They called her the "Diet Mom"—and plenty worse.
One German headline labeled Dara-Lynn Weiss "Monster-Mutter No. 1," another called her a "maternal travesty," and others yet described her as a revolting, selfish socialite.
Indeed, Weiss's essay in Vogue last April, detailing her effort to get her 7-year-old daughter, Bea, to lose weight, sparked public outrage and a nationwide debate. Critics accused her of selling her daughter out to boost her writing career and setting the girl up for a lifetime of eating issues. In her new book The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet, Weiss describes what she learned about childhood obesity, how she knows she did the right thing for her daughter, and what she calls "imperfect parenting."
"I knew people were going to take issue with certain aspects of my approach," says Weiss, a freelance writer who lives in New York. "But very loud voices were telling me I had done wrong by my child. It was horrific, and the things I was hearing became preposterous. I never made my daughter feel bad about how she looked or what she weighed. I made it clear there was a medical issue around her weight that we needed to address."
In The Heavy, Weiss flashes back to the pediatrician's office, where 7-year-old Bea had checked in at 4 feet 4 inches tall and 93 pounds. That's about 30 pounds more than she should have weighed. Despite a year of inconsistent effort—portion control and subtle lifestyle changes—Bea had gained 23 pounds, and her blood pressure was 124 over 80, up from 100 over 68 a year before. She was no longer simply overweight. She was obese. Although Weiss and the pediatrician had been discussing Bea's escalating weight at their annual appointments for half of Bea's life, it hadn't become clear until that point that serious intervention was necessary.
So Weiss put her 7-year-old daughter on a diet. Specifically, a calorie-counting plan, coupled with weekly weigh-ins at a nutritionist's office. The entire Weiss family—Dara-Lynn and her husband, and Bea and her younger brother—embarked on the same pediatrician-recommended program, albeit at different calorie levels. "I liked that it was about quantity, and we could decide how to allocate the calories," Weiss says. "It had to be done in a healthful way, but nothing was off limits—no food groups were removed. It made a lot of sense to us."
Indeed, the Weiss home remained stocked with processed treats and snacks, a major point of contention among her critics. She had gone from a mom who insisted on organic produce to one who offered prepackaged foods. Weiss acknowledges the "ironic twist." But she defends such items as a way to keep Bea, who mainly subsisted on home-cooked meals, from feeling deprived. Once or twice a day, Bea dug into a 100-calorie pack of muffins or yogurt-covered pretzels and downed a diet soda. Those treats kept her motivated, Weiss says, and OK with eating balanced meals the rest of the time.
Still, policing the diet wasn't easy. Weiss quickly realized how many forces stood in her way, from school birthday parties and lunches to other parents and restaurant meals. Bea's classroom, for example, celebrated 48 student birthdays, which meant 48 cupcakes at 300 calories a piece—or 14,400 extra calories each year. And Weiss describes a family meal at a friend's home, when the hostess insisted Bea eat a salad drenched with dressing, even after Weiss said no, it was too unhealthy.
Weiss learned she had to be "the heavy," holding the line firmly and consistently. That meant, for example, calling Bea's teacher to see what kind of treats would be served on Valentine's Day, and asking parents what they'd be serving at their child's birthday party, so she could calculate impact. She also requested that Bea's summer camp assign someone to accompany her daughter through the cafeteria line each day. "It required a lot of vigilance," Weiss says. "People thought I was crazy, and I just had to accept that. Not everyone is willing to go through the time and inconvenience and embarrassment I did. It's incredibly unpleasant."
Some of the most painful moments stemmed from other parents who accused Weiss of "fat-shaming" Bea. At a birthday party, for example, she would tell Bea she could have either a cupcake or a slice of cake, not both. She's only a child once, some parents said—she'll grow out of her chubbiness. Let her have another cupcake! "People reacted awkwardly to these kinds of public conversations," Weiss says. "Everyone thought I was shaming her or embarrassing her when I said no." But Weiss looked at it as a mother telling her daughter what to do, as she would in any other aspect of her life—instructing her when to take an aspirin or what to wear to school, for example.
And it worked: Bea, now 9, grew 2 inches and dropped 16 pounds. She's maintaining her weight and has learned to keep up her new healthy habits—on her own. Life is different now, though. Weiss and Bea once bonded over activities that revolved around food, like strolling down the New York City streets and popping into a cupcake shop. Mother and daughter still enjoy some special moments around food, but these occasions are rarer now, and perhaps even more special. And these days, quality time might mean, say, doing a craft project together.
Weiss wants other parents to understand that there's no easy solution to childhood obesity. It's hard. And there's no way to avoid the many mistakes that are bound to happen. "People say there's a right way and a wrong way," she says. "There's not. I did 10,000 things wrong on my way to doing the right thing for my daughter. I don't blame parents for being too scared to do this—it's incredibly difficult. You have to be willing to be unpopular and to fail, and just love your child enough to do your best."