormed out,” she reports. She fought audibly with her daughter over cake and cookies at parties.

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“Bea did not embrace all aspects of this endeavor,” Weiss admits. “She threatened violence against the doctor as we sat in the waiting room every week. She constantly whined about being hungry and begged for food she couldn’t have. She railed against the inequity of the portion-size disparity between her brother’s dinner and her own. Yet Bea — remarkably, astoundingly — went along with this restrictive new plan. Sometimes she cheated and ate what she wasn’t supposed to. And sometimes she lied about it, such as the time she assured me she’d only had one slice of pizza at school, only to confess several days later that it had been three. But these slipups were rare.”

When at last Bea was thin, Weiss rewarded her with a shopping spree and a feather hair extension. “I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds,” says Bea in the final paragraph of the piece. “A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek, past the glued-in feather,” writes Weiss. This mother-daughter hunger game — the train-wreck fascination of which has reportedly now earned Weiss a book contract — is a veritable orchard of low-hanging fruit, as far as cause for outrage is concerned. But before you sharpen your pitchforks, I’d like to make an odd suggestion.

Instead of universally condemning Weiss, perhaps we ought to be thanking her. In putting herself out there for the world to despise, she has lifted the lid on the little-discussed but vitally important issue of how difficult it is for parents with their own food-and-body-image issues to nourish and nurture their children in healthy ways, particularly when they’re up against a culture that endlessly (and hypocritically) reinforces their own worst tendencies.

Let’s not forget: the current crop of moms were our country’s first generation of girls and young women to register an epidemic level of eating disorders. In the sorts of communities from which Weiss and Bea hail — an “affluent, achievement-driven” universe as Weiss puts it — weight obsession is essentially the norm. Weiss herself, she admits, has been involved in an all-out war on her weight since childhood. “I hated how my body looked and devoted an inordinate amount of time trying to change it,” she says, detailing her adventures in dieting, fasting and obsessing. “I have not ingested any food, looked at a restaurant menu, or been sick to the point of vomiting without silently launching a complicated mental algorithm about how it will affect my weight.”

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The specter of “fat” — the mere thought of being fat — in Weiss’s world doesn’t just conjure up worries about excess flesh, or of the lifelong physical-and-mental-health issues that Weiss dutifully cites as the threats that motivated her crusade. Fear of fat is about the menace of overall personal failure, of the inability to keep at bay all the forces of chaos and entropy that carry with them the ever present threat of downward mobility. I see the fear of the dark forces of fat all the time in my community: in the sudden, bizarre sparks of rage that greet the arrival of the ice cream truck at school pickup time, in the tightening of parental lips that comes at the mere mention of snacks or dessert, in the ferocious eyes that follow the progression of fork or spoon from plate or bowl to child’s mouth until, unable to remain silent anymore, the angry sentry shouts, “That’s enough!”

I would argue that mothers like Weiss who are absolutely terrified of allowing their children to get fat are the norm, not the exception, in highly educated, affluent and largely obesity-immune communities. What is exceptional about Weiss is that she has had the honesty — and, arguably, the naive foolhardiness — to come clean about her demons. Like Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Weiss’s disturbing tale is darkly fascinating not just because it offers such a sharp contrast to the widely held parenting wisdom of our day but also because Weiss admits to — and justifies doing — what many of us do, in an admittedly much less out-there way, on a daily basis. She owns our fears and bad behaviors — and reflects them back to us with both a damning and exonerating fun-house-mirror refraction. And we have no choice but to love hating her for it.

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