I won’t lie. I started reading The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet by Dara-Lynn Weiss fully expecting to hate her. Based on the internet buzz about her memoir of putting her 7 year old daughter on a diet and excerpts from both the book and a previously published essay on the subject from Vogue magazine, I assumed I would find a story about a strident health nut parading her daughter’s private life around for all the world to judge. Sure, the diet was premised on a recommendation from a pediatrician after finding out that the child’s BMI put her into the obese category but the anecdotes that swirled around the internet about Weiss’s methods sounded dreadful. Dumping out a hot chocolate that the girl was already drinking? Witholding dinner after finding out the daughter splurged on treats at a school event? WTF, right? And the mother’s brassy assertions that she’d do it all again, despite the backlash just made me roll my eyes. Even if the diet ended up being a good thing, how can the invasion of a child’s privacy be justified? I figured this mom was just a smarter, New York-ier version of the mothers on Toddlers and Tiaras.
I was wrong.
You have to take it as an article of faith that Weiss’s decision to address her daughter’s weight is based on actual health concerns and not vanity. If you can believe that – and I did based on the interactions she described with her pediatrician – then you can see that Weiss acted in her child’s best interest. Her weight was at an unhealthy level, as was her blood pressure, and required immediate steps to address it. Moreover, she needed a plan to establish better eating habits. Her daughter was a grazer, a child who would nibble at any available food all day long. Weiss had to create a consciousness about eating so her child would be aware of the short and long term consequences of her food choices.
Weiss faced a lot of tough obstacles in her quest to adjust her daughter’s relationship to food. The first was her own not-inconsiderable baggage related to food and weight. She had to traverse her own history with dieting and her own conceptions about food and exercise and figure out how not to project the wrong things on this process. Next, she was dealing with a child who, like most people trying to lose weight, wanted the results without any of the work. As I read on, I kept thinking that it was a little like Weiss was trying to force a smoker to quit whether they wanted to or not. She was fighting a very personal, individual battle but on someone else’s behalf and without their total cooperation. Endless calculations and discussions about food dominated Weiss’s entire life and the result was that she often felt like a nagging harridan. Finally, Weiss was contending with isolation. Her daughter was alone among her immediate peers in needing to lose weight. There wasn’t a friend or classmate facing the same food restrictions and Weiss didn’t have another parent to commiserate with over the process. Because dietary restrictions for weight issues were not common in her sphere, Weiss had trouble impressing upon teachers and friends’ parents what the child’s food needs were. It wasn’t as simple as saying “She’s allergic to peanuts” or “She’s lactose intolerant”. The result was well-meaning people unwittingly providing snacks and treats that could undermine a day’s meal plan.
What really shone through this whole story for me was Weiss’s admissions of missteps. Because she opted to do most of the work on her own, after abandoning a program created by a nutritionist, she was flying without instruments a lot of the time. There’s a now-infamous story about taking away a cup of cocoa after her daughter had started drinking it because she didn’t get the calorie count before ordering it and found out mid-beverage that it was way above what she should have had as a snack. She doesn’t tell that story with pride but more with chagrin about how her own poor planning resulted in disappointing her child.
This book is an apparently honest testament to one family’s struggle with the common problem of childhood obesity. It’s one mother’s confessional journey of trying to do an unpleasant thing for the benefit of her child. While it’s an interesting story and I don’t fault Weiss for choosing to address her daughter’s weight, I do question the need for this book. She doesn’t use a particularly scientific method of weight loss (it’s all about relentlessly restricting calories) and her methods probably wouldn’t work for too many other families. Weiss is a fairly affluent parent with a lot of time and attention to pay to dietary minutia, something that cannot be said of all, or even most, of the parents of overweight children in America. Her story will likely only resonate with other moderately affluent parents. I can see a benefit for another mother to read this and feel less alone in dealing with a child’s weight problem but mostly the book came across as a confession about something that didn’t require as much justification as Weiss offers.
It’s one thing to put your daughter on a diet. It’s another to write a book about it. Weiss did a fairly good job of keeping her daughter anonymous but the fact remains, the child will always have this record of her story and may not always like it. Weiss might have done more a service to overweight kids and their families by starting a support group or online community rather than sharing the details with the book-buying world.
Photo credit: Barnes and Noble
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