What’s more divisive than a “tiger mom”? Try one who puts her 7-year-old on a calorie-counting diet.
Dara-Lynn Weiss was vilified last year when she shared with Vogue magazine readers the story of her daughter Bea’s obesity diagnosis and weight loss struggles. Forget that Weiss launched the effort after repeated pleas from and in concert with a pediatrician, who saw the little girl gain unhealthy amounts of weight over a two-year period.
The parenting blogs Weiss once read for advice launched blistering attacks on her “crazy mean mom” weight-loss strategy, her focus on portion control and daily calorie counts. But while she’ll admit that she made some mistakes with her “clumsy approach,” it worked for her family, she says. And her daughter has now been at a healthy weight for more than a year. That’s what is most important to her.
“It’s too easy to turn me into a straw man of bad parenting without looking at the nuances of the situation and the realities,” says Weiss, who wrote a detailed story of her experience, titled “The Heavy” (Ballantine Books, $26).
“Of course it’s easy to criticize me; I wrote 266 pages of evidence that people can use against me,” she says. “But I just wanted to put it out there and say that in the pursuit of trying to do the right thing, I made a lot of mistakes.”
She says sharing her experience combats the slew of advice for parents of overweight and obese children who continue to grow. Experts can talk all they want about the way to approach weight loss, she says, but it’s the parents who are in the trenches fighting for their child’s health.
“I had to look at calories for my daughter because she ate healthfully and she exercised appropriately. She was not a child with an unhealthy lifestyle. She had an issue with overeating,” Weiss says. “And so she had to watch her quantities and her calories. That was my method for helping her. I grew frustrated with the idea that if kids just eat healthy … weight would not be an issue.”
Weiss’ strategy included weekly – not daily – weigh-ins and a visit to the nutritionist for the whole family. The words diet and overweight were used in a clinical sense, but terms like thin and obesity were intentionally avoided.
“It depends on the kid, how you can talk about it, how straightforward you can be about it,” she says.
Everyone in the family ate the same foods, “which was helpful,” Weiss says. But portions and extras were modified based on recommended calorie allotments. That made dinnertime tough, as the 7-year-old saw that her plate was different.
“There is an inherent (portion) unfairness to Bea, and to me as a small woman ...” she says. “But that’s something that we all have to deal with in life.”
Weiss says she was reluctant to address Bea’s weight problem earlier due to her own body insecurities. During the diet, she touched base with a counselor whenever she thought decisions might negatively affect Bea’s self-esteem.
She would have rather avoided facing the issue than “conveying much of my own anxiety,” but Bea’s health was at risk, she says.
“I was totally not equipped to talk about this in a healthy and productive way. I was not in a position to be a role model in terms of what I did or I thought or said,” she says. “And I definitely worked on myself as much as I worked on Bea about what I ate and how I felt about my own body, how I talked about how I looked … I can only say I did my best.”
Bea is now 9, and will soon be dealing with the pressures and changes associated with puberty. Weiss knows that will include struggles with understanding healthy weight ranges that don’t jibe with teenage obsessions with being rail thin. Weiss already is getting glimpses of those thoughts.
“I don’t know if I have the right things to say, because she I think she continues to struggle with it despite my best efforts to make her feel comfortable with the way she is now. … I do feel that what we have gone through has not put her at greater risk for these kind of feelings,” she says. “It has opened the dialogue about it. We talk about it more and she verbalizes more.”
Her family’s story is just that: hers. It’s not a solution for every family with an overweight or obese child. But it is a reminder that with love, good intentions and conviction to help, parents can make a healthful difference in a child’s life.
“Do not be intimidated by parents’ judgments, by your child’s unwillingness to get on board, by expert advice that is impossible to live up to,” Weiss says. “Be willing to be the heavy, and be willing to do whatever is necessary as you would do in any other area of your child’s health or safety. Do it in a way that works for your own family, regardless of what anyone else says.”