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Weighing In

If Scarlett Johannson’s beautiful face looked especially lovely smiling out at me from the May issue of Vogue, it was likely because it confirmed that the issue containing my article was no longer on the newsstands.

It had been a difficult month being the hated Vogue Diet Mom. I was glad that the controversy had finally died down and that my kids had emerged buoyant as ever, reasonably unaware of the controversy their mommy had unwittingly sparked.

But the outcry had affected me. The disapproval, scorn, and fury unleashed in response to my article reminded me of the real proportion of supportive voices versus critical ones, and revealed the true tenor of society’s response to what I did. The world had exposed its inability to deal unemotionally with the intersection of weight, food, children, obesity, and parenting more clearly than I ever could have. My complex and multi-dimensional story had been reduced to the tale of a cruel, narcissistic mother who shamed and tortured her daughter into socially acceptable thinness, handing her an eating disorder along the way.

Somehow, when it comes to eating, our anxiety about our children’s feelings overrides our concern for their health.

Many of the reproaches laid bare an ignorance about obesity. Still more demonstrated an inability to accept that a person can make difficult decisions, be strict, and even make mistakes, yet still be a good, loving mom with a child who ends up physically and emotionally healthy.

I appreciate that the public rushes to judgment to protect a young child, but why did everyone assume that my interactions with her were abusive? If I get testy with a food server, refuse Bea a second dessert, even scrape pasta off her dinner plate because she ate too much for snack those things do not necessarily entail cruelty. They can be, and were, actions taken with love and respect.

Helping an overweight child is hard. Doing so as a woman in today’s weight- and food-obsessed culture, who has grappled with her own issues of body image, is even harder.

I admit that I cannot predict what will happen to Bea in the future. I live with the worry that she may develop an eating disorder. I took on her weight problem in part to try to steer her away from that fate, but the genesis of an eating disorder is not so easy to predict.

Parental pressure is frequently faulted by people suffering from eating disorders, but so is parental failure to intervene with weight and food issues. It’s a lose-lose proposition for parents. But maybe a parent’s attitude towards food and weight is not as central to the issue as we think. In 2002, a genetic link was found to eating disorders. One of the researchers stated that as far as the onset of eating disorders goes, “sociocultural factors are only important in that they might elicit an expression of someone’s pre-existing genetic predisposition.”

I didn’t make Bea obese. I don’t blame sugary drinks, processed foods, trans fat, or gargantuan portion sizes. She didn’t gorge on junk food or play video games all day to become overweight. She was simply and indisputably born with the unfortunate tendency to overeat, and a congenital preference for foods that are conducive to weight gain. And she was going to be overweight unless she changed her behavior to run contrary to her natural inclinations.

Before we took action, Bea was on track for a lifetime of unhealthy eating, failed diets, and chronic obesity. I was ducking the responsibility of instilling good habits and attitudes because I was scared of having her look to me as any sort of example on how to deal with food. By intervening, I feared giving her issues, but also hoped that I was supplying her with a way to avoid them. And so my choice to take decisive and dogged action with Bea was fairly easy. I had a chance to make her more healthy and happy. How could I not take it?

I don’t pretend that I have figured out the best way to fight childhood obesity. I only did what I thought was best in our specific situation.

One thing is quite clear to me: had I been any less strident, any more flexible, we would have failed to get Bea healthy. Had I not opened my mouth — loudly, on occasion — to intervene when she was eating the wrong thing, or when someone was giving her something they shouldn’t, or when she wanted to skip karate, or take a cab when we should walk, I can assure you, Bea would still be overweight.

It’s not like anyone expects leniency in other areas of children’s health and safety. Most parents I know won’t start their car until their kids’ seatbelts are fastened, period. But somehow, when it comes to eating, our anxiety about our children’s feelings overrides our concern for their health.

Bea did not need to lose weight to earn my love. She did not need to lose weight to be beautiful. But she did need to lose weight to be healthy. Once I understood that her weight problem was a disease, I had no choice but to treat it as such. Bea may get heavy again, especially in the coming years when she gains more independence and the transfer of responsibility for her eating and weight shift more completely from me to her. If that happens, I think she’ll have the tools to decide how she wants to handle it — or not. Whatever she decides, I hope the world will be understanding. I know I’m going to try to be.

Adapted from THE HEAVY by Dara-Lynn Weiss. Copyright © 2013 by Dara-Lynn Weiss. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dara-Lynn sat down with Babble for an exclusive Q&A, which you can find here.

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