“So there was a hateful ‘I made my kid lose weight’ essay in Vogue,” a DoubleX colleague informed the listserv yesterday morning. He was referring to a piece by the socialite Dara-Lynn Weiss, who tarred the magazine’s April “shape” issue with her tone-deaf story about the tribulations of slimming down her obese 7-year-old daughter. Weiss came off as self-absorbed, deploring the frustrations of “having someone constantly complain of being hungry,” and fanatical: She once hurled her kid’s small hot chocolate into the trash when the barista at Starbucks failed to report its precise calorie count. What’s more, her methods—derision, public shaming, punishment—would be psychically lacerating even if her motives were legitmately health-based, which they aren’t.
Unfortunately, you can’t read the piece online, but the gory details have been well-reported elsewhere: Weiss’s freak-out over another parent offering the girl, Bea, a salad nicoise. Her lingering preoccupation with her own body, which pushed her to experiment with fasting and laxatives as a teen. Her bewildering inconsistency: “Sometimes Bea’s after-school snack was a slice of pizza or a gyro from the snack vendor. Other days I forced her to choose a low-fat vegetable soup or a single hard-boiled egg. Occasionally I’d give in to her pleas for a square of coffee cake, mainly because I wanted to eat half of it,” she writes.
It’s harrowing to see a family dynamic in which affection rises and falls according to the number on the scale. When Bea dropped 16 pounds (while, incidentally, growing two inches), her proud mom rewarded her with “new dresses” and, apparently, a Vogue photo shoot. Given the nature of these returns, I doubt Dara-Lynn was as delighted with the girl’s healthier BMI as she was with her fashionably lissome frame.
Yet responses to the Vogue article are raising the question of whether it’s ever appropriate for a parent to express concern over a child’s weight. On Tuesday, body image expert Dr. Robyn Silverman told BuzzFeed Shift no. “Your mother is someone you look to to feel validated. … You would hope your mother values your worth,” she explained.
I called up Silverman to double check: So parents can never talk to daughters, even obese daughters, about their body size? That’s right.
“Mothers should reiterate the same things to their children regardless of where their weights fall. They should emphasize nutritious choices and active lifestyles. If necessary, they should confront their kids about seeming tired, lethargic, or less focused in school.”
Silverman’s advice rang true, and yet it also makes me sad. Addressing a physical health problem like obesity should be simpler. Helping your kid drop a few pounds should be less fraught. To me, the need to tiptoe around these issues reflects the unhealthy extent to which we’ve plaited together body image and self-esteem. Apparently, many girls identify so completely with their weights that it’s impossible for mothers to directly bring up the number on the scale without conveying a more holistic sense of dissatisfaction.
It’s disturbing that our body size should mean so much to us that we can barely manage a common health condition without causing more emotional damage than the treatment is worth. Dara-Lynn Weiss is an easy target and, honestly, she seems like a nightmarish mother. But her predicament would have an easier solution if society as a whole could just put the issue of weight in its place.