An article in this month’s Vogue magazine documenting the effort to get a 7-year-old girl to lose weight has sparked an online backlash and raised a debate about how much is too much when it comes to fighting the childhood obesity epidemic.
The debate centers on the article’s author, Dara-Lynn Weiss, the mother of the child at the article’s center, 7-year-old Bea, and the year-long Weight Watchers-type diet Weiss put Bea on to lose weight.
When Bea was six, Weiss writes, the family’s pediatrician said that Bea, standing at 4’4″ and weighing 93 pounds, was clinically obese and could be at risk for weight-related problems like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
But it was only after her daughter came home from school traumatized by a classmate’s taunting that Weiss, described in the press as a New York socialite, decided to put Bea on a diet, and to document it for the world to see.
“One day Bea came home from school in tears, confessing that a boy at school had called her fat. The incident crushed me, but it was a wake-up call. Being overweight is not a private struggle. Everyone can see it,” Weiss writes in the her essay, titled “Weight Watcher.”
The manner in which Weiss admits she approached her daughter’s weight loss is drawing the most controversy at a time when overweight children is a mainstream and growing problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 17 percent of American children are considered obese.
“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,” Weiss writes.
Weiss admits that “no one seems to approve of my methods” and fesses up to her own struggles with body issues.
“I have not ingested any food, looked at a restaurant menu, or been sick to the point of vomiting without silently launching a complicated mental algorithm about how it will affect my weight,” Weiss writes, noting she’s tried Atkins, juice fasts, laxatives, Weight Watchers and more to stay thin. “Who was I to teach a little girl how to maintain a healthy weight and body image?”
“When she was given access to cupcakes at a party, I alternated between saying, ‘Let’s not eat that, it’s not good for you’; ‘Okay, fine, go ahead, but just one’; and ‘Bea, you have to stop eating crap like that, you’re getting too heavy,’ depending on my mood. Then I’d secretly eat two when she wasn’t looking,” wrote Weiss.
The essay, featured in Vogue’s annual “Shape” issue in the current April edition, is teased on the magazine’s cover as “Kitchen Controversy: A Mom Fights Childhood Obesity at Home,” right alongside a glossy portrait of cover girl Jennifer Lopez looking “fabulously fit.”
“I think that what she did is very concerning,” Dr. Leslie Sim, clinical director of the Mayo Eating Disorders Program in Rochester, Minn., told ABCNews.com. “Her emotional reaction to food was concerning around her daughter. Categorizing food as good or bad around children is going to create some anxiety. When there’s a lot of emotional response around food that can really create an anxiety disorder and potential eating disorder.”
In the article Weiss does not gloss over the trials and tribulations she encountered in her attempt to slim Bea down.
“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,” Weiss writes in the article.
That seeming public humiliation and alleged over-stepping of boundaries with her daughter has lit up the discussion online, with one blogger dubbing the article the “worst Vogue article ever,” and Weiss herself being called “one of the most f—ed up, selfish women to ever grace the magazine’s pages,” by Jezebel writer Katie J.M Baker.
“I’m pretty sure Weiss just handed her daughter the road map to all her future eating disorders, an anonymous commenter wrote on New York Magazine’s website.
The essay has also grabbed the attention of eating disorder specialists like Sim who question the wisdom of Weiss intervening so forcefully when it comes to her young daughter’s weight.
“Studies show that teenagers who are nagged about their weight by an authority figure, they’re much more likely to gain weight over time,” Sim said. “So what we know is that dieting predicts weight gain over time and it certainly can contribute to the development of binge eating through the experience of deprivation.”
Also drawing critics’ ire is Weiss’ commentary on how her daughter’s diet burdened her own life.
“It is grating to have someone constantly complain of being hungry, or refuse to eat what she’s supposed to, month after month,” she writes, also noting that it was “exhausting managing someone’s diet, especially when her brother has completely different nutritional needs,” and that “no one likes to see a child or her mother humiliated over something as trivial as a few dozen calories.”
One year later, and in time for the mother-daughter Vogue photo shoot, Bea has lost 16 pounds and grown two inches, a feat rewarded by “the purchase of many new dresses” and a feather hair extension, but her response reminds the reader that she is still just a child.
“That’s still me,” Weiss writes of how Bea reacted to her former, heavier 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.”
The woman behind the program that Weiss used to help Bea lose weight, the “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right,” program told Jezebel writer Katie Baker that she “wasn’t thrilled by the article.”
“The program has to be run by the child,” Dr. Joanna Dolgoff told Baker. “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.”
Weiss has not yet weighed in on the debate her essay provoked. Vogue did not respond to requests for comment placed today by ABCNews.com.