Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Child's Weight Loss Story in Vogue Ignites Debate

Approximately 30% of children in the United States are considered overweight and the number is rising. Parents of children who are overweight are left wondering how to approach the issue, something particularly difficult if parents are struggling with their own weight as well. Diet books, weight loss programs, exercise incentives - many options have been put on the table for parents of overweight children but there is still no consensus on how to help a child lose weight without creating some sort of permanent fixation on food, calories and weight loss. One mother has put this debate in the national spotlight by sharing her story in Vogue magazine, where she details the often extreme measures she went to in order to help her seven-year-old daughter lose weight.

Dara-Lynn Weiss is receiving quite a bit of backlash after telling her and her daughter's story. Six-year-old Bea came home from school crying one day after being called "fat" by a male classmate. The incident sent the mother in search of ways to help her daughter lose weight. She enlisted the help of a diet called Red Light, Green Light, a diet program for kids similar to weight watchers. Weiss admits that she had trouble approaching the issue because she had been through a variety of methods in attempting to manage her own weight in the past, including the use of appetite suppressants and laxatives. She describes vigilantly cutting Bea's calorie consumption through some methods that critics say are emotionally abusive. She says:
"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. 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. 
I cringe when I recall the many times I had it out with Bea over a snack given to her by a friend's parent or caregiver … rather than direct my irritation at the grown-up, I often derided Bea for not refusing the inappropriate snack. And there have been many awkward moments at parties, when Bea has wanted to eat, say, both cookies and cake, and I've engaged in a heated public discussion about why she can't."
Nevertheless, Bea did lose 16 lbs by the deadline of the Vogue article, one year after she began the diet. She was rewarded for her hard work with new dresses but her experience is described as "bittersweet":
"For Bea, the achievement is bittersweet. When I ask her if she likes how she looks now, if she's proud of what she's accomplished, she says yes...Even so, the person she used to be still weighs on her. Tears of pain fill her eyes as she reflects on her yearlong journey. "That's still me," she says of her former self. "I'm not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds." I protest that, indeed, she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek, past the glued-in feather. "Just because it's in the past," she says, "doesn't mean it didn't happen."
 Many pundits are outraged at Weiss's tactics and note that there is no mention of increasing her daughter's physical activity, only of cutting back on food. The author of Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right, Dr. Joanna Dolgoff, has responded to calls about the girl's story with some dismay at the way her trademark diet is being portrayed here. She disagreed with Weiss's publically embarrassing her child and says, "The program has to be run by the child. and the truth is that making a child feel bad only causes problems. It's not going to help with weight loss, and it's definitely not going to help the child emotionally." The diet plan asks the parent and child team to come up with a code word to use in order to address diet concerns in a public setting.

Regardless of how Weiss has handled her child's extra pounds (which, by the way, she will soon be writing a book about), her story naturally leads parents of overweight children to ask what is the best way to help their child lose weight without causing any kind of trauma or dysfunctional relationship with food? Considering the constantly changing health crazes of adults in the United States, the answer for children is even less clear. It's unfortunate that our nationwide obsession with weight has inevitably led to even the youngest children becoming fixated on staying thin. However, leading children by example to follow healthy eating and exercise habits in addition to cultivating acceptance of a body that is healthy rather than skinny are the first steps in approaching the issue.

Have you struggled with creating a diet and/or exercise plan for your overweight child? 

Mom Puts 7-Year-Old on a Diet in the Worst Vogue Article Ever [Jezebel]
Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right [Dr. Dolgoff]
Putting 7-year-old on a diet: Responsible, or reprehensible? [Today]
 A Mom’s Reaction to Vogue’s Story About a ‘Fat’ 7-Year-Old Girl [NYMag]