Scale Down: Are We Overreacting to Dara-Lynn Weiss and Her Book, The Heavy?

I knew very little about author Dara-Lynn Weiss before attending the moderated discussion about her controversial book, The Heavy, this past week at The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. I knew Weiss was the cause of mommy-blog explosions, some in defense of her choice to put her overweight 7-year-old daughter on a diet, many more filled with vitriol and contempt.

But I decided to walk in without having read the infamously provoking Vogue article, published in April 2012, or her book, which came out in January of this year.

Based on her talk, I couldn’t understand why there was such a venomous outcry from the parenting community. Did her choice to restrict her daughter’s diet sound controversial? Yes. But worthy of such hate? Not to me. And then I read the Vogue essay. And then I understood the problem. The woman who sat and spoke before me did not seem to be the same woman who wrote for the fashion mag one year ago.

From the moment Weiss sat down, she emphasized that there are just some things in life parents have to do because they are the parent. Sometimes a mom as to be “the heavy”—pun intended. The fact was that Weiss’s daughter, Bea, weighed 93 pounds at a height of four feet four inches, which had Bea’s BMI clocking in at the 98th percentile for her age group. The obesity marker sits at the 95th percentile. Obese people, whether 7 or 47, are medically advised to lose weight. Bea’s pediatrician told Weiss “the trend”—meaning Bea’s overweight status—“was not correcting itself.” Bea was not going to simply grow out of this, as so many of Weiss’s peers believed. Weiss admits that she clung to this diagnosis and removed her own thoughts about whether it was right or not to consciously adjust her daughter’s eating. “I did not accept that decision-making moment. It was nice to cling to the fact that it’s a health issue,” Weiss said.

Yet even with medical evidence to back up her need to take action, Weiss explained she experienced a paralysis about how to handle a child’s weight problem when indeed there is a problem to deal with. Weiss had no clue where to start. Bea wasn’t loading up on soda and junk food. Weiss faced a difficult challenge. If your child is eating healthfully, but is still obese, what do you do?

“So much of the response to childhood obesity is: ‘Don’t talk about weight. Don’t ever use the word diet. Focus on health.’ But that doesn’t work for me. I wanted to know how many calories a 7-year-old should eat. People always say eat different, but it really is about eating less sometimes. And that’s not an answer people want to give you,” Weiss said as she expressed her frustration. Weiss’s dilemma illustrates a widespread problem: Parents don’t know how much their children should be eating to keep them growing, but keep them healthy.

While the Weiss in Vogue appeared to fixate on her daughter’s appearance, the Weiss I saw truly seemed to have her daughter’s health at top of mind, not some compulsion to uphold a standard of thinness or beauty in her 7-year-old. In fact, Weiss directly stated that she had no desire for her daughter to be thin. “ ‘Thin’ should be used in the same way as ‘fat,’ as a deviation from the norm,” Weiss said. Her goal was to get Bea to the healthy weight marker, not below it.

And here is where I wonder if it all comes down to semantics. If Dara-Lynn Weiss had said “I’m putting my obese daughter on an ‘eating plan,’” and put that article in, say, Women’s Health, rather than “Bea had grown fat. … We put Bea on a diet,’” in Vogue would things have transpired differently? Is the real problem not the calorie-counting, but the language Weiss used with regard to Bea, whose self-image may be developing and fragile? Are we just hung up on the word “fat” coming from an adult, aimed at a child?

While critics argue that her primary concern was not Bea’s health but a number on the scale, in Weiss’ defense, the number on the scale is one way we measure health. So, the question becomes: Do we need to adjust the measurements? Is it a systemic problem that weight is such a significant marker?

We know we have a weight problem in this country and childhood obesity is on the rise. Yet, the majority of the general public verbally flogged Weiss for trying to do something about it. To this day, Weiss maintains that with The Heavy she just wanted to be an example of a strong mom who did a tough thing, “Maybe if I say that it’s okay to limit our children, other mothers will feel ok to limit their children when it is for their own good.”

Read more about Dara-Lynn Weiss on Parents.com:

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  1. by Kara Corridan

    On March 21, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Interesting post. I agree that a lot of it does come down to language. I also think that having her daughter pose for Vogue made her less sympathetic. I wonder if people would’ve responded differently to the article if she’d decided against doing that, and said so in the piece.