I admire those in the world of journalism, especially those who call upon their own life for the sake of artistic expression. It takes an immense amount of talent to string together simple words and convey a powerful message that can be meaningful to the reader. I applaud those who have achieved success in this profession and encourage those who may not be at the apex of their careers to never let rejection detour from passion. Having said this, one widely read publication recently spit in the eye of professional writing and ethical publishing and I am here to pick some bones. I promise, I don’t view this blog as an opinion box from my innermost disgust, but the world of nutrition is becoming a complex place and there’s a lot of people out there doing the wrong things. It’s my job to point out these errors. Okay, it’s actually not, but I cannot ignore this one.
Vogue. It’s a fashion devotee’s bible to the world of style. The April issue was focused on all things bodily. How to beat your migraines, ways to raise your metabolism, and age proofing your skin were all features of the 328-page magazine. Because let’s be honest – I get the majority of my health advice from the Vogue editorial staff, most of whom have degrees in either fashion merchandising or medicine. I started to hear buzz about an article which ran in this very issue on the world-wide web. Within minutes of skimming the news feed on my Google search, I threw on a coat and headed for the door. Ten minutes and three dollars and ninety-nine cents later I was practically crying in my apartment. And here’s why.
The title reads, “Weight Watchers: When she put her seven-year-old daughter on a strict diet, Dara-Lynn Weiss overcame skepticism, scorn-and the fear that she was doing more harm than good.” Sounds triumphant right? It’s Vogue’s feel good story of the year. It’s not. After that title, the article turns into what I would classify as a “Stage Three Horror Story” about what the weight of a child can mean to a parent and how as adults, our words and actions can protect and harm simultaneously. Most importantly, we should never underestimate the absorbency of children.
The article surrounds the author’s, Dara-Lynn Weiss, experience managing her daughter’s weight over the course of one year. After taking her daughter, Bea, to her six-year check-up, the pediatrician informed Weiss that her daughter fit the criteria for being obese and suggested she do something about it. FYI – a child with a body mass index in the 95th percentile or higher for their age and height is classified as obese. At 4’4″ and 93 pounds, Weiss cites her concerns over her daughter’s weight at the time being predisposed risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type II diabetes.
It is not the diagnosis people are having trouble swallowing or the recommendation made by the girl’s doctor. Rather, it’s Weiss’ methods and approaches she used during the year-long battle between she, her daughter and the scale and the earnest conviction she writes with regarding the choices she made for the betterment of her daughter’s health. Weiss writes,
I was woefully inconsistent. Sometimes Bea’s after school snack was a slice of pizza or a chicken gyro from a street 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. 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.”
Lesson One: Be Consistent
She goes on to write about how they called the diet a “nutritional regimen” because the word “diet” and “fat” seemed too painful. I too hate the word diet. I am often asked which diet is the best for weight loss. After my internal eye roll and heaving sigh, I simply reply that diets will only get you so far. Yes, you will see results, but those results will not be maintained when it comes time to start eating like a normal human being and not a rabbit. Although “diet” and “fat” are two painful words, I think there is one thing a bit more painful and that’s denying your daughter dinner:
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.
Lesson Two: Forgive and Forget Setbacks
She ended up consulting a child-obesity specialist, Joanna Dolgoff, M.D., for how to appropriately manage her daughter’s weight. Dolgoff uses a “Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right” program and while that sounds healthy enough, I think Dolgoff forgot to emphasize one thing with Weiss. Moderation. This skill doesn’t just apply to managing other people’s weight. It also applies to ourselves. Self-deprivation is not your friend. It talks real smooth and makes things seem manageable in the beginning, but it will soon rear its ugly head and you will find yourself foaming at the mouth when a five-year old drops his/her ice cream cone on the ground and you have to physically hold your wrist to stop you from reaching for it because it’s been 24 days since you ate processed sugar. Another gem:
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.
Lesson Three: Perpetual Denial Is Not The Answer/Everything In Moderation
Maybe it’s more than just watching the eating behaviors of others. I think if we ever have any hope of helping loved ones manage their weight, it’s essential that we first look at our own eating behaviors. We must, at the very least, identify our own personal struggles and either accept them for what they are or figure out how to change them. Ultimately, we must find a way to ensure that those around us don’t adopt our behavior quirks. I once knew someone who constantly complained about her weight, but each time she set herself up for failure. She asked for advice, I told her what I could and she would simply reply that she knew all that already. At one point, I’d had enough – mostly because she was not overweight. She was an adult and she needed to hear the truth. “So-and-so, you either need to accept the way things are or go get help to try to change them. Either way is okay, just choose.” Tough love yes. But we can either be our greatest champion or our own worst enemy. On that note -Weiss writes,
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
Lesson Four: Our Own Personal Battles Can Affect Other People
Probably the most heart breaking point of the article is at the very end. After meeting her mom’s 16-pound weight-loss goal before the Vogue photoshoot–Weiss wrote about her daughter’s reaction:
“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.”
(Life) Lesson Five: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
I recently sat in on a seminar in which Dr. Sherry Pagoto, a licensed clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, discussed weight loss strategies for individuals with depression. It was very interesting but perhaps the greatest take home there was (outside of the clinical implications) was that many of us think that if we lose weight, we will be happier. But what does one do when they lose the weight but are not happy? Where do we go when/if we discover what we once thought was the problem, was actually just a distraction?
I’m not sure how to tackle childhood obesity. Part of me worries that intervening in a child’s diet while they are still growing can have detrimental results. What about growth, bone health, organ development, and teeth integrity?! At the same time, if we ignore addressing the issue, then are we simply delaying weight management strategies for later on in their life? There is a line somewhere in there, but I am not sure how to locate it. If only my TomTom could.
Sometimes we have to ask ourselves what realistic ideal health looks like and readjust our vision accordingly. I am never one to discredit health recommendations, but at some point we need to pick our battles; especially when it comes to children. I will say this – the all or nothing approach rarely works and I agree with a blogger for New York magazine who last week wrote, “I’m pretty sure Weiss just handed her daughter the road map to all her future eating disorders.”
I am a firm believer in empathy as a tool for weight loss. The internal dialogue we have with ourselves can be the greatest determiner of success. You beat yourself down day after day, you will lose the will to continue to try. You speak that internal dialogue to another human being, much less a child, and you have lost the right be a public participant in my opinion.
There is a time and a place for professional, honest journalism. This was a serious error in judgment if you ask me because while most of us can acknowledge the level of disgust we feel towards the piece, there are parents out there who will view this as an invitation to meticulously control the calories they put into their child. Much like the title to the article encourages, they will see Weiss as beacon of hope when in reality, there are other healthy ways to approach weight management than the public shaming of a child.