I’ve never known Vogue’s annual “Shape” issue to have a firm grasp on reality, but this month’s article by Dara-Lynn Weiss on her struggle to cure her “obese” 7-year-old daughter, Bea, reached new levels of pathos. The heartbreaking chronicle of little Bea, subjected to public humiliation and the Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right diet (sort of a “kid-oriented” version of Weight Watchers), begins thus:
As Bea grew I was relieved to cross several items off my mental checklist of possible issues she might develop. She was not colicky. She was not autistic. She was not dyslexic.
No, it was far, far worse than any of those things: She was fat. And Weiss admits that she felt particularly ill-equipped to confront the problem because of her own struggle to control her weight over the years, which included subjecting herself to Weight Watchers, Atkins, juice fasts, laxatives, and even deadly appetite suppressants. So for several years, Weiss ignored her child’s overeating, anxiously hoping it would just go away, even after Bea’s 6-year-old check-up when the pediatrician suggested they address Bea’s weight. But then it got serious.
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.
A boy called her fat. Well, that certainly can’t happen in a home ruled by the sort of social striving found in the pages of Vogue! We all know that the reasons we eat or deprive ourselves of food don’t always coincide with appetite. But rather than identifying the cause of the overeating (maybe a mom so wrapped up in her own social standing that she was willing to put her daughter’s well-being at stake?), Weiss chose to project her own self-loathing onto her daughter.
Full disclosure: I have three children, including a 7-year-old girl. I can attest to the ways in which children are a mirror for our worst fears about ourselves. I am sure I’ve made mistakes by voicing (however inadvertently) my own dissatisfactions with myself. And yet, I feel so fiercely protective of my children’s future physical and mental well-being that I won’t even use my real name for this piece. If my own daughter were to encounter a weight problem, I’d like to think I would approach it like Janell Hoffman did in her honest take “’Mom, I’m Fat:’ One Mother’s Inspired Response to Her 7 Year Old.” If that wasn’t enough, we would seek the help of professionals in a rational, loving manner. And if I were the root cause, I’d seek my own help too. Which is, of course, the opposite of Weiss’s approach:
Sometimes Bea’s after-school snack was a slice of pizza or a gyro from the snack vendor. Other days I forced her to choose a low fat vegetable soup or a single hard-boiled egg. Occasionally I’d give in to her pleas for a square of coffee cake, mainly because I wanted to eat half of it. When she was given access to cupcakes at a party, I alternated between saying, “Let’s not eat that, it’s not good for you”; “Okay, fine, go ahead, but just one”; “and “Bea, you have to stop eating crap like that, you’re getting too heavy,” depending on my mood. Then I’d secretly eat two when she wasn’t looking.
But perhaps the most poignant part of the article comes at the end, when Bea meets her mother’s deadline for Vogue’s “Shape” issue and loses a total of sixteen pounds in time for them to be photographed together. For enduring her mother’s obsessive narcissism, she receives many beautiful dresses and a feather hair extension as a reward. Seems like a fair trade-off for being in Vogue before second grade, right? But if Bea thought she could finally eat her coffee cake without being tormented, she’d better think again:
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.
Unfair indeed. Weiss continues:
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.
Um, really? I’m pretty sure Weiss just handed her daughter the road map to all her future eating disorders. But it gets even more tragic with Bea’s tearful reproach:
“That’s still me,” she says of her former self. “I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.” I protest that indeed she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek, past the glued-in feather. “Just because it’s in the past,” she says, “doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
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?”