The Heavy: Why I put my seven-year-old on a diet

Find out what drove this mother to put her young daughter on a strict diet. Read this excerpt from her controversial memoir, “The Heavy.”

Dara-Lynn Weiss 0

Book Design: Elizabeth A.D. Eno

Three years old and gaining

It was during the year after Bea turned three that our little girl started to bulk up. With her increased age came additional opportunities for urban exploration and socializing, and with that, exposure to previously unseen cuisines, including junk food.

The first time I ordered Bea her own meal at a restaurant, I was pleasantly taken aback by how voraciously she ate. Fried chicken with peas and potatoes, it was. She pincer-grasped those peas and fed them into her little mouth with tremendous patience, and chewed up more of the chicken than I would have expected for someone so small.

At birthday parties, she sucked juice boxes dry, ate every morsel of the pizza and cake, and enthusiastically consumed whatever candy happened to be in her goody bag. I wasn’t bothered by it but did notice that the other little guests didn’t do the same. Every block in our neighborhood seemed to feature a cupcake shop, a smoothie joint, a pizza place, or a hot-pretzel vendor, and as we walked, Bea peppered me with entreaties for snacks. Her brother didn’t. She loved all foods, including dishes that I found inedibly spicy (chicken with hot peppers) or weird (grilled octopus). She complained constantly of being hungry. She polished off adult-size plates of food. Other kids didn’t.

Comparing her growth chart to that of her brother, I see that between the ages of two and six, David gained about five pounds each year, and Bea put on an average of twice that amount. At her checkup when she turned three, her weight was in the 99th percentile. A year earlier, it had been in the 75th-to-90th percentile range. Something was changing.

At a conference with me at Bea’s preschool that year, one of her teachers gently sounded an alarm about her eating. “She doesn’t self-regulate,” she noted. In the classroom, there was a snack table, a dress-up area, an art studio, a writing center, a library, a blocks-building section, and a music station. Guess where Bea spent most of her class time? She’d start off at the snack table and stay there long after her classmates had moved on to other activities. Though she would eventually join them, she’d make frequent stops back at the food for additional nibbles throughout the class period.

Ten pounds a year between the ages of three and six is a noticeable rate of weight gain. At first we saw this merely as a transition from being a slim toddler to being a slightly chunky one. There were other kids who, like her, were carrying around a bit of baby fat. It was sort of cute. Definitely not a big deal.

We also didn’t really spend a lot of time worrying about it because, frankly, we were too busy enjoying other aspects of Bea and David. Since they were both healthy, we paid much more attention to their emotional development than their weight.

Concern at four

Bea grew bigger still. She occasionally skipped entire clothing sizes. Jeff pointed out that the size-5 wardrobe I’d been dressing her in when she was four was unbecomingly tight. By the time I brought home a bunch of size-6 replacements, it was too late: she’d out- grown them, too. By the end of that year, she was wearing clothes meant for eight-year-olds. We started having to shorten the legs of jeans meant for much older (and taller) girls so they’d fit her.

I realized this was one of those situations where our response to her behavior, rather than the innate behavior she exhibited, was going to be the determining factor in this issue. But, afraid to send her down an unhealthy path of food obsession and body image problems, I kept my mouth shut. If there was any chance that Bea’s weight might not end up being an issue for her physically, I didn’t want to make it one psychologically.

But aside from the obvious health problems associated with being overweight, I worried about the emotional implications of letting Bea stay heavy. Were we going to let our daughter be the fat kid in the class? Would her schoolmates tease her? Would she start to hate how she looked? Might she be ostracized in the lunch- room or at recess? What if she grew into an obese adult, as half of overweight six- to eleven-year-olds do? Would her social life suffer? Her self-esteem? Her job prospects? Her potential life span?

I wanted Bea to feel good about herself and her body, but was preaching this kind of self-acceptance wrong if she was actually overweight? Should I teach her to be comfortable with a body that the rest of society disdains, that the medical community cautioned against, and that her father and I personally tried to avoid?

I still held out hope that this was a passing phase that wouldn’t require any major action on our part. In light of Bea’s appetite, I was careful to make sure the foods she did have access to were nutritious. She could finish a pint of grape tomatoes or an entire small melon for a snack, so I could only imagine what kind of damage she could do to herself if I’d instead handed her Cheetos or Chips Ahoy cookies.

At that point in Bea’s childhood, junk food was not unheard of, but it was still pretty rare. I wouldn’t have dreamed of giving a four- or five-year-old kid soda. We almost never ate at fast-food restaurants — maybe once or twice a year. I doled out the kids’ Halloween candy haul parsimoniously and raised my voice sharply at grandparents who attempted to sneak them an extra share of dessert at a restaurant. Not because of Bea’s weight, but because I felt those were good, healthy habits that I should try to instill in my kids at a young age. No crappy food, no overeating, moderation. Obvious.

Holding steady at five

When Bea was five and her weight once again barely fell within the confines of the top of the medical chart, her pediatrician still was not overly concerned. She hoped (as I so desperately did) that the problem would work itself out, that Bea would hit some kind of growth spurt that would eliminate the problem naturally. Bea was also tall, so while her weight was in a high percentile, so was her height. Her annual weight gain, while significant, was staying constant year after year. Her problem wasn’t getting better, but it also wasn’t getting worse.

The pediatrician waved away the need for any major intervention at that time. She urged us to avoid desserts and sugary drinks. But I knew that wasn’t the culprit. We fed Bea nutritious food, and she was no less active than lots of kids her age. Though no athlete, Bea walked around town, played in the playground like everyone else, and took dance class every week. We confirmed that she had no metabolic or other medical problem causing her weight gain. She just plain ate too much.

Confronting reality at six

When Bea was a happy, productive first grader, our adult friends began to acknowledge her weight. “You just can’t let her eat like that,” one outspoken member of our extended family said. “Get rid of all the processed food in your house,” advised my co-worker at the time. “You should get her to exercise more,” ventured a mom of one of Bea’s classmates. Not that we’d asked. Bea was catching on to the fact that she was starting to look different from other kids. One afternoon, as we were heading out to a family get-together, I found her in my bathroom putting on my lip gloss. “So people won’t look at my belly,” she explained. Her words cut me to the core. I don’t like people looking at my belly either, but I’m in my forties. I hadn’t even been aware of my stomach as a potential source of shame until I was years older than Bea. To see her feeling embarrassed about her tummy at such a young age seemed like a premature loss of innocence.

Sometimes, as we cuddled in bed or when she’d get dressed, she’d say, “I’m fat.” It seemed disingenuous to contradict her, but unthinkable to agree with her. So I’d dodge. “You’re beautiful and healthy. You’re growing. You don’t have to worry about being fat.”

But secretly, I was, increasingly, worried. I asked myself how much of my concern over the superficial, physical aspects of her being overweight was a result of my own ego or vanity. Was I afraid she made me look like a bad mother? Did I worry that other moms thought I was overly lax? Unconcerned with her health? Neglectful? Lazy?

On the flip side, if I tried to put a stop to her patterns, would people think I was overreacting and not giving her time to grow out of her heaviness naturally? I didn’t know when the “right” time was to declare war on a child’s weight, but I thought age six definitely seemed premature. (Apparently not: a college friend who works in the medical community later confided that when she saw my family that year, with my husband’s weight at an all-time high and Bea seemingly following in his footsteps, she was worried. She felt our decision to help Bea did not come a moment too soon.)

So, sure, I wondered what other moms thought about me, and how they might judge my actions or inaction. But I was much more concerned about the judgments Bea herself would be subjected to. I wanted to protect her from the problems inherent in growing up as a “fat girl.” I knew people were beginning to view her that way — it was impossible not to — and that their associations with that label were almost always negative. It saddened me to think that people were looking at Bea with anything other than the awe and admiration I felt she deserved.

No matter her weight, I could not love Bea more. And when her belly swelled under a bathing suit or peeked out prominently under her pajama top, my only inclination was to want to kiss it. No weight gain or loss was going to change my opinion of her. Yet while I know a fat Bea would be just as amazing as a thinner Bea, I worried about other people regarding her differently, treating her differently because of her weight. I didn’t want people thinking of her as the “fat girl” throughout her childhood. Or ever.

*Excerpt of “The Heavy,” Chapter One pp. 10-16, courtesy of Ballantine Books.

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