“Should [Bea] attempt to walk through the door with an almond in her pocket, she’d practically be swarmed by a SWAT team. But who is protecting the obese kids when 350-calorie cupcakes are handed out to the entire class on every kid’s birthday? Who’s informing parents of treats distributed freely on Halloween? And ice cream the day before spring break? And pizza in honor of the class’s good behavior? …this freewheeling distribution of high-calorie snacks is a menace to my child’s health.”
OK, everyone who read the article in this month’s issue of Vogue about the Dara-Lynn Weiss, the mother who put her obese 7-year-old daughter, Bea, on a strict diet raise your hand. OK, now everyone who heard about that article raise your hand. That should cover it.
I am deeply behind on my magazine reading, so I heard about this article from a handful of sources, including my sister, before I had a chance to read it last week. It was a roller coaster of a read, I’ll tell ya. One paragraph I would be totally feeling for this mother who was trying to do the right thing for the health of her child, and the next my brain would be screaming “Oh no you didn’t!”
Losing weight can be hard. Pushing someone else to lose weight when they don’t want to is about a zillion times harder. Obesity can contribute to everything from arthritis to diabetes to heart disease, so taking steps to help a significantly overweight or obese child attain a healthy body weight is not cruel. But it’s a very delicate maneuver. Think about how many adults you know who have “issues” with food. Bet you a dollar that those issues have their root in childhood.
I would summarize the struggle thusly: How does a parent protect their child’s current and future health by helping them reach a healthy body weight without doing serious damage to the child’s psyche? How do parents make it clear that they love their child just as they are while at the same time trying to change some aspect of the child? Obese children know they are “fat” because the odds are very good that other children tell them so, right to their faces. No one should be defined by their weight, but the pendulum can swing too far the other way when parents (and doctors) are afraid to even mention an obese child’s weight.
Some of the childhood obesity research I’ve immersed myself in recently emphasizes placing the focus not on weight, but on making healthy changes to food and activity patterns. Weight loss itself is not praised and rewarded. What is praised and rewarded are behaviors like making healthy food choices, getting physical activity most days of the week and planning in advance how to handle situations with lots of unhealthy foods (like birthday parties). Parents are also involved, making their own healthy changes (to improve their own health and to serve as healthy role models) and creating home environments that make it easier to make the healthy choice.
I think that any obesity expert, childhood or otherwise, would agree that it’s important to help an obese child reverse their weight trajectory before they’ve logged too many years carrying a lot of excess pounds. The older a child gets, the closer they come to reaching their fully formed adult body, and the more likely they are to become “set,” in terms of habits and behaviors as well as in biochemistry and physiology. And the biochemistry and physiology of obesity is not healthy. Weiss had her daughters best interests at heart, ultimately, and I think waiting so see if Bea “grew out of it” was not a realistic option
I also think that these same experts would agree that embarrassing your child by openly arguing with them at a party about what they are allowed to eat is not a good idea. Nor is grabbing a paper cup of hot chocolate out of their hands and dramatically throwing it in the trash because the Starbucks barista couldn’t tell you how many calories were in it (maybe that’s the sort of thing you should clear up before ordering).
There are a million little struggles that go on when parents are trying to help their child lose weight. But there are better ways, and worse ways, to handle most situations. Weiss says in the article that she got expert advice on how to structure Bea’s diet, but there’s no mention on whether she received any behavioral counseling, which would have been beneficial for both her and Bea. [I found a brief interview with the doctor Weiss met with, who said that the program includes counseling and support, but that Weiss did not complete the 12-week program and missed several visits.]
One point Weiss made that I agree with wholeheartedly is how ironic it is that schools protect kids who have nut allergies but ignore the health of kids who are obese:
Weiss has gained a lot of haters, which I don’t quite think is fair, but she’ll gain a lot more now that she has a book deal to write about her experiences as a diet enforcer.