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Video: Finding the best way to help obese children

TODAY books
updated 1/14/2013 3:01:12 PM ET 2013-01-14T20:01:12

Dara-Lynn Weiss caught a lot of heat last year when she wrote a Vogue article chronicling her 7-year-old daughter’s year-long struggle to lose weight. Now the calorie-counting mom is back with a memoir, “The Heavy: A mother, A Daughter, A Diet,” offering advice to moms in similar positions.

The pediatrician walked briskly into the examining room, grabbed the folder from the pocket on the door, and looked at the chart. Bea sat on the examining table in her underwear, her arms crossed over her body.

“She’s 4-foot-4 and 93 pounds,” the doctor read. Like all observations she’d made about Bea’s health during the previous seven years, this one was made matter-­of-­factly, almost breezily. But I knew what was coming.

“I need to get some help with her weight,” I said, preempting the inevitable reprobation.

“I think it’s time,” the doctor agreed.

This was a moment I’d dreaded, and now that it had arrived, my heart sank. I’d chided myself about Bea’s eating in the months leading to this annual checkup. The pediatrician and I had discussed Bea’s escalating weight at our annual appointments for half her life. A year earlier, at the pediatrician’s urging, I’d acknowledged that the problem had gone too far, and I’d promised to deal with it.


I’d tried. I’d failed miserably. In the intervening year, my little girl’s height had increased normally, while her weight had spiked a stunning 23 pounds.

Bea’s weight was now equivalent to someone my height (just under five feet four inches tall) weighing 175 pounds. Her blood pressure was 124 over 80, up from 100 over 68 a year before.

There was something about seeing those numbers written into Bea’s permanent health record that triggered something primal in me. My reaction was the same as if I’d been told Bea had a potentially fatal allergy, or diabetes. Her weight pattern was no longer a simple parenting hurdle; it was a medical crisis. Something was threatening Bea’s health, and I needed to protect her. I needed to figure out how to make the change happen.

If I can look back through time and pinpoint the moment I sat up straight and buckled down, it was then. I knew that I couldn’t let my own hang-­ups (more on those later), my parenting shortcomings (plenty of those), my fears of screwing Bea up (always, always), my concern about other people’s reactions (ingrained, hard to ignore), and the overwhelming difficulty of the task stand in the way of helping Bea become a happy, healthy child. I didn’t want my daughter to suffer the health hazards, the emotional pain, the social stigma of being overweight. The buck had to stop there. Even if Bea was only 7 years old.

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Bea was born an alert, happy, beautiful little girl. She was healthy and met every milestone of physical and intellectual development heralded in the baby books on or before schedule. My only disappointment when she was a baby was that she wasn’t a bit chunkier. The first grandchild born to my parents was my niece, at that point the single fattest baby I’d ever seen. And she was scrumptious! Giant eyes with never-­ending lashes blinking languidly onto tumescent cheeks. Her sausage-­link arms and gargantuan thighs were a total delight. We all wanted to bite her rotund belly, which no shirt seemed able to contain, and on which she rested her chubby hands with Buddha-­like calm. Then she grew into a healthy-­weight child, and her infant deliciousness was just a cute little footnote. So I’ll admit that at first I was the tiniest bit let down that Bea’s limbs didn’t wrinkle with excess adipose tissue and that her stomach was flat.

Bea had barely been around a year when her brother David was born. They were pretty easy kids. Bea in particular had a maturity and easygoing nature that made my husband, Jeff, and me suspect we were getting off easy in the parenting department. She didn’t cry much. She was a reliably good playdate. She talked in full sentences by age 2, could read books at age 3, and scored in the very top percentiles of every test we subjected her to for the purposes of kindergarten admission.

TODAY Moms: Putting 7-year-old on a diet: Responsible or reprehensible?

At home, her unabashed goofiness—­often exhibited in improvised dances and high-­volume singing—­made her little brother laugh so hard he’d nearly choke. She was game for anything and would get excited about even mundane activities such as drugstore shopping or pushing someone’s baby in a stroller. Basically, she is a better child than I deserve, a fact my mother jokingly reminds me of constantly.

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I was quick to deflect any implication from other people that our parenting had much to do with any of our children’s accomplishments. When someone asked what Jeff and I did to get Bea to sit quietly at a dinner table at age 2, or for David to learn how to send emails at age 3, I would assure them we hadn’t “done” anything. “They just came out this way,” I’d say.

The differences between David’s personality and temperament and Bea’s further disabused me of any notion that our nurture had much to do with how they were inclined to act. My husband and I were, after all, parenting them both the same way (or trying to), and though they were both awesome, there were marked differences.

For example, Bea would instantly learn the words and movements to a song in music class, while David would spend that time tinkering with the technology, figuring out how to work (and blast) the stereo system. Her weakness was bossiness, his was short-­temperedness. They were both sensitive and loving, but her affection took the form of a generalized fondness for people, whereas his was a very focused and fiery passion. She preferred playing with boys, while his best friends were girls.

When it came to food, both were good eaters but, again, different. David had clear ideas about what he wanted. A less diplomatic way to say this: he had (has) very precise, narrow tastes in food that, while fortunately incorporating all food groups, were (are still) dauntingly specific. While Bea would happily eat whatever we fed her, David had to have one of the exact vegetables he would tolerate (broccoli, carrots, corn, or Brussels sprouts), one of the two proteins he liked (chicken or beef), and definitely lots of pasta. He would rather starve than eat something he didn’t like.

Right or wrong, early on I adopted the theory that kids’ essential natures were basically imprinted on them at birth. Sure, somewhere deep in my heart I sometimes took secret credit during proud moments, and also wondered smugly if other kids’ misbehavior—­a classmate’s inability to share, a friend’s uncontrollable temper tantrum—­were the results of mistakes in their upbringing. Judging someone’s parenting is all too easy.

Excerpted from THE HEAVY by Dara-Lynn Weiss. Copyright © 2013 by Dara-Lynn Weiss. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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