Book review, Non-Fiction

Book Review: The Heavy by Dara-Lynn Weiss

Recently a friend asked me, “How do you have such skinny children?”  At first I took offense to that question.  What does that mean?  Because I’m fat my children are supposed to be fat as well?  But the longer I thought about it the more the question made sense to me.
My children are genetically predisposed to obesity.  It’s on both sides of their family.  Genetics is not in their favor when it comes to their weight.  I’ve been overweight or obese from the time I was seven years old.  My hubby has been overweight for most of his adult life.  Our parents have all struggled with their weight.  My children should be overweight.
And although my children are all at healthy weights for their height and age, I still worry (maybe a little too much) that they will one day end up overweight.  I partially blame it on the constant bullying I endured as a child (being called Miss Piggy in the third grade by a mean boy on the bus was the first memory I have of being told I was fat).  I don’t want my children to ever be made fun of for how they look.  Maybe that sounds vain but I know personally the emotional pain of being called fat.
Of course there are other reasons I worry about my children’s weight.  As a nurse I have seen firsthand the multitude of health problems that come with being overweight.  I want them to be grow up and be healthy and to live very long productive lives.
I was excited to find the book, The Heavy by Dara-Lynn Weiss at our local library.  I vaguely remembered hearing about this family’s story last year when the author published a controversial article in Vogue magazine about helping her seven year old, Bea, lose weight.  Bea hit the 99thpercentile on the childhood growth chart at a very young age.  Her blood pressure was increasing and despite her mother’s best efforts she was not able to lose weight.  Her pediatrician recommended a more dramatic intervention for her and thus began her family’s year long journey into dieting.  I refer to it as dieting because unfortunately it was more of a “diet” journey than a “healthy eating” journey.
The book was very promising in the beginning and I couldn’t put it down.  I found myself nodding in agreement through most of the first few chapters.  I thought, ‘Yes!  That is me!’ when Dara-Lynn talked about her inconsistencies with managing her daughter’s diet—allowing a cupcake at one birthday party while refusing to let her have one at another party.  When she shared that she often would allow her daughter a treat if it meant that she would get to have half of it, I totally understood.  I also understood when she divulged the ins and outs of every diet she herself had ever tried and her concern that she may project some of her past issues with weight and food on her daughter.
She shared her struggles with navigating her daughter’s school system trying to find answers to her questions about the caloric content of food.  No one could give her the answers which I find extremely sad in a country where one third of school aged children are overweight or obese.  As Dara-Lynn pointed out, even if a parent is able to avoid the lunchroom junk that is being fed to our children you still have to contend with classmate birthday parties and special events.  Her daughter’s fourth grade class decided to celebrate every birthday for every child in every fourth grade class all together.  So instead of 12 birthday cupcakes a year it became 48.  In one year, just the calories in those cupcakes alone would add an additional four pounds on a child.
The author and her daughter, Bea
But about mid-way through the book I began to understand why there was such backlash against the author when her story was published in Vogue magazine last year.  As the book continued, Dara-Lynn seemed to become obsessed with what her daughter could and could not eat as well as with the number on the scale.  She “needed” to be 77 pounds.  Not 77.2 pounds.  In one instance, her daughter wore jeans to the nutritionist’s office instead of her usual leggings.  She then argued with the nutritionist that her weight was up because she was wearing jeans.  Then to prove her point (to herself) when she got home she weighed the jeans and leggings to compare them.

Her obsession with calories was equally maddening.  She explains her rationale behind giving her daughter a Diet Coke instead of 100% fruit juice (because it was a zero calorie “treat”) all the while using, “I have an obese child and you don’t so don’t judge me” as an excuse for her actions.  I’m not judging anyone but calories aside I have a difficult time believing that if my child needed to lose weight I would hand them a Diet Coke.

I was very disappointed in the lack of nutritional teaching that this family received.  They did not like the nutrition doctor (for legitimate reasons) and decided after a few months to continue on this journey on their own.  I really wish someone had sat down with them and discussed clean eating and intuitive eating and maybe worked on a psychological level with this child to help her work through her food issues.  Never once was counseling ever mentioned.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, Dara-Lynn shared about making her seven year old wake up, pee and weigh herself naked every single morning.  I began to feel a deep sadness for this child.  I know that I can not fully understand Dara-Lynn’s journey with her daughter.  My daughters are not obese or even overweight.  However, given my history of food and scale issues, I would hope that if I were in that situation I would not become so consumed with the number on a scale that I resort to such things.  This child, at seven years old, was doing things that I obsess about at 35 years old.  Things that I never want my children to do (i.e. weighing themselves multiple times a day).  I can only imagine the damage this has done to that child who will likely spend a lifetime struggling with her weight and who could very likely develop an eating disorder.
I thought in the end that somehow the author would get enlightened to the difference in eating healthily and dieting but alas that did not happen.  Bea reached her (mother’s) weight goal and then gained a few pounds back.  And thus the ending was just the beginning of a lifetime of yo-yo dieting.
If you’ve read the book or the Vogue article, what is your reaction?  Would you put your daughter on a “diet”?

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Heavy by Dara-Lynn Weiss

  1. 7 is way to young to have any one on a diet (male or female). from what i understand around here letters are sent home from school (either your child is too heavy or too light) followed by multiple callings into the nurses offices for surprise weigh ins (my friends little sister was on the too skinny end, and was questioned about her eating habits). one of my old co workers secretly put her daughter on a diet after she got one of these letters, the switching out bottled water for her juice in her lunch and SURPRISE!! remember those roller skating lessons, we signed you up. LOL. so secretly getting her to exercise and switching up a few snacks at home helped out.

    1. I agree! I can see being more focused on healthy eating but not counting calories. Even if you are counting them yourself–I wouldn’t mention it to the child. I don’t know how I feel about the weigh ins at school. I once helped the school nurse do that and I just thought–so what is the school doing with the numbers? Is it really their business? Shouldn’t that be left up to the pediatricians? I think one problem is a lot of doctors are scared to talk to moms about it because let’s face it, we moms get uber defensive when it comes to our kids.

      I really am torn on this. I get so sad when I see overweight children but I am at a loss for what is the best way to help them.

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