Dara Lynn Weiss and skinny cappuccinos

2 Apr

“I’d like a large mochaccino with extra cream, hazelnut syrup .. and two sachets of zero-cal sweetener, “said the hippo-sized American in front of me. I smothered a guffaw. Did this lump of blubber really believe that having sweetener instead of sugar was really going to make any difference to the calorie-bomb he was about to ingest? More worrying was the not-so-little boy, his son, next to him, ordering a similarly huge drink and mighty sugary croissant.

dara lynn weiss and her daughter, whom she shamed into losing weight

Dara Lynn Weiss and her daughter

Sipping my own cappuccino (no sugar, no frills)  while waiting for my plane home from New York, I flicked through US Vogue. “Weight Watcher”, screamed the headline on an article by a New York socialite about putting her seven year old daughter on an extreme diet. With a growing sense of horror I read about how Dara-Lynn Weiss had been so freaked out by her child becoming chubby that she’d even forbidden second helpings of salad. “I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French heritage Day at school involved Brie, filet mignon, baguette and chocolate,” Weiss wrote. “I stopped letting her enjoy Pizza Fridays when she admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week. I dressed down a Starbucks barista when he professed ignorance of the nutrition content of a kids’ hot chocolate… when he couldn’t provide an answer I grabbed the drink out ofmy daughter’s hands, poured it into the garbage and stormed out.” Weiss’s piece has – to put it mildly – caused a bit of a stir.

The Jezebel blog
termed it the “worst Vogue article ever… the ickiness of the essay is only overshadowed by the accompanying photos, in which Weiss and her now-slender daughter — who even Weiss admits is traumatized by the events of the past year — don miniskirts and giggle girlishly over tea.” Yet so highly charged, yet taboo, is the whole business of parenting and children’s weight that Weiss has already got herself a book deal (tentative title: The Heavy).  Much of her article describes the opprobrium with which her attempts to control her daughter’s weight were met. She defends exposing her daughter’s struggles, and indeed her rather extreme methods, by pointing to the epidemic of childhood obesity afflicting the West.
On that, she has a point. We think of the United States as the land of the fat, but we shouldn’t be complacent. The UK is the tubbiest country in Europe and British kids are getting lardier every year; a staggering 33% of Year 6 pupils are classified as overweight or obese according to the Department of Health’s study of UK school pupils in 2010/11.
No one is disputing that fat kids are a problem – research shows that those who are obese by the age of eight go on to have serious weight related health issues in later life. There is a strong correlation between fat and wealth: 13.6% of Year 6 children living in the least deprived areas in Britain are overweight/obese compared to 23.7% in the most deprived. I don’t have a problem with Weiss, as a parent, deciding to take serious action to curb her daughter’s obesity (she claims poor Bea was in the 99th percentile aged 7, with a height of 4ft and a weight of 93 pounds).  As a mother she had to do something and in the short term her draconian regime worked (Bea has lost a stone and looks normal in the photographs). But there is good evidence to suggest that her methods could seriously back-fire in the long term.

How do I know this? Well, dear reader, I’ve been there. Like Bee, I was a middle-class chubber. My weight was of great concern to my parents who from when I was seven put me on all sorts of regimes. There was the dreaded recipe book: Cooking to make kids slim, with a dumpy kid on a pair of scales on the front (how I hated that). At school, like Bea, I had special diet pack lunches: salad, salad and more salad (to keep me away from fattening cake and custard).  I was sent to a dietician in Harley street and told to eat vegetables and protein and avoid carbohydrates. In my teens this doctor put me on amphetamine pills to curb my appetite: that was effective in the short term – but I wouldn’t recommend the spacey feeling or the mania!
I was fat because I ate too much. This was partly greed and partly sadness. These days I am happy and thanks to vigorous regular exercise my weight is under control. Unfortunately, research shows that obesity is hereditary. Fat mothers spawn fat children. Now I am a parent of two daughters myself, I have become something of an expert on how to ensure they don’t fall into my own trap. In this blog I have chronicled my struggles with my own weight and anxieties about passing on bad habits to my daughters. I have been amazed by the response. Our society is obsessed by body image and that neurosis is the space in which our children live. One woman thought handing out sweets as school was as bad as giving kids cigarettes. Another fashionista couldn’t stand her baby daughter’s chubby thighs.

The experts say that when it comes to food, your kids model not what you say but what you do. If you want your kids to eat normally and behave sensibly around food, the key is to let them see you do the same. To me, the most revealing and explanatory part of Weiss’s ghastly article were her own food confessions.  “Over the last 30 years, I’ve been on and off Weight Watchers, Atkins, slim-Fast, LA Weight Loss, jenny Craig, juice diets and raw food diets…. I have not ingested any food, looked at a restaurant menu, or been sick to the point of vomiting without silently launching a complicated mental algorithm about how it will affect my weight.”

The saddest part about this whole tale is how Weiss has now transmitted all her own body-loathing and food-madness (skipping meals and replacing them with biscuits, telling her daughter not to eat sweet stuff, then scoffing two cupcakes behind her back) to her own daughter, who is, let us not forget, still only eight. This makes me want to weep. Women in the west have their entire adult lives to objectify their bodies, worry about how they look and obsess about calories. Surely one of the joys of being a child, a little girl, is to be mercifully free of such calculations.

Of course, we don’t want our kids to get fat and that means restricting the supply of the high calorie goodies on offer all around us. But the best way to do that isn’t to load them up with adult concerns around bodies, but to feed them a healthy diet without making a fuss about it. All the experts agree that to forbid certain foods just makes kids crave them. If you use sweets, crisps or cakes as a reward for good behaviour or eating vegetables, they learn to use food for comfort and as a reward, not to satisfy hunger.  The best advice I got was to control portion size by using small plates and rather than seeing fattening food as the devil, to eat cake or icecream or easter eggs casually together as a family, but only, say, at the weekend.  Kids need to be told calmly that if they eat too much the body will store it as fat which is unhealthy. Crucially, they need to take plenty of exercise and eat fruit and vegetables from the get-go. Extreme regimes just make kids feel deprived and give them a complex which takes a lifetime to get over. By all means take action if your kid is getting chubby – you should, you are the parent, it is your responsibility. But do it by stealth, don’t – like Weiss – yell at them in public, shame them, or make them feel deprived. Remember the internal world of the mother, is the external world of the child. Keep your own neuroses to yourself. And give the mochaccinos with extra cream and madness a miss.


3 Responses to “Dara Lynn Weiss and skinny cappuccinos”

  1. felicitydennistoun April 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Great post. Childhood obesity is a tragedy, but so is preventing your child from having a healthy relationship with food. There’s so much enjoyment to be had from sharing meals and doing the mental maths on the calorie content of your Sunday roast is never going to enhance the flavour.

  2. Fiona Bennett April 4, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    Loved this post! Quite right, how on earth can this woman expect her daughter to love her own body when she has transmitted all her own fears and self loathing onto the poor girl. I have signed up for regular posts from you, really enjoying them. I am Me And My Zachary on Mumsnet, mostly about my sons, autism, my music, greyhounds and not usually contentious or argumentative! Cheers, Fiona Bennett.

  3. Linda Conner April 27, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    I started watching my weight myself when I was about 13 but it would have been nice if my parents had worried more about it when I was younger than that. Even age 13 is kind of late to start learning healthy diet and exercise habits, if these things have been pretty much ignored before. Bea can feel PROUD of what she has accomplished, now and that’ll improve her self confidence

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