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Seven-Year-Old on a Diet? Weighing in on Dara-Lynn Weiss’ New Book, "The Heavy"

theheavySay you’ve got a daughter who’s kinda fat. Fine, obese. Even your pediatrician said so. You’re her mom. You care about her health. You want to help her. So what do you do?

In Dara-Lynn Weiss’s case, you put said daughter on a strict calorie-counting diet. You write a controversial essay about your experience in the April 2012 issue of Vogue. You get a book deal!

In her memoir, The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet (Ballantine), Weiss chronicles her journey with her daughter, Bea, beginning with the luscious, roly poly baby-fat years, to the ever-tempting cupcake shops on the streets of New York City, to the Au Bon Pain across from the school bus stop that simply cannot be ignored.

Bea not only loves and appreciates food, but unlike other “normal weight” kids, she has a pretty serious portion-control problem. She likes to eat often, and she likes to eat a lot.

Bea's family dynamics aren’t shocking — and in fact they mirror a pretty typical American family: Her mom struggles with diet/body-image issues of her own, her dad is active yet overweight, and her brother is a scrawny little thing who will only eat pasta. Sound familiar?

Nobody wants to be the parent of a “fat kid,” and yet childhood obesity has become an epidemic in the United States. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, a rate that has more than doubled in the last 30 years.

As parents of non-obese kids, it’s easy to point the finger at the TV, the video games, the mass-produced junk food, the fear of letting children play unsupervised outside — our own sedentary lifestyles. And yet Weiss claims that Bea has not fallen to any of these ills. She’s just like other active kids. She simply likes to eat more.

Weiss is no fan of exercise, which is too bad for her and most certainly unfortunate for Bea. Instead, she hinges nearly all of the weight-loss effort on a nutritionist-sanctioned, Weight Watchers-style program replete with “green light” and “red light” foods that the whole family can enjoy. Sounds easy, right?

It is, until you consider how much Bea misses those larger portions on her plate (leading to sneaky grabs off the snack table) and how militant her mom becomes over the calorie count of every single bite Bea puts in her mouth.

Social situations, birthday parties, school lunches, play dates and dinner parties all fall under scrutiny, and Weiss finds herself having to defend her tactics at every turn. As she struggles to keep her daughter on track, it’s clear that the battle isn’t just over food and health but over culture values and parenting choices. Anyone who has at one time felt judged by another parent (ahem) will most certainly identify with Weiss in these situations.

But then there are settings in which you wonder why Weiss is making life so difficult for herself — and for Bea (like when she spends 15 minutes at Starbucks trying to track down the calorie count of a kids hot cocoa before forcing her daughter to throw it out and leaving in a huff, when she could have just offered Bea an apple from home instead or said “sorry, no snack right now”). Or the pages and pages she devotes to the benefits of processed crap like Cool Whip Free, or how salmon is bad for you.

vogue_dara_lynn_weissAnd then there’s the whole Vogue essay thing. Weiss claims she did it to raise awareness with other parents who are struggling with similar issues, and devotes three whiny chapters in her book toward her own defense.

Really?

Here’s the skinny on how I deal with my own daughter, whose eating habits are not unlike Bea’s. At her 6-month Well Baby checkup, I got a lecture from the pediatrician about childhood obesity (which I ignored.) At 3 years old, she was a delightfully round child who wore size 6T. At 6 years old, completely off the charts in terms of both height and weight, she asked me one day: “Momma, am I fat?”

Sports. We do a lot of sports. The whole family. The CDC recommends one hour of physical activity each day, and by golly, we do it. We walk or bike to and from school. The kids play soccer and swim. My husband bikes to work. I run or do a small workout daily.

It isn’t necessarily intensive, hard-core, or time consuming. We don’t count calories, and I don’t badger my daughter about what she eats (though if it’s unhealthy, I just make sure she evens out her consumption at the next meal,without turning it into a big deal). She is neither chubby nor obese. I’m proud to say that our family’s weight is right where it should be: a non-issue.

I guess that’s the problem I have with Weiss’s style. While honest, unflinching and well-intentioned, The Heavy tends to read like one long defensive diatribe on “why I put my daughter on a diet,” and it exploits Bea in the process.

The cause of raising health and diet awareness is a very good one, and the themes Weiss covers are most certainly thought-provoking and worthy of discussion. The nuances related to childhood obesity and the struggles we face as parents on a daily basis are rife with controversy, and Weiss should be commended for having the courage to share her journey with us. I’m just not sure it was the best path.

I'm curious what others think on the topic: Want to weigh in?

107Allison Ellis is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives and writes in Seattle. Read more of her work at AllisonEllis.

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