Kids, Diets, and VogueDara Pettinelli
When Dara-Lynn Weiss wrote about her daughter’s struggles with weight last April for Vogue, I found that I was in the minority of public opinion. People deemed her the worst mother in the world, who was sure to have a child with an eating disorder. Perhaps the example that most riled the masses was this one:
“I dressed down a Starbucks barista when he professed ignorance of the nutrition content of the kids’ hot chocolate whose calories are listed as “120-210″ on the menu board: Well, which is it? When he couldn’t provide an answer, I dramatically grabbed the drink out of my daughter’s hands, poured it into the garbage, and stormed out.”
As a formerly overweight child who went on her first diet at age 9, I completely feel for both Dara-Lynn and her daughter Bea. My mom also went public about her decision to put me on a diet as a child but didn’t incite the negativity that Dara did, probably because we are so far removed from that situation today. Had my mom detailed our struggles as they were happening, no doubt she would have been pilloried.
Dara-Lynn wanted to shed light on childhood obesity in America by sharing her story. Her book, The Heavy, comes out January 15th. Here we talk about the infamous Vogue article and what she wants people to understand about overweight kids — and their parents.
Why did you go public with your story?
People make assumptions and judgments about the causes of childhood obesity and the parent’s role in that. There’s a lot of information out there but very little from people like you or me who have lived through it.
Were you surprised by the reactions to your article?
My expectation was that there would be controversy — mild controversy — around the idea of putting a 7-year-old on a diet. I was really surprised by the vitriolic, angry response in which I was called the worst mother in the world; in which my love for my daughter was questioned; in which I was accused of humiliation tactics — things that were very far from the reality of our situation.
Do you think there was an additional bias because it appeared in Vogue?
I think Vogue tackles really important women’s issues, but it is a fashion magazine, and that might have solicited a different reaction than if it had been in a parenting magazine. I think assumptions were made about me that were different from my reality.
Did you know this would turn into a book?
The Vogue article actually came out of the book idea. It was meant to be a memoir all along — and then the story evolved so much because of what happened in the wake of that article’s publication.
Did you change anything about the book after that?
It just became another phase of our experience, the public response to this issue and what that revealed about our culture.
How did your daughter respond to the article?
She never heard about it in school. At most, people said, “Oh, I saw your picture in a magazine,” and that was it. We did tell our children, because they’re not babies and they’re out in the world and on computers, that people had written articles that responded to my article and that some people disapproved of decisions we had made. And I will say that truly 100% of the personal feedback I received from people who knew me and people who sought me out was positive and supportive and really gratifying.
How did Bea feel about being the subject of a book?
We had lots of discussions about it because, frankly, in the wake of the article, I didn’t feel much like writing a book anymore. It took a lot of encouragement from friends and family to convince myself that I shouldn’t be scared of talking about this issue as so many parents are. I wanted to stand up for my daughter and the decisions we had made. I think I did the right thing as a mom. I presented it to her as, “This is very much my story of what happened. Maybe someday you’ll want to tell your story, but I think it’s important for other moms to know what we went through.” She understood. I did show her parts and made sure she was comfortable, but I was also comforted by the fact that while I had a rough time in the wake of the article, she emerged unscathed, so I didn’t feel like I was putting her in a situation where she was going to receive direct unwanted attention.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about overweight kids?
People assume kids are obese in America because they are lazy and eat processed and sugary foods. That certainly wasn’t our case and is probably not the case for every obese child in America.
What do you want people to understand about how kids become overweight?
Each child’s reasons for being overweight and the process by which you can help that child are going to be different. People want to believe that you can make these little changes that are so healthy and easy and that will solve it. Part of what I wanted to achieve by writing the book was to say this is way more complicated and harder to address than people are led to believe, but fear of doing or saying the wrong thing has stood in the way of millions of parents confronting this problem.
What’s your response to people who think that kids shouldn’t be on diets?
I understand that perspective because I shared it. You want your kid to be happy, and so much of what we imagine a child’s happiness to be is feeling invincible and not having to worry about things that adults worry about. I had to learn by talking to doctors and obesity specialists that a diet was appropriate for Bea and would make her healthier and happier in the long run.
Did Bea tell you she wanted to lose weight?
She definitely was aware that she was overweight. None of us was aware that she was actually obese until the doctors measured the percentiles. But she was aware. She got teased at school, and it was such a terrifying conversation to have because I was scared to say the wrong thing. When she would bring it up, I would say, “You’re a beautiful girl and no one should be making comments like that to you. However, you do have a medical issue around your weight, and do you think we should try to address it? Some kids are sick with things that they can’t really help. We should feel empowered that we have something we can actually change.”
How did your own experience with weight factor into your parenting?
In the early years, it rendered me completely silent and hopeful that this would not be an issue for her. When we talked to the doctors before starting [Bea’s diet] program, they assured us that as parents we have to teach her how to eat properly as we teach her everything else, in a way that will enhance her self-esteem and not destroy it.
It was hugely motivating, more than anything else in my life, to maintain a healthy diet because she was looking to me as a role model. The “I’m so fat” complaints that I might have thrown around when she was younger, I thought, that’s not a way to talk about yourself anymore. I have, as most women do, insecurities about my body, but I have to put them in perspective and appreciate that I’m healthy and have control over my weight.
I so fear sounding like some saccharine mom who helped herself by helping her daughter, but I changed those aspects of myself in a way that was necessary to parent Bea. I couldn’t eat badly and feel bad about my body and try to have her eat well and feel good about her body.
Do you feel as if you’re more prepared to handle an eating disorder in a kid than someone who’s never had to deal with her child’s weight?
I have no handle on what really causes eating disorders and I think they’re very hard to predict. Part of what was upsetting about the large number of people who implied that I was giving my child an eating disorder was that it was something that could be so easily assumed. To whatever extent I struggled with [my own] issues, I really don’t put it on my mom. When she read the book, she said, “I just want you to know that I never intervened because you were never overweight.” I do think I have an awareness and a sensitivity to those things that another parent might not.
How is Bea doing today?
She’s an extraordinary child. She’s maintained her healthier weight, and she’s still on a “diet.” It’s something we think of all the time, everyday, every meal. There are choices to make, sacrifices, negotiations, and plans. My greatest source of pride is the extent to which she has learned to manage it on her own. The most stunning example of that was when she went to sleep-away camp for three weeks last summer. I braced myself that she was going to be there without me and with a cafeteria of endless food, but [the day I came to] pick her up, I could see her 20 feet away getting her lunch, asking for a piece of chicken, saying no three times as they offered her rice and potatoes and macaroni, and taking the broccoli. I was so proud of her and felt, as a parent, that’s what this has been all about.
Learn more about Dara-Lynn and Bea’s story by checking out an excerpt of THE HEAVY here.