The XX Factor

Is Concern With Childhood Obesity About Health or Beauty? 

Is true health really located on a scale?


Katy and I are on the same page about socialite Dara-Lynn Weiss’ awful “How I tortured my fat kid” essay in April’s Vogue: Weiss does seem like a “nightmarish” mother, and “her predicament would have an easier solution if society as a whole could just put the issue of weight in its place.” 

But we disagree on where, exactly, that place should be. 

Katy argued that parents ought to be able to have a frank conversation with their kids about weight as “a common health condition.” The trouble is, we don’t know for sure that Weiss’ daughter Bea’s weight was evidence of a health condition. In fact, the research is far from conclusive that weight causes health problems. We know higher Body Mass Indexes tend to correlate with diabetes, heart disease, and so on. But we also know that BMI can be a shockingly unreliable indicator of health: Consider the 7’1” 325 pound and, with a BMI of 31.6, “obese” Shaquille O’Neal. Furthermore, correlation is not causation. Whether it’s the weight itself (as in, the literal pounds of fat on one’s body) or the lifestyle habits (namely, lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet) that causes the correlating health issues is subject to serious debate. Adding to the confusion: At least 20 percent of obese people have no health issues at all, and there are studies showing that overweight women actually live longer than normal or underweight women

Given all of this uncertainty, why do we continue to focus all of our conversations about health on the bathroom scale? Because our culture has health all tangled up with beauty and self-worth. We dive into cleanses, take hot yoga, or decide to ditch gluten and tell ourselves and anyone who asks (or doesn’t) that we’re doing it for our health, but 9 times out of 10, aesthetics are our true and more powerful motivator. And we love to hate mothers like Dara-Lynn Weiss (and Botox Mom and all those who have come before them) because they make put the crazy so far out there, it’s easy to shake our heads at such Mommy Dearest ways — she screamed in Starbucks! She snuck cupcakes when Bea wasn’t looking! — and conveniently avoid looking at all the ways we’re part of the same problem. 

In fact, when Weiss tells Bea “that fat girl is a thing of the past!” she’s using the same “before body” rhetoric as any successful dieter ditching her fat jeans, no matter how temporary the weight loss turns out to be. But your body is always your body, as I’ve written before and as Bea knows: “I’m not a different person because I lost sixteen pounds,” she tells her mother. “Just because it’s in the past doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” 

In order to put weight in its place, we need to acknowledge that our obsession with it is fully about beauty and has almost nothing to do with health. Then parents could have frank conversations with their kids — but they wouldn’t be about weight or size. They’d be about eating well, staying active and treating their bodies with love and respect.