In this month's Vogue, somewhere between the profile of Victoria Beckham and a spread of Kate Moss languishing in couture, is a story by Dara-Lynn Weiss, a Manhattan mother who forced her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, onto a diet. Weiss chronicles the struggle—and her methods of depriving her daughter; publicly humiliating her, shaming her, and making her eat certain foods despite her pleas. In the end, Bea loses the weight, and they go on a shopping spree, and celebrate by posing for Vogue.
Jezebel instantly labeled it “The Worst Vogue Article Ever.” But seemingly overnight, Weiss landed a book deal. She’s signed on with Random House’s Ballantine imprint to write a book called The Heavy, which will address what the publisher calls “an experience that epitomizes the modern parenting “damned if you do/damned if you don’t’ predicament.” The media attention Weiss has already attracted recalls the case of another mother—Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mother” whose controversial book excerpt inThe Wall Street Journal last year, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” foreshadowed an equally controversial parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
In Vogue, Weiss writes that she decided to put Bea on a diet following the girl’s diagnosis of childhood obesity—yet the real call to action was when a boy at school called her fat. Weiss claims that she tried to give Bea a healthy and balanced diet, but she spirals into policing her like a traffic cop, humiliating her in public, and depriving her of meals as a punishment for overeating.
“I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French Heritage Day at school involved nearly 800 calories of Brie, filet mignon, baguette, and chocolate,” Weiss writes. “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 the kids’ hot chocolate whose calories are listed as “120–210” on the menu board: Well, which is it? When he couldn’t provide an answer, I dramatically grabbed the drink out of my daughter’s hands, poured it into the garbage, and stormed out.”
It’s clear from the article that Weiss’s own struggle with body image was a driving force in the way she policed her daughter’s eating habits. She admits that she is ill suited to deal with the “problem” of her daughter’s weight, having struggled significantly with weight herself—to the point where she has never “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.”
Weiss sends mixed messages to her daughter and entwines them inextricably with her own struggle with body image. “I didn’t know whether to stop feeding her when I felt she’d had enough (even though she complained that she was still hungry) or to let her eat a second serving to stave off between-meal snacking?” Weiss writes. “Were bananas OK, or were they, as my Atkins-brainwashed mind suspected, just another delivery mechanism for sugar and starch? Was corn a wholesome, fiber-rich vegetable, or the devil’s spawn?”
“We know from studies that mothers who are very concerned with their weight and their size or want to control their daughters with weight and size often rear daughters who are very concerned with their weight and size,” says Dr. Robyn Silverman, body image expert and author of the book Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It. “You’re more likely to create a child or an adult who has a negative body image and a sense that when she weighs less she is worth more.”
In the article, Weiss writes that she and Bea sought the help of a nutritionist, Dr. Joanne Dolgoff, who pioneered an eating program called Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right (also a book), which helps children make decisions about healthy eating on their own. Dolgoff says the Weisses got the “nuts and bolts” of the program—which emphasizes that every food is OK in moderation and a child rather than the parents must be in charge of what he or she eats—but that they didn’t grasp the “heart of it.” She says they stopped coming to the office and took over the diet on their own. Dolgoff tells The Daily Beast that she was contacted by fact checkers at Vogue but wasn’t given details on how her work would be described in the article. She also says Weiss has already approached her to consult on her book. “She did ask, and I’m not sure,” she says. “I have to figure out what the best way to help the most children is. I have to figure out if being part of this would help or not.”
A phone call and email to Ballantine's press office went unreturned.
Perhaps the most damaging part of the article comes at the end, when Bea is “rewarded” for her weight loss. Weiss writes triumphantly that Bea is now 16 pounds lighter as a result of the strict dieting (and, incidentally, 2 inches taller as a result of normal growth!) and says they “celebrated with the purchase of many new dresses.”
This kind of reward, Silverman says, is particularly confusing for a child. “When we send those messages, they’re not about health but they’re very much about looks,” she says. “And that’s the dangerous part right here. When [Bea] enters the age of puberty, when it’s natural and normal for a child to gain 25 pounds, she could be very uncomfortable with the weight gain.”
And that’s the greatest threat of this article—the potential harm it may cause for Bea: her mother’s public humiliation, the struggle with the restrictive diet, the celebratory nature of the Vogue appearance, the damning media backlash, all of it. If Bea gains or loses weight, she won’t only have her mother (who will be writing a book about her weight) watching over her. She’ll now have other kids, their parents, journalists, and everyone else who’s been outraged by this article hovering over her, too. As Weiss writes menacingly, “Only time will tell whether my early intervention saved her from a life of preoccupation with her weight, or drove her to it.”