A lot of people think Dara-Lynn Weiss is the worst mother ever. Or at least they did for a few days last March, when Vogue published “Weight Watcher,” a personal essay Weiss wrote about putting her then-obese 7-year-old daughter Bea on a diet that culminated in a glamorous photo shoot. “The most fucked up, selfish women to ever grace the magazine’s pages,” said Jezebel. “Maternal travesty,” said the Cut’s own Mom de Guerre. Weiss, a Manhattan media producer, candidly described her own love-hate relationship with food and her body, as well as mistakes she made implementing Bea’s pediatrician-recommended weight-loss program. Weiss’s and Bea’s stumbles — a public fight over a second dessert, a blow-up over a misleadingly labeled Starbucks hot chocolate, a healthy dinner plan derailed by a surprise French feast at school — were familiar to those with weight problems. But they sounded like child abuse to those familiar with the skinny tyranny of Vogue or longing for a childhood when they ate without guilt.
When Random House purchased a memoir from Weiss based on the essay, it only fanned the flames. But Weiss remained stoically silent, declining invitations from the talk shows where she might have defended herself against allegations that she’d “fat-shamed her daughter into a book deal,” until the book itself, The Heavy, came out from Ballantine Books today.
It was worth the wait. Removed from the chilly context of Vogue and its emotionally charged critics — and with a much-needed tone adjustment and some reassuring details about Bea’s happiness — The Heavy takes on the profound problem at the heart of the “Weight Watcher” controversy. What can a culture so pathologically preoccupied with food and weight loss possibly teach its children about eating properly and being happy? The Cut checked in with Weiss earlier this month.
I can’t believe you managed to stay out of the fray after “Weight Watcher” came out.
That decision was based on preparedness at the time. I was a bit taken aback by and surprised by the interest in the article, so I sat out that round of things.
It’s about parenting and dieting, everyone’s two favorite things to be judgmental about.
I was expecting a certain level of interest and controversy based on aspects of my approach — my attitudes towards organic versus processed foods, the very idea of telling a child they have a medical problem instead of just trying to fix it subtly. I lived it, so I knew that was something that people are sort of shocked by. And I accept a lot of the criticism. I am strict. I was abrasive at times. I made a million mistakes. But the idea that I embarrassed or humiliated my child, that’s just wrong. It was painful to hear. The whole journey was full of self-doubt and questioning, but I was honest about it. So then to have this wave of people confirming my worst fears …
Right, people were really hung up on how humiliating it must have been for Bea. But you argue that weight problems are always public. What’s the difference between shaming a child for being fat and disciplining a child for breaking dietary rules?
You have to parent your child around the issue of childhood obesity, even if it’s in a public setting. Parents of obese children have this extra standard that’s very uncomfortable: If you tell your child he can’t have a piece of cake you’re embarrassing him by drawing attention to his problem; the same limit-setting would be considered fine for parents of normal-weight children. That I think is part of the problem. It’s so awkward to talk to a child about food and weight, that’s why so many parents don’t do it.
Did that awkwardness contribute to Bea becoming overweight in the first place?
Oh, definitely. I was like, I’m not going to tell her that food is making her too heavy, because of my own discomfort with the topic. I was afraid of giving her some kind of complex. I was absolutely underparenting around the issue of food for the first few years of her becoming overweight, until the pediatrician said, “This is something that requires your attention.”
How has your parenting changed since Bea’s diet?
In so many situations in parenting, you have to do what’s unpopular. It’s not something a kid wants to help you out with. It’s not something that other parents are happy to see someone going through. I feel like I still needed the guidance of a doctor, frankly. I didn’t really know what my child was supposed to eat. I didn’t know when to say no, and when to say yes. I was like, I don’t want to make her feel guilty about eating a cupcake the way I feel guilty about eating a cupcake.
I hate to group all women together, but the majority of women have some kind of issue with food. But we’re still moms. I had to change my daughter’s eating habits and I certainly had to change my eating habits and how I felt about myself in order to parent. Living it myself — that’s the biggest influence.
Besides the humiliation, did any other criticisms of the Vogue article stick with you?
First, I want to say this with total respect to Vogue — it’s a certain kind of magazine. It’s a fashion magazine. It has for years made me feel fat and ugly. But when you show up in the pages of Vogue and you look like this woman, I think readers have this idea of who you are, and why you might want to make your child thin. That was not my intention — or the result.
I wonder how much of the backlash was a question of optics. The book describes how hard it is just to get Bea’s BMI back inside the healthy range. But she looked tiny in Vogue. You wrote that the magazine chose flattering poses for Bea — lying on her stomach or with a table covering her midsection — for the photo shoot, which you immediately regretted doing.
I was very careful, in determining what was our goal was, to take the guidance of doctors and to choose a weight that was healthy but that was totally separate from any aesthetic value. I would not characterize that weight as “thin” and the fact that our goal came from a medical perspective reflected on my own fear of putting my own aesthetic judgments into this.
But, depressingly, at age 7, Bea already had an aesthetic understanding of her weight problem.
She did and she does. That’s the nature of it. She got taunted at school a bit. She was aware that she looked different and I think she was uncomfortable about it. It wasn’t “I want to look like this” or “I want to wear this,” but she would say, “I’m fat, I’m fattest kid in my class.” I needed to be able to say, “this is the right weight for you,” which I can say now. My feeling was that there’s a very broad middle ground that she should aim to be a part of.
In The Heavy, you reveal that Bea was reluctant to participate in the Vogue shoot at first.
She was proud of her achievement, but I think she was concerned that this article was reminding people she was overweight. It was kind of a public declaration of what she’d gone through. Being young, she had this idea that people are always going to think of her as obese. I quote Bea in the Vogue article saying “That’s still me.” There was a lot of talk about this idea that I felt like because she was a different weight she was a different person. That wasn’t it. It was more like, you’ve changed this really important part of your life and taken responsibility for yourself.
What about fat acceptance advocates who say children should be taught to accept themselves and others at any weight until they’re old enough to diet on their own if they want to?
I stand by the assertion that obesity is bad, but not because it makes you look bad. Someone can be heavy and healthy and that’s great and that’s fine. In some ways, I don’t think that we should extend body acceptance to situations where the child is unhealthy. For Bea, her blood pressure was high. She went from a normal to a high blood pressure in a year and gained twenty pounds. It was something that was very immediately affecting her health.
I understand the desire to make a child feel beautiful at any weight. I truly advocate for size acceptance. The culture of body image upsets me and has tortured me personally. I do think we should be able to be different sizes but I draw the line at when it starts affecting her health. I always hear from parents who have overweight kids, “I would never say a word to my child about her weight.” I don’t know that that’s the way to preserve a child’s self-esteem. The openness and the loving, humorous, supportive way we deal with this issue, I hope, will create an environment where food and weight are not shameful secret things we can’t talk about as a family.
I was struck by how often Bea is offered food in The Heavy. Cupcakes at every birthday, a French food festival, hummus-making class — and that’s just at school. Did you come away from the experience with thoughts on food culture in America?
I don’t feel the need to make blanket changes that affect every kid, but it’s a huge challenge for me with Bea. The way many restaurants prepare and serve food, for example, is not appropriate for obese children. But it’s my personal child’s problem. If a kid can eat that way, great. The birthdays in school are lovely. I’m very aware that most children can handle it and that I have to adapt my family and that Bea has to adapt. I feel like I need to take care of my kids’ personal business. I don’t fault the system.
After your article came out, some people dismissed you as a Manhattan socialite; others said you were exploiting your daughter’s illness for a paycheck. Those two characterizations seem at odds to me, so, which is it?
The Manhattan socialite thing was bizarre and almost entertaining, although it did reveal to me the context of a Vogue article. I am not a socialite. As for the cashing-in thing … childhood obesity is such an important issue to bring out, and the shaming of parents was at the heart of it. So while there were many times I wanted to recede back into a private life, I didn’t want to be scared off by the criticism, either by people I felt disagreed with me correctly or incorrectly. The importance of this issue overrode my concern about undertaking it.