A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Vogue and its Seven-Year-Old Diet Victim

The damaging choice to put a young child on a diet... and then write about it.

The ruckus over the now infamous April Vogue article by the mother who put her seven-year-old daughter on a diet has been loud and furious. Yet most of the invective has been focused on the mother’s methods, rather than her goal, of helping her daughter lose weight. Shaming her child publicly, inconsistent about what she will and won’t allow her child to eat, copping to her own weight issues: Dara-Lynn Weiss has written a clumsy, depressing piece that represents the absolute worst of writing on parenting. And the article’s pro-forma gloss of self-deprecation doesn’t save Weiss from criticism, as she seems to hope it will. Admitting to her own failures as a mother (and chronic dieter) doesn’t even touch on the larger ethical questions of putting a young girl on a diet, or of writing about it for publication. Weiss uses self-criticism just as Amy Chua did in The Battle Cry of the Tiger Mother, as a shield against critics; this tactic is ultimately both false and self-serving, since neither Chua nor Weiss believes what she did was harmful to her child. Perhaps by admitting that she wasn’t always nice while berating her daughter to lose weight, Weiss hopes her readers will overlook the genuine cruelty here, and the potential long-term harm she’s done her daughter. I'm not buying it: in my eyes, it's not simply Weiss's poor methods but her entire project that's problematic.

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Anyone who’s been through puberty—which is to say all of us over 18—is all too aware of how it transforms the body in unexpected ways: skinny kids grow curves, chubby kids grow tall and lean. Weiss’s daughter Bea is still years away from that change. The best predictor of what our bodies will look like is genetic, and though there are certainly exceptions, it seems likely that Weiss’s daughter will probably resemble either her mother or father in body type. Furthermore, losing 16 pounds (at the age of seven, moreover) means nothing, as any chronic dieter will tell you—it’s keeping the weight off that’s the real challenge. And how can a seven-year-old make long-term lifestyle changes when she’s too young to have a lifestyle? 

While the many articles and blogs written in response to this piece have taken both Weiss and Vogue to task, no one seems yet to have focused on how accurately this reflects the disturbing trend of children as proxies for parental anxieties. Weiss’s defense is that she’s trying to save her daughter from her own lifelong struggle with body image; but how is turning a very young girl’s focus towards a preoccupation with food and dieting going to save her from that struggle, exactly? 

Clinicians who treat eating disorders see many patients who’ve experienced exactly what Weiss describes in her piece: parents who put their very young children on diets, who hounded them constantly about their weight, or whose own weight obsessions inevitably rubbed off on their kids. Yet our society’s tragic failure to understand the true toll of eating disorders is reflected in parents who are apparently willing to risk actively leading their children towards that kind of suffering if it means they get a thin child in return. If you could reduce your child’s chances of getting cancer simply by changing your attitude, you would do it without a second thought. Yet how is having a thin child a goal for which it’s worth risking a life-altering, sometimes fatal disease? How can we not see this as a terrible misplacement of parental anxiety? Tellingly, most commenting on the piece have said they agree that Weiss's goal was a worthy one; I would argue fairly strenuously that while childhood obesity is certainly a worthy concern, this is not the way to solve it. It's a blinkered, individualistic approach rather than an attempt to examine and solve the broader causes of the problem.

While it’s impossible to predict what shape Bea will be as she grows from a being a young girl to a teenager to a grown woman, one thing seems certain: this article and the struggle it chronicles will not disappear. She’s definitely stuck with a mother who’s willing to betray her daughter’s privacy with this piece and a rumored book deal, all for her own benefit. Worst of all, Bea is now encumbered with the body image issues most girls don’t encounter until they are twice her age. That seems likely to take a greater toll than being a chubby seven-year-old.

There are, apparently, parents who truly care more about producing a child who’s skinny, or a piano prodigy, or an Ivy League graduate than they do about raising a happy, healthy human being. It makes me terribly sad to imagine the tragic outcomes of these horribly skewed parenting priorities.

[Two responses/alterative views I liked best are here and here.]

What I cooked this week:

 

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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