'I put my 7-year-old daughter on a diet'
The Manhattan mum condemned for 'fat-shaming' her obese daughter by going public with her dieting battle
The little girl sat in the pediatrician's examining room, her chubby arms folded protectively across her chest and her mother waiting anxiously by her side.
The pediatrician walked briskly into the room. Glancing at her notes she made a matter-of-fact statement: "She's four-foot-four and 93 pounds."
The numbers spoke for themselves. Suddenly Dara-Lynn Weiss faced a terrifying and irrefutable fact: her seven-year-old daughter, Bea, was now clinically obese.
High time, everyone agreed, to get some much needed help.
Dara-Lynn Weiss's desperate struggle to control her daughter's obesity is the subject of a controversial new memoir, The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet that has put Weiss at the centre of a storm of criticism about the merits of putting a child so young on a diet.
Each year about 45 million Americans go on a diet. But in March 2012, when Weiss went public with her struggles to keep Bea's weight under control in an article in Vogue magazine, she was excoriated in the press as the ultimate control freak mother, a neurotic calorie-counter who was "fat-shaming" her daughter and setting her up for a lifetime of yo-yo dieting.
"The fact that the article became this lightning rod of emotional opinion and searing criticism of my parenting was something that I did not expect," Weiss (42) told the Irish Independent. "We do judge each other tremendously as parents; it is a very public sport and that makes tough decisions all the more difficult."
Bea's escalating weight had been a concern for Weiss and her husband since her third birthday. Weiss noticed that Bea's relationship with food was unlike other children – a little obsessive, a little too close for comfort.
"She had a huge appetite and could eat enormous portions," said Weiss. "She thought about food a lot and she talked about food a lot. She never seemed satisfied with what she had eaten and always wanted more."
"She just plain ate too much."
Concerned, Weiss made adjustments at home. She introduced more fruit and vegetables and ensured that Bea got enough daily exercise. But despite these careful modifications, nothing seemed to work. Her daughter's weight just climbed and climbed.
Finally Bea's pediatrician recommended a childhood obesity specialist, a Manhattan-based doctor who operated a dieting programme for kids that was very similar to Weight Watchers. Weiss, who publicly acknowledges her own lifelong battle and preoccupation with weight, liked the diet's sensible approach: ensuring that Bea had an appropriate amount to eat but that she could still indulge in the odd treat.
"There was no cutting out of carbs, or limiting of fats. There was no elimination of foods that kids are likely to eat; the pizza, the cake, the ice-cream. One just had to be aware of healthy limits and I liked that," Weiss said. "I did not want to make Bea feel like she could not participate in all the food that every other child was enjoying."
But limiting the food intake of a child who could wolf down several plates of pasta in one sitting was going to be a challenge, and Weiss knew that in order for the diet to work she was going to have to become 'The Heavy'.
"I knew that for it to be effective I was going to have to be the enforcer, I was going to have to be strict. And I was," she told the Irish Independent. "And that was hard for me and it was certainly hard for Bea."
In a ruse to ensure that Bea did not feel singled out, the entire family Weiss family decided to adopt the new diet. Weiss used a traffic light system – red, yellow and green lights were assigned to different foods, and a new lexicon emerged in the Weiss house: "portion control", "healthful eating" and "calorie reduction".
Bea immediately saw through the ruse. She complained when she saw that her dinners were now half the size of her younger brothers. She whined, complained and begged for more food, says Weiss. It was exhausting, heartbreaking. Could she really be doing the right thing Weiss wondered?
"She would cry and say, 'I am the only one' with this particular problem," Weiss recalls of her daughter's struggle to accept her situation. "Her awareness of it, of how big of an ongoing problem it was and of how isolated she felt, that was very painful."
"I had to remember she was a kid and that I was asking for adult-size levels of maturity and responsibility from her."
But controlling what Bea ate within the confines of her Manhattan apartment, says Weiss, proved simple when compared with having Bea adhere to the rules in the outside world. School, play dates, birthday parties, the playground: each day provided a new challenge and Weiss felt she had to exert control.
"Food is not just something that is between me and my daughter and our house; it's public," Weiss said.
"I sort of made the decision that I needed everyone's help with this. When Bea had a play date I would call the parents ahead of time and say, 'Hey, what is the snack at your house going to be and can we change it? Or I would call ahead to find out what was going to be at the birthday party so I could make a plan. I knew that people were taken aback at the level of control I was trying to exert."
Helping her child battle obesity was a tricky road, Weiss admits, and she was aware that friends and family thought she was over-reacting. "Damned if I do, damned if I don't," she said.
But in Weiss's mind, Bea's obesity was a medical issue and not just an aesthetic one, and so she applied the same principles had Bea been the victim of a severe food allergy.
Inevitably there were slip-ups, like the time a friend's babysitter allowed Bea to have a cup of Ramen noodles and a cookie for a snack; or the wintry afternoon when a Starbucks barista heaped whipped cream on Bea's hot chocolate and then dithered on providing Weiss with a timely calorie count.
Bea, too, sometimes took the diet's rule of allowing unlimited fruit a little too liberally, causing Weiss to make adjustments. "She could put away several bananas in one sitting," Weiss writes. "At around 100 calories each, that's not nothing."
Slowly but surely – over the course of a year – Bea did lose weight, over 16 magical pounds. What her "amazing kid" shed in the process, Weiss says, she made up for in maturity; learning a hard-fought life lesson that most kids will never endure.
Now, aged nine-and-a-half, Bea continues to maintain a healthy weight and BMI (Body Mass Index) and Weiss continues to monitor her eating. "It is still an issue for her," she says, "and still a difficulty for her and our family, but it does get easier with time."
Weiss has weathered the storm of criticism but knows that she will always be known as the 'Crazy New York Mother' who put her kid on a diet. But to her that's a small price to pay.
"Until you are the parent of an obese child who needs help, and that under the supervision of doctors you are trying to help that child get to a healthy weight, then it makes perfect sense," she said.
"I would hope that another parent who wants their child to be happy and healthy would have the courage to be 'The Heavy'."