Dear Dara-Lynn Weiss,
I know you have good intentions: you want to help and protect your daughter, Bea. You want to keep her healthy and safe. Moms are told, in the pages of Vogue, no less, in ads like this one from Elizabeth Arden, that an important way to be a good mother is to make sure that our daughters are “beautiful.”
And that’s not just some crazy notion. Being “beautiful” for a woman has come to mean being successful, powerful, or important; being “beautiful” in our culture means that you exist. If you are “beautiful,” there is the promise that things will happen in your life: you will have adventures, excitement, love, and admiration. If you are fat, you may as well be invisible, right? I get that. You want your daughter to be popular, you want her to have friends, you want to spare her unhappiness.
But here’s the problem. It’s all a big lie, because what’s really happening is that you’re setting Bea up for a lifetime of enduring a distorted relationship with food, you, her own body, success, competition, power, and love.
You write that as a child, you suffered through your own issues of food, eating, and weight. That you hated your body and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to change it. Even now, you write: “I have not ingested any food, looked at a restaurant menu, or been sick to the point of vomiting without silently launching a complicated mental algorithm about how it will affect my weight.”
It’s clear from your article that you have an eating disorder. You are still sick. In your NYC subculture, your behavior may even be “normal,” but it’s not healthy. You’re obsessed with food and weight. Your disease is contagious, and you’re passing it onto your daughter. The best way for you to help Bea is to stop focusing on her and start focusing on getting yourself better.
I know you have a book deal now. It’s going to be so damaging to Bea if you keep writing about her weight publicly this way. If you are really going to write that book, please consider really researching this topic. There is an excellent book called Preventing Childhood Eating Disorders by Jane Hirschmann. The whole book is about intuitive eating: letting kids eat what they want, when they want. It would be a great program for Bea. They also help adults. Jane Hirschmann is based in NYC.
You write in Vogue that when you could totally control your daughter’s eating, up until age three, she was fine. “The world of sweets and junk food from which she has been shielded, was now available to her at social gatherings and there wasn’t anything she didn’t absolutely love eating.”
When candy and sugar came into her world, all hell broke loose. But, of course it did. She’d never seen it before. All of your anxiety and control around food would make any kid want to break free.
The Hirschmann book teaches you how to do something completely different than monitoring your kid’s every mouthful. It teaches parents how to let their kids trust their own bodies. And once kids get to do this, the practice goes much deeper than trusting their bodies: it becomes about trusting their intuition, themselves, looking inward for guidance instead of outward for direction and approval.
One of the many things you worry about is Halloween: “Who’s informing parents of treats distributed on Halloween?”
What if no one is? My kids are allowed to eat candy whenever they want, all year long. Halloween is not a big deal to them. They eat a couple candies and forget about it. Candy is not forbidden to them. It is not a prize or a reward. It’s not even a dessert. I learned all of this from Hirschmann’s book, and it works so well.
Hirschmann also wrote a book for adults that I used to get better from bulimia (along with a program in San Rafael, CA called Beyond Hunger which is similar to Hirschmann’s program in NYC) I am 100% cured from my eating disorder. I am not “sick for life” as I was told I would be by so many therapists. Now I never think about food except when I’m hungry. I eat whatever I want. My weight is normal. After I had three daughters, I wanted to make sure not to pass any sickness I may not have been aware of onto them; I am bringing them up based on Hirschmann’s book, and I’ve written about this extensively on my blog.
In Vogue, you write: “And so Bea wouldn’t feel isolated with her comparatively meager lunch, I joined her, eating exactly what she did.”
Your identity is completely entwined with your daughter’s through food. What about what you want to eat? What you’re hungry for? Eating your daughter’s food and portions is not good for you; it won’t protect her or help her. It will confuse her.
You write about Bea: “Sometimes she cheated and ate what she wasn’t supposed to. And sometimes she lied about it, such as the time she assured me she’d only had one slice of pizza at school, only to confess several days later that it had been three…I once reproachfully deprived Bea of her dinner after learning that her observation of French Heritage Day at school involved nearly 800 calories…I stopped letting her enjoy Pizza Fridays when she admitted to adding a corn salad as a side dish one week…I cringe when I recall the many times I had it out with Bea over a snack given to her by a friend or a friend’s parent or caretaker… rather than direct my irritation at the caregiver I often derided Bea for not refusing the appropriate snack.”
Bea is seeking approval and love from you through what she eats and what she tells you about what she eats. She is also using food to rebel against you. This kind of behavior is dangerous, and it’s at the heart of the sickness. Her eating disorder is not about food; it’s about her relationship with you.
You write: “The struggle is not over. I don’t think it will ever be, for either of us.”
But it can be, if you get yourself better, for her, at least. You don’t need to live with your food obsession for the rest of your life.
You write (italics mine): “As a result of our amazing efforts over the past year, Bea showed up at her doctor’s office for her eight year check up sixteen pounds lighter and almost two inches taller. She is now at a healthy weight and seems to takes enormous pride in her appearance.”
Is that really an accomplishment? That she takes “enormous pride” in her appearance? She is being set up for a life of rating her success, value, and her mother’s love for her based on what she eats, what she weighs, and how she looks. Again, is Bea’s weight about Bea or about you?
You end your article with this:
For Bea, the achievement is bittersweet. When I asks her if she likes how she looks now, if she’s proud of what she’s accomplished, she says yes. We’ve celebrated with the purchase of many new dresses. And when she officially reached her goal, I took her to a salon and let her get feather hair extentsions as a reward, a trend I’d staunchly resisted. Even so, the person she used to be still weighs in her. Tears of pain filed her eyes as she reflected on her yearlong journey. ‘That’s still me,’ she said. ‘I’m not a different person because I lost sixteen pounds.’ I protest that indeed she is different. At this moment, the fat girls is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek, past the glued in feather. ‘Just because its in the past, she says, ‘doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.’
Though Bea lost weight, your obsession with that is making her unhealthy in a multitude of other ways. What would happen if you risked letting that obsession go?
Again, I know you love your daughter. I know you’ve been criticized for what you’ve done, and that it seems like everyone is always telling mothers what to do; we can’t get it right no matter what. But I’m writing you because you wrote about this publicly and from your article, it is so obvious to me, as someone who has recovered from an eating disorder and also has three daughters, what is happening. Please at least, check out the book and see what you think of it.