Monday, April 22, 2013

She Ain't Heavy, She's My Daughter

One of the most interesting books I’ve read this year was “The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet, A Memoir,” by Dara-Lynn Weiss. It’s the story of how Weiss helped her nearly obese 7-year-old daughter Bea overcome her food addiction and achieve a healthy weight. With all the talk about childhood obesity, Weiss has firsthand experience with how difficult the battle is. It’s not about adding more time at recess or swapping white bread for wheat bread. Bea was an active child with healthy eating habits who did not drink soda. Weiss did not take her daughter to McDonald’s every day. Yet Bea’s body told her to eat more food than it required to run, and the excess pounds kept piling on. Most of the book is about Weiss’ struggle to help Bea control the urge to eat. In the beginning, she concentrates on making sure her daughter has plenty of healthy food and no sweets. But the weight stays on. It’s only when Weiss begins counting her daughter’s calories does the weight loss become consistent. The book ends happily – Bea achieves a normal weight and is able to control her urges when she goes off to sleep-away camp.

I found the book interesting because I’ve always thought there was a fundamental difference between people who were naturally skinny and those of us who aren’t. I remember in high school going over to a friend’s house whose mother had just baked chocolate chip cookies. The scent was overpowering. I would have eaten every single one of them if I could. My friend had half a cookie. She just wasn’t hungry, she explained. Needless to say, this friend was quite skinny, and I was not.

Weiss notes that from the time Bea was eating solid foods, she liked just about everything Weiss put in front of her, and was a charter member of the clean plate club. The girl’s eating habits were innate; she was born with a body telling her to eat more than it needed. “She complained constantly of being hungry,” Weiss writes. “She polished off adult-sized plates of food. Other kids didn’t.”

I can’t imagine what it took for someone as young as Bea to learn to ignore the messages from her body, chose healthy foods, and stop eating before she felt satiated. Except for the naturally skinny (an ever-dwindling population), these are abilities most adults don’t have. Weiss did an amazing job helping her daughter lose weight even while she was terrified she’d lead her daughter down “an unhealthy path of food obsession and body image problems.” I hope that Weiss keeps readers updated on her daughter’s progress as she grows older. Unfortunately, I doubt that she’ll do that because Weiss has been vilified by the public.

Before Weiss published the book, she and Bea were the subject of an article in Vogue. Perhaps because of the magazine’s content, perhaps because an article couldn’t capture the entire nature of Bea’s problem, Weiss was not seen as a woman who rescued her daughter from a lifetime of illness and ridicule. She was seen as a shrew who literally took candy from a baby. When the article was published, it reached far more than the Vogue readership. Excerpts appeared everywhere online, and the commentary was brutal. Weiss was a vain, self-centered New Yorker who was starving her child in order to have her conform to the “Vogue” beauty standard.

Not surprisingly, Weiss was crushed. She had helped her daughter with a serious medical issue, and she had thought she might be able to help other parents in similar situations. Instead, she was being called a monster.

I wouldn’t blame Weiss if she took Bea into hiding for the rest of her life as a result of this treatment. But it would be a shame if she did. Weiss learned so much during this process, and there is so much we can learn from her and Bea. Did the diet really enable Bea to overcome her food addiction, or did she develop some kind of amazing willpower that allowed her bypass all the desserts offered at camp? As someone who struggles with this issue every day, I want to know how she did it.

Weiss’ treatment illustrates the amazing hypocrisy there is toward the country’s obesity issues, at both the child and adult level. While child obesity levels have become alarming, Weiss’ story illustrates that the offered solutions won’t cut it. It’s not about activity levels or the content of school lunches. But pointing that out and restricting a child to an appropriate amount of calories – even a child who is obviously heavy and obviously consuming more food than she needs – is seen as harmful behavior. Yet when that child grows into an obese adult, he or she is shamed and blamed for making poor food choices. The obese, we have decided, did it to themselves.

Yet every day more and more research is published showing that humans have little control over their appetites. “Salt Sugar Fat” discusses food manufacturers’ deliberate formulas that make their products addictive. Studies of bacteria in the gut reveal that the obese carry different microbes than skinny people. Gastric bypass surgery, once seen as a last resort for the heaviest of the heavy, is shown to have an immediate, positive effect on controlling the appetite – and also plays a factor in the stomach bacteria.

Yet solutions less drastic than surgery are still few and far between. Meanwhile, every day it seems there is another article about superskinny models or mannequins or Photoshopped pictures. When two-thirds of Americans are overweight, I am not sure that the superskinny models are part of the problem. I do not see a superskinny model and eat a gallon of ice cream in response. Yes, I’m sad that my abs will never look like hers. But I know that she’s been Photoshopped and probably has a drug problem in order to cope with the fact that she’s only allowed 100 calories a day.

America has an obesity problem. And it’s not caused by videogames or school lunches or kids not walking home from school. As a nation, adults and children alike have lost touch with their innate hunger and satiety sensors. We can no longer self-regulate our appetites and are forced to use external clues, such as calorie counts and measuring cups, to tell us when to stop eating. Dara-Lynn Weiss has an important story to tell about how a young child learned to regulate her overeating. It would be a real loss if judgmental, hypocritical voices stop her from sharing this journey.

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