When Dara-Lynn Weiss's daughter, Bea, tipped the scales at 93 pounds at age seven, doctors uttered the words no parent wants to hear: clinically obese. After visiting a pediatric obesity specialist, Weiss and her husband put their daughter on a strict diet. Bea lost 16 pounds the following year and by her next checkup, she was a healthy weight for her height.
A success? Yes, but bittersweet – won through calorie counting, denied desserts and almost daily disappointments. In an article in Vogue magazine last March, Weiss admitted to a number of foibles, ranging from her own issues with dieting to a now-infamous incident at Starbucks in which she berated a barista over the calorie count – and a verboten pile of whipped cream – of the kids' hot chocolate, dumping her daughter's half-finished drink in the garbage before storming out.
Critics were swift to call her selfish and irrational, suggesting a serious risk of long-term damage to Bea. Weiss begs to differ. In her just-released memoir The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet, Weiss argues that while her methods may seem flawed, she had the best intentions at heart. She says her experience also highlights a number of the challenges in the fight against childhood obesity. We spoke to Weiss from her home in New York.
Is it reasonable to put a child on a diet?
Every child who is overweight or obese got there in their own way. My own child was not a junk-food-eating, video-game-playing, lazy, unhealthy child. She had a very healthy diet, she got the normal amount of activity. The subtle lifestyle changes you're told will solve childhood obesity did not apply. The only thing that did work was a really structured, fairly strict but healthy diet. Every child is different.
Oddly, the regimen that worked included foods that many people would consider unhealthy!
I am a huge proponent of 100-calorie snack packs. And that was ironic. I never had junky processed foods. Now, there was a good reason to have them around. In a world where this sweet little girl who loves to eat is being told no, you can't have that a lot, it was nice to be able to say, "You want cookies? I can give you cookies!"
What about exercise?
A lot of people said why don't you just get her to exercise, have her join a sports team? There's conflicting wisdom. I'd read with great interest research papers that have come out in the past couple of years saying exercise does not play as great a role in weight loss as we once thought and taken to an extreme is counterproductive. I made sure exercise was a big part of her life. She joined a karate dojo and went twice a week and took a dance class once a week. I wasn't pushing her to run an hour a day.
Was the response to the Vogue article what you'd been experiencing in public with Bea, writ large?
What I found interesting and frustrating is that I wasn't that different from other parents. I'm not the only mom telling her kid not to have a second slice of cake. But I'm the only mom of an obese kid telling my kid not to have a second slice of cake. And that makes me different. I found that unfair and that was part of why I forced myself to do this publicly.
I just saw a headline asking if I was the "worst mom in America." It's shocking. But what mom wouldn't help their child with their obesity if they couldn't do it? Can we expect every mom with an obese child to be perfectly patient and sensitive? and do and say the right thing? No. That's impossible. And that's why so many moms of obese children don't do anything.
But are there moments that you regret? Do you wish you'd avoided Starbucks that day? Or writing about it?
I struggled with it every day. There's what she wants and you want to make your child happy and give in as much as you can, while keeping them on track. And that story was an example of how difficult it is. You want to say yes. You want to have that moment like every other kid and mom, where they go and have a yummy hot chocolate on a cold day. Suddenly it blows up and someone's given her something that's totally derailing our plans. I continued to have these awkward moments because I didn't want to say, "No, here's a banana."
So did you see it as prepping her for the real world?
I wish she didn't have a health problem that required that kind of care but she understands that she needs to manage this. For sure my proudest moment was not any number on the scale, but when I sent her off to three weeks at summer camp. I was truly going to be out of the picture. When I came to that camp after three weeks, not only had she not put on weight but I saw her participating in every food occasion in a responsible way. At lunch she got the chicken and the broccoli and they offered her three different kinds of starch and she said "No, no and no." And she went past the lemonade and the fruit punch and got a water. There was a snack bar you could go to and take free food, all day. What she was up against was astounding. She didn't feel deprived. She felt in control.
What does she tell you about the past few years in the trenches?
I don't think she feels we're not still in the trenches. It's an apt analogy because I think she feels we're soldiers together. Believe me, she wishes she could eat differently, and I do think it's a bit of a loss of innocence for a child so young to be aware of the impact that eating can have on her health. I think she finds me annoying insofar as I deny her permission when she's not sure she can have something like dessert. I was concerned that I would turn into the food police and she would start hiding things from me and resenting me. And that didn't happen. I give her credit for that. I assume I didn't do anything right.
And what about balancing telling the story with Bea's privacy?
There's no reason this should be a shameful private issue. It's a health concern of millions of people and we should all be supporting each other on that. Having said that, she's a little kid and while I thought my article would start a conversation, it started a firestorm and I didn't want her being any sort of target. Now, there are no pictures of her anywhere. I'm intimidated.
So, what's for dinner tonight?
A carefully measured chicken cutlet with vegetables and that will leave her room for dessert, so a little frozen yogurt.
This interview has been condensed and edited.