Published: January 15, 2013
When a doctor pronounced Dara-Lynn Weiss’s daughter Bea obese at age seven, the mother of two knew she had to take action. But how could a woman with her own food and body issues—not to mention spotty eating habits—successfully parent a little girl around the issue of obesity?
In this much-anticipated, controversial memoir, Dara-Lynn Weiss chronicles the struggle and journey to get Bea healthy. In describing their process—complete with frustrations, self-recriminations, dark humor, and some surprising strategies—Weiss reveals the hypocrisy inherent in the debates over many cultural hot-button issues: from processed snacks, organic foods, and school lunches to dieting, eating disorders, parenting methods, discipline, and kids’ self-esteem.
Compounding the challenge were eating environments—from school to restaurants to birthday parties—that set Bea up to fail, and unwelcome judgments from fellow parents. Childhood obesity, Weiss discovered, is a crucible not just for the child but also for parents. She was criticized as readily for enabling Bea’s condition as she was for enforcing the rigid limits necessary to address it. Never before had Weiss been made to feel so wrong for trying to do the right thing.
The damned if you do/damned if you don’t predicament came into sharp relief when Weiss raised some of these issues in a Vogue article. Critics came out in full force, and Weiss unwittingly found herself at the center of an emotional and highly charged debate on childhood obesity.
A touching and relatable story of loving a child enough to be unpopular, The Heavy will leave readers applauding Weiss’s success, her bravery, and her unconditional love for her daughter.
I feel I should start this review with a bit about myself. I was an overweight child and I was on a diet for my entire childhood--the kind of diet where everything was policed and I was never allowed to forget the fact that I was not like other children, something I know was very damaging. I still struggle as an adult and am working to change my focus from a "diet" to a healthy lifestyle. I am also the mother of two children and, recently, the weight of one of my children became the concern of our doctor. In 6 months, we corrected the problem with minimal stress for our child and are currently maintaining our success.
I say this because I know very well what this book is about, both from the point of the child and the parent. I do have strong opinions of what I heard on this book, and thanks to my own experiences, believe that my opinions are fair and well-grounded. I also need to admit that I am a bit biased.
So, onto the book. I wasn't sure what to expect of this. There were items in the synopsis that intrigued me--mostly the mentions that Weiss had to struggle against society to maintain her daughter's eating plan. I get that--I don't like my children to eat a lot of sugar or junk food and I do have to fight that battle in a world where kids are given treats at every turn.
And, frankly, I was just interested about how Weiss handled this with her daughter. The epidemic of childhood obesity should not be minimized and is an important topic for all to consider.
So, onto the book. It begins a bit with Weiss talking about her own weight history (a little disordered, but not uncommonly so). Then she talks about her daughter. Jumping ahead a little bit, Weiss later pats herself on the back for addressing her daughter's problem early. However, in the opening chapters of the book, she mentions that, at 3, her daughter's preschool teachers had brought her daughter's eating habits to her attention. Weiss also mentions that others had made comments from that point on about her daughter's increasing weight. Yet, Weiss doesn't start to actually do anything until her daughter is 7--over half her life later! Weiss deserves no kudos for "acting early" when she was 4 years (more than half her daughter's life) late to the game.
Weiss chalks her daughter's weight gain up to a large appetite, not bad food choices or inactivity. I can buy that her daughter was eating healthy food, but at inappropriately large portions. However, I question Weiss claims that her daughter was not inactive. Never once did Weiss mention how much television her children watched. Yes, it could be that her kids didn't watch much television--but, later, she makes a mention of a scene where she is in bed with her kids and everyone has their own laptops (the kids are, I think 7 and 8 at this time) and the kids are updating their Twitter accounts! Obviously, technology is a big factor in their home--I'm sure that TV was a big part of it but, even if it was not, computers obviously were). When we dealt with this issue with our own child, the very first recommendation had nothing to do with food--it was to limit screen time.
Once Weiss decides to start working to get her daughter's weight under control, she flounders for a while as she tries to do it on her own, which is understandable and I think any parent in her position would have done the same thing. Ultimately, she opts for the entire family to go to a nutritionist. The nutritionist's program, as Weiss describes it, sounded rather complicated to me and I cringed at the importance on fat-free foods. However, it was only in the last couple of years that the acceptance of the importance of healthy fats was widespread, so I chalked it up to it being a different time.
Then, Weiss decides to drop the nutritionist and I was never really clear why. All I could figure out is that she didn't like the "3rd string" nutritionist who didn't acknowledge that her daughter's jeans weighed more than her leggings. And, it is from that point that things became horrifying.
Weiss is a drill-master with her daughter--she insists on naked weigh-ins on Saturdays and is very focused on the numbers (when dealing with children, the number on the scale is problematic as children are growing in height as they are losing weight. Instead doctors and health professionals work with BMI's.). When it comes to food, Weiss is heavy handed in controlling everything that goes near her daughter's mouth. And she does this publicly--at birthday parties, at friends' houses, at restaurants, at the corner Starbucks. When her daughter has a school lunch, or if there is a school event where food is available, she interrogates her daughter the moment she sees her. When her daughter goes someplace without her, be it an afternoon with a friend or a month visiting her grandmother, Weiss sends along caloric guidelines for what her daughter is allowed to eat.
Through all this, Weiss moans about how long they will have to keep doing this and when will the diet be over. Right there, she has set her daughter--and herself--up for failure. I am convinced that the way to combat childhood obesity is to get kids moving and to teach them how to eat in a healthy manner--nutritious foods and appropriate portions--so that they can continue that through their lifetime. Yet, Weiss really didn't do any of that. Yes, she signed her daughter up for gymnastics and karate, but she even said she didn't think activity was as important. Instead, she taught her daughter how to be neurotic about food and her body.
Weiss's daughter eventually hits her goal weight, after almost exactly a year. Weiss then devotes a couple of chapters to the fallout she experienced after she published an article in Vogue about this experience. To cut several chapters short, Weiss believed that nothing she did was damaging and only good parents would have done what she did and anyone who questions her as she has presented herself is cruel and unfair. She then talks about when her daughter, now at a healthy weight, went off to camp. Weiss contacts the camp to get their menu to decide what her daughter can eat and asks that her daughter be weighed weekly and that information be emailed to Weiss. I don't think I'm the only one who considers this way past extreme.
Weiss says that she sometimes worries that her daughter will develop an eating disorder, but then says that probably won't happen because she read an article that said that there is a strong genetic component to it. As far as I can tell from interviews with Weiss around the publication of this book, her daughter is probably about 11 now. So, she's right at the beginning of puberty. To Weiss, I direct the old adage "you reap what you sow," because Weiss planted the seeds of at least disordered eating, if not a full-blown eating disorder, in her daughter and then watered and fertilized those seeds. She has taught her daughter that food is something dangerous, that calories are more important than nutrients, and that there is intrinsic guilt in eating. And those are lessons that her daughter will carry with her for her entire life.
There is no question that Weiss loves her daughter and I'm not going to say that she's a bad mother. I will say, though, that I believe that she projected her own issues onto her daughter, which caused her to make decisions that were not in her daughter's best interests. I really can't recommend this book to others, unless they are looking for something on how NOT to help a child with a weight problem.