When I was 11, my mother gave me a stuffed Garfield who wore a T-shirt proclaiming, “I’m not overweight, I’m undertall.” It was a fitting slogan for that chubby ginger cat, and also for chubby ginger me. At 5-2, I weighed 150 pounds—the same as I do now, some two dozen years and seven inches later.
While Garfield notoriously hated diets, I don’t remember being especially horrified when, later that year, my mom matter-of-factly asked our family doctor if I should be on one. He tore off a low-calorie, low-fat plan from a preprinted pad, and, combined with regular gym dates with my older brother—once a chubby kid himself—I lost 30 pounds in the span of months.
I was often hungry during this austere period of cottage cheese and crisp bread, but one thing I never felt was shamed. Despite what it may seem, my mom was and continues to be the most uncritical of mothers. It was precisely her unconditional acceptance that allowed both her and me to not perceive a subliminal message in the fat cat’s T-shirt.
I’m quite certain that Dara-Lynn Weiss’s daughter, Bea, can’t say the same.
When Weiss, the author of this month’s The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet (Ballantine Books, $29), first wrote about putting seven-year-old Bea on a severely restrictive “nutritional regimen,” the article—which appeared in Vogue—sparked both fury and a subsequent book deal.
In blistering honesty, Weiss recounted depriving Bea of dinner after a particularly calorific school lunch, and publicly berating her food choices at a birthday party. Whatever you make of her methods, they worked: Bea eventually lost 16 pounds.
Unsurprisingly, Jezebel dubbed the piece “the worst Vogue article ever,” while New York magazine’s The Cut blog hypothesized that Weiss—who expounds on her own food hang-ups in The Heavy—had “handed her daughter the road map to all her future eating disorders.” Enter Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, who hopes the book will draw fanfare not unlike 2011’s parental tough-love tome, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
It will, at the very least, spark much-needed discussion: How can we help children lose weight without losing their dignity—or foisting on them our own fraught food relationships? And it’s not just an American thing: The most recent Statistics Canada report shows that nearly one-third of five- to 17-year-olds are overweight or obese. Turning kids into calorie calculators likely won’t solve this problem. But neither will avoiding the issue. Just ask my old friend Garfield.