This month’s issue of Vogue features an essay by a mother who put her 6- year-old daughter on a Weight Watchers-style diet. My first reaction was: The Horror. The Horror. But not for the reasons you think.
I could easily make the same gaffe; I write about my children almost every week. But I read them every column in which they appear. In keeping with our agreement, I’ve killed a few columns at their request. Forbidden topics with regard to my children include dating, puberty and grades. Oh, and weight was never on the table.
Before judging Dara-Lynn Weiss even more harshly, I read her bad mommy confessional. It begins with Weiss firmly telling a well-meaning friend that her daughter Bea has already eaten her quota of the day’s calories, and she can’t have the Salad Niçoise the woman offers. Did I mention that Bea is still hungry? That she’s always hungry on her diet. But Bea’s pediatrician became concerned when Bea landed in the 99th percentile for weight. What looked like baby fat to her mother was clinically considered obesity.
Bea’s weight was not just about aesthetics for her mother. Weiss cites some very real and sobering statistics about childhood obesity. Overweight kids are courting high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. There’s also the emotional fallout of looking and feeling different than your peers that leads to low self-esteem and depression. Weiss took her daughter to a reputable doctor who designed an age-appropriate diet. That doctor has since then, corrected Weiss’s rigid portrayal and execution of “the green light red light” diet. I’m sure the doctor never intended for Weiss to hold up her hand like a cop and forbid Bea to eat anything that wasn’t on the diet. But like all parents, Weiss got frustrated. Bea felt deprived. Sometimes Weiss would scream at her daughter to stop eating so much junk. Who am I to judge? As Weiss points out, “Everyone supports the mission, but no one seems to approve of my methods.” I get it. After all, I’m the woman who left her daughter at the side of the road because I was so frazzled and fedup with her one night. But my daughter is almost 18, and Bea just turned 7. And my daughter approved that column. She even thought it was funny and shared it with her friends.
And yet amid the negative attention, Weiss makes some good points. For example, if Bea “attempted to walk through the door of [her school] with an almond in her pocket, she’d practically be swarmed by a SWAT team. But who is protecting the obese kids when 350- calorie cupcakes are handed out to the entire class on every kid’s birthday?”
I came back to some of Weiss’ points when I read an alarming article in The New York Times Magazine about “precious puberty” in which our girls are maturing at earlier ages. There are myriad contributing factors, with environmental ones high on the list. For a time, I ran my own quirky branch of the Environmental Protection Agency, purging plastic water bottles and containers, getting hysterical about pesticides and scouring Whole Foods for kosher organic chicken.
Weight was once considered to be one of the causes of precocious puberty. Pediatric endocrinologists believed in the critical-weight theory of puberty –once a girl’s body reaches a certain mass, then puberty begins. But that theory has recently shifted to something called the critical-fat theory of puberty. The idea is that fat tissue, not weight itself, sets off early maturity. More specifically, girls who are overweight have higher levels of a hormone called leptin, which can lead to early puberty. Leptin sets off a cycle that can elevate estrogen levels and affect insulin resistance, causing girls to have more fat tissue.
There’s also that vague bubble of stress floating over a girl’s life. The de rigueur research on the subject points to the salutary affects of growing up in a two-parent household. I’m also fascinated by evolutionary biology and the assertion that reproducing earlier is the result of a stressful childhood – the body’s default response to coping with a difficult life.
Evolutionary psychology aside, our girls’ bodies and psyches are so complicated, so vulnerable. There’s always low selfesteem and negative body image lurking in the background, waiting to pounce. How can parents protect their daughters?
The snarky answer is not to write about a child’s struggles with weight in a national magazine. But Weiss’ article is the exception rather than the rule. Among the best advice that I’ve read on the subject of blooming early, applies to raising girls in general. Focus on your daughter’s physical and emotional health, rather than playing food cop or attempting to slow her development. Treat your daughters appropriately for the age they are, not the age they look or want to be.
While it may seem obvious, be patient and give your daughter a heavy dose of perspective. And please, please respect her privacy. By the way, Bea lost 16 pounds and grew two inches in a year. Not that that’s anybody’s business.