By Amy Hackworth. Illustration by Norman Rockwell.
Vogue writer Dara-Lynn Weiss was fiercely criticized last year when she wrote a piece for Vogue’s “Shape” issue about putting her overweight 7-year-old daughter on a one-year diet. The idea of helping an overweight child become healthier wasn’t the crux of the criticism. Rather, it was Weiss’s approach that drew the fire—things like withholding food, heated public debates about what her daughter was allowed to eat, and what sounds like a pretty serious power struggle all the way around.
But Weiss’s pediatrician was concerned about the 7-year-old’s weight (93 pounds, 4’4” tall), and Weiss saw both the health risks and the social challenges that lay ahead, so she put her daughter on a weight loss program. Health risks, body image, self-worth, and societal acceptance are only a few of the complications of a childhood diet, and the portrayal of Weiss and her daughter is that the emotional cost may have been higher than the physical benefits.
Hers is not the approach I would have chosen, but I’ve never been in her shoes, and although it’s tempting to criticize her, I’m reluctant. Whatever my reaction to her story, the only real value for my family and me is if it helps us refine, or define, our stance on health and body image.
How do we teach our children the importance of health in way that’s…healthy? We can safely start with healthy eating habits and exercise, but too much pressure leads to confusion and attendant questions of self-worth. The focus can so easily shift from making healthy choices to emphasizing the way we look, or the promise of how we’ll feel about ourselves once we’ve reached a certain size. Then we buy into the illusion that being a certain weight will bring happiness, allure or power. It’s the most deceptive and repulsive message in modern media. So when does the attention shift from health to looks, and how can we protect children, especially girls, from it?
Beauty Redefined authors Lindsey and Lexie Kite offer an amazing list of suggestions that invite readers to “recognize and reject harmful ideals about beauty and health.” One of my favorites of their suggestions is to talk to little girls about more than how adorable they are. We’re all—little girls included—so much more than how we look, the Kite sisters claim.
Will we believe them?
P.S. — So many great links to share! Rejoice in Janell Burley Hoffman’s wisdom when her daughter complained about her weight. Watch model Cameron Russell discuss the interesting dynamics of being physically beautiful and the artificial construction of media beauty. Assess your family’s health aptitude and look through a few suggestions for talking to children about weight loss. Weiss’s new memoir is available now, and she’s interviewed here.
I’m eager to hear your thoughts! Have you ever helped a child lose weight? How are you helping your children (and yourself) develop a healthy body image?