The Women of the Internets are once again in an outrage. Not over the Right Wing’s unveiled and egregious effort to bring female reproductive rights straight back to the Stone Age but rather seemingly every last female with a license to click is in an uproar over Dara-Lynn Weiss getting a book deal. Her controversial piece in April’s Vogue magazine chronicles the variously well-meaning and self serving, occasionally cruel-seeming, attempts to get her seven-year-old daughter to lose weight after a diagnosis of obesity. Listen, I get it: a lot of what this woman does is unquestionably wrong. Shaming a child at all is certainly a very destructive way to parent, much less doing so, as Weiss admits to on a number of occasions, in public. Combining her misguided tactics with a young child’s early physical and emotional development cannot be underestimated in its potential to wreak long term havoc in terms of the relationship with body image and food she will inherit. But let me assure you, an honest confession of a mother’s battle with her own screwed-up psyche vis a vis how to healthfully parent her child in terms of eating is FAR less dangerous than the insidious, constantly conflicting messages young girls are slammed with every moment of every day from the minute they can see. I can also promise you the pages of Vogue magazine itself, each glossy, underweight-model, airbrushed-movie-star filled one of them is a thousand times more damaging to a girl’s developing self-esteem than one soul-baring essay by a mother who fully acknowledges she has made many poor judgments borne of her own body pathologies in trying to steer her child to a healthy weight.
I was born in the early seventies and mothered by a loving and highly educated feminist who entreated me 3 meals a day to EAT and who did not permit me to play with Barbie dolls. None of that prevented me from waging a daily (sometimes hourly) private war against my body beginning at puberty and lasting for… a very very long time. Once I went to sleep-away camp the summer before my freshman year of high school, I was suddenly in control of all my own food intake for the first time in my life and I happily chose a diet which consisted almost entirely of toast with jam and butter and salad drizzled with French dressing for 30 days straight. I wasn’t actually trying to lose weight then, despite the fact that my pediatrician kindly suggested at my annual check-up somewhere towards the end of 8th grade that I would be healthier if I lost a few pounds. His cautioning sensibly arrived at a point when, it should be mentioned, my friends and my favorite afternoon activity was eating vast quantities of highly fattening food. Walking home from school to one of our parent-free apartments, street hot dogs heaped with onions were often followed up by bowlfuls of Kraft mac & cheese, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream by the pint, David’s Cookies or funnel cake in between prank calls and watching Eight Is Enough and all before dinner. No, the toast and salad at camp was really just the only food in the cavernous hormone-filled dining hall that appealed to me that summer but between it and tons of daily exercise I returned home to the glowing approval of family and friends who commented extensively on my weight loss.
Once back in Manhattan, in ninth grade at my competitive prep school and armed with the continuously reinforced knowledge that I apparently now looked much more appealing to everyone, I logically and quite purposefully cut out the other two meals no one was any longer insisting I eat entirely. For the duration of my high school career I maybe ingested food before 5 p.m. (waking up every day by 7 a.m., mind you) a dozen times a year. At that point in time I’d won my fair share of sports trophies, held office in student government, had even been published nationally as a writer, but what really held currency for us girls was whether the Older Boys would notice us and somewhere in there it became clear that depended entirely on what we looked like.
So, nothing empowered me more than the control I held over my continuing weight loss. Nothing made me feel happier that when an angry man yelled out of his car: “Get out of the way, you skinny bitch!” as I distractedly crossed the street one rainy day. I’m not kidding. To this day, despite enormous amounts of work around the issue, (and, indeed, now in my late thirties, I consider my relationship to my body and food generally much healthier) if someone tells me I look too thin, although I am fully aware they don’t intend it as a compliment, I quietly celebrate. Here’s the thing: I know this is true for the vast majority of my women friends, all of whom are highly intelligent, emotionally sophisticated creatures. By the time I had graduated from high school every single one of my girlfriends had done time with some version of an eating disorder. The spectrum was wide-ranging. There was the daughter of a family-run design house dynasty (who ironically enough was always commonly agreed to be our class’s most beautiful girl, long before she ever got so sick) who returned from dance camp one Fall completely emaciated. J. wound up having to leave school entirely, was extensively hospitalized and though many years later she eventually recovered emotionally, her body has never fully come back from the abuse she heaped upon it. On the other end was a very athletic friend who never stopped eating entirely (as each of the rest of us did at various points in time) but who exercised herself to injury and complete exhaustion.
With the clarion call to stop the self-hating madness that so many of us young women took the 1991 publication of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth to be, I set off to college where, like at camp, I was once again wholly responsible for feeding myself, along with everything else. Whatever amount of competitive non-eating I had to that point engaged in at the Manhattan private school level was nothing compared to the Olympic heights I would reach by the end of my senior year at Vassar. This was the big league. Women out-numbered men at our small school 70/30 and each one seemed more attractive and accomplished then the next. One of my clearest memories from our first year there is of my stunning, whip smart and lithe-bodied dancer friend from Cincinnati yelling after me as I ran to the bathroom, sickened by the amount of birthday cake I’d just inhaled after a day’s starvation in anticipation of it: Amanda, you have a problem! Two years later that same exquisitely gifted young black woman, raised, for the record, by deeply supportive parents who are teachers by trade and who only ever taught her self-love, would starve herself down to the point that she could fit loosely into the tiny jeans of her best friend, who was literally eight inches shorter than she was and naturally stick thin. I have neither read the books nor seen the movie, but I can safely say: Katniss had nothing on us Vassar girls when it came to Hunger Games.
All of this personal history is not fun to admit nor is it to publicly relate, but it is, I think, important to say: female hate of self, of our physical being-ness runs so thickly and so deep throughout our history as a culture, it is perhaps all too easy to blame one woman’s honest conveyance of her truth for it. I think heaping scorn and judgment on the candid revelations of Dara-Lynn Weiss does an extreme disservice to the reality, however, that is far more complicated and nuanced.
As noted, my own mother is a highly educated, exceptionally well-read, talented and very beautiful woman. I know she did everything she could to raise me to love myself and enjoy all of life’s healthy pleasures. But, having me at the young, arguably emotionally underdeveloped age of 26, how could she be fully aware of the truth and its implications that is children absorb everything they see and hear around them? How could she realize that I would integrate not only knowledge of her own odd food habits (a common pastime in my household was, at her direction, hiding the peanut butter so she would not eat the entire jar in one sitting — a strange point of contact with Weiss who herself required the offending Skippy be locked away) but also the unmistakable truth that she, despite everyone saying it all the time, did not seem to believe she was beautiful. Though she may have offered it lightheartedly, I understood the implied gravity of her explaining once, why it took at least forty-five minutes for us to ever be able to leave the house, because she would never go outside without makeup, as you just can’t know who you might run into. Perhaps a far more revealing and ultimately dire instruction came later in my life when she matter-of-factly stated that she’d never let a man see her without makeup until she was sure he was in love with her.
Regardless of whether I was hungry or liked the food, meals as a young child seemed to be often interminable battles of attrition, as I was not allowed to leave the table until I had taken in what whichever adult sat with me deemed the appropriate amount. Again, this quantity had nothing to do with what my body wanted or desired. I understand it, of course, and believe it is typical: kids have to eat to to be nourished, to grow, and it’s their care-givers responsibility to see that this happens, just as it is their obligation to give them medicine when they’re sick and comfort when they are in pain. But even the best intentioned among us may be setting a kid up for a lifetime of issues around eating by forcibly disconnecting hunger and satiety from the actual food they are consuming, whether it is insisting they eat more, less, or not at all at certain times given a health-endangering weight problem as the case may be. So how is a mother like Dara-Lynn Weiss, who grew up deep amidst an intractable seeming culture of female self-hatred, supposed to navigate the emotional and physical minefields which must come with a doctor-delivered diagnosis of obesity (one currently ascribed to 17 percent of American children, triple the amount of 30 years ago) for her seven-year-old little girl? My niece, who has grown up in Los Angeles, asked me when she was seven years old if I thought she was sexy. That she did not really know what the word meant was irrelevant because she knew the answer to the question bore on the value of her self-worth. Twenty years after The Beauty Myth, things are obviously not better, but worse, for our girls.
Is it really so shocking and unforgivable, therefore, that Weiss makes poor judgments and fails in various ways to guide her daughter to a place of healthy self-love when it is her task to be the shepherd of that child’s weight loss? Can you find no compassion for her story in which she at the end reveals being well aware her actions may have harmed her child’s relationship with weight and food irretrievably for life? Really, Internet Ladies? Are you sure you have your own emotional issues, whatever they are, so well in hand that you are perfectly confident you’ll steer your children to optimum well-being as adults without them ever falling into the traps of your own deeply entrenched self sabotage? If so then you obviously hold the secret not only to perfect parenting but also to life itself, and it’s you who deserves the book deal.