The stats on childhood obesity are sobering: 1 in 3 U.S. kids weighs too much. In the April issue of Vogue, we learn about one of them. Her name is Bea, and it’s pretty hard not to imagine her growing up to really, really hate her mother.
Bea’s mom, Dara-Lynn Weiss, writes about publicly shaming her 7-year-old daughter in her quest for a slimmer, trimmer girl after the pediatrician advised her that Bea was clinically obese at 4 ft. 4 in. and 93 pounds.
The regimen Weiss chose hardly makes sense, to say nothing of the emotional impact on Bea of exploiting her eating habits in the fashion industry’s bible. Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorders Association, calls Weiss’ handling of Bea’s weight “a recipe for eating disorders.”
“She did everything we recommend people don’t do,” says Grefe. “To us, diet is a four-letter word.” What’s more, it’s pretty clear that Weiss is taking out her own obsessive-compulsiveness about food on her daughter:
Sometimes Bea’s after-school snack was a slice of pizza or a gyro from the snack vendor. Other days I forced her to choose a low-fat vegetable soup or a single hard-boiled egg. Occasionally I’d give in to her pleas for a square of coffee cake, mainly because I wanted to eat half of it. When she was given access to cupcakes at a party, I alternated between saying, “Let’s not eat that, it’s not good for you;” “Okay, fine, go ahead, but just one;” and “Bea, you have to stop eating crap like that, you’re getting too heavy,” depending on my mood. Then I’d secretly eat two when she wasn’t looking.
Another time, she denied her daughter a salad, prompting Fashionista blog to note this “may have not been the best way to set up the article if she wanted the reader to believe her to be a sane, reasonable person.”
I stepped between my daughter and a bowl of salad nicoise my friend was handing her, raising my palm like a traffic cop. “Thanks,” I said, “but she already ate dinner.” “But she said she’s still hungry,” my friend replied, bewildered. I forced a smile. “Yeah, but it’s got a lot of dressing on it and we’re trying–”
“Just olive oil!” my friend interrupted. “It’s superhealthy!” My smile faded and my voice grew tense. “I know. She can’t.” My friend’s eyes moved to my daughter, whose gaze held the dish in the crosshairs: a Frisbee-size bowl bursting with oil, tuna, eggs, potatoes, olives.
In an era when a respected doctor suggested last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association that severely obese kids be put in foster care, the clean-your-plate club is now a relic of the past. Instead, pediatricians urge parents to pay attention to the kinds of foods they make for their kids — salad nicoise, packed with protein, sure seems like a good choice. Replace junk food in kitchen cupboards with fresh fruits and veggies. And encourage your kids to get 60 minutes of exercise a day; they’re more likely to stick with it if you join them.
Experts steer clear of putting kids on a diet, which is why last summer’s book for children, Maggie Goes on a Diet, created such a ruckus. It’s about a teen who goes on a diet and suddenly leaves her insecure self behind to embrace her new image of school soccer star. The problem begins with the title, explained Cynthia Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in August.
“We don’t want kids to ‘go on diets,’ we don’t want kids to use diet language,” she says. “You have to think about how the messages will be interpreted by a child’s brain. They will not see any nuance — they will see a causal association between losing weight and becoming popular, pretty and athletic. It emphasizes valuing people for their size and appearance rather than for who they are.”
As bloggers continue to heap scorn upon Weiss, it’s worth remembering that this is just the latest of Vogue’s forays into hot-button issues that involve body image and children. Last summer, the mag’s French edition published some overtly sexy photos of 10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau lying languidly on a tiger skin, decked out in leopard-print stilettos, glittering jewelry and a glamorous updo.
As for Weiss’ essay, don’t bother looking for it online; it’s not there. A Vogue spokesman told me they make only some of each month’s issue available on the Internet. Or perhaps, as Grefe suggested, the magazine had second thoughts about posting such a humiliating article for posterity.