Remember when Dara-Lynn Weiss wrote about putting her overweight 7-year-old daughter, Bea, on a diet in last April’s issue of Vogue? In the event that you do not, Ms. Weiss provides a handy refresher in her new book The Heavy, which hits shelves this week. “All hell broke loose when the Vogue article came out,” Ms. Weiss writes. “From the reaction in the blogosphere, you would have thought that I maimed my daughter.”
Ms. Weiss thought that the article would generate a little mommy-blog buzz, but of course, Vogue has a slightly wider reach than that. And in this case, the punishment was not just the ire of the Internet, but also a swift book deal with Ballantine. Now, just 10 months later, The Heavy is here in hardcover.
Some of the memoir is devoted to Ms. Weiss’s own struggles with the scale, but it is young Bea who remains the star. A Starbucks hot chocolate gets yanked from the girl’s eager hand and thrown out when the barista adds an unauthorized dollop of whipped cream, and a salade Niçoise that a well-meaning friend offers the still-hungry child is the topic of labored deliberation (all that oil!). Weigh-ins become a morning ritual (pee, clothes off, weigh self, Ms. Weiss tells her daughter) that dictate the Weisses’ day. Ms. Weiss calculates and recalculates Bea’s BMI (if she just grows an inch, then maybe she can lose less weight). French Heritage Day means that la fille a mangé 800 calories—half her day’s intake! French women might not get fat, but overweight New York girls will.
Ms. Weiss forgoes organic treats in her daughter’s lunchbox in favor of low-calorie processed ones, raising eyebrows on the playground. But a scoop of Cool Whip Free only has 7.5 calories. When a friend points out that a substance that lists corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil and high fructose corn syrup as the main ingredients can’t be the answer, Ms. Weiss reluctantly gives up the miracle topping.
Along the way, Ms. Weiss, who is a freelance producer, pitches her boss on “a program for people with overweight kids that demonstrates how to make normal, family-friendly recipes that are actually low-calorie!”
The pitch did not go over well.
“As a producer, I would never make a show that used the word diet and children in the same breath,” the producer said. The producer’s normal-person reaction caught Ms. Weiss off-guard.
“The comments stung a little bit, Ms. Weiss writes. “I suddenly lost a bit of confidence in my insistence on owning those terms.”
Ms. Weiss’s confidence may have been shaken, but not for long. When a writer friend suggests that she chronicle her experience, she jumps at the chance.
“Yes, after six months of helping my daughter lose weight with moderate success, I felt I was ready to share with the world my personal solution to childhood obesity,” writes Ms. Weiss. “The more I talked about it, the more excited I got.”
The writer friend called her agent, and Ms. Weiss whipped up a proposal. The agent helped Ms. Weiss turn the proposal into a memoir and then shared it with a Vogue editor.
“And just like that, the editor suggested I write a piece for the magazine,” Ms. Weiss recounts.
“I had never written an article for a magazine before, but even in my inexperience, I was aware of the considerable irony in writing about weight in a magazine that glorifies an unhealthy standard of female thinness.”
Ms. Weiss ran the article by her young daughter for approval. Bea liked the idea but wasn’t initially sure she wanted to be in the accompanying photo spread. Later, after Ms. Weiss reconsidered the assignment, Bea did an about-face and became wildly enthusiastic. Then Ms. Weiss did what any normal New York mom would do—she sought professional help. A trusted therapist encouraged Ms. Weiss to write the piece, and the then as-yet-unsold book, but told Ms. Weiss that Bea should not be photographed for the story.
But the child was adamant. Ms. Weiss saw it as a reward for shedding the excess pounds, and so she let Bea get all dolled up for the shoot.
She now regrets this decision.
“Whatever excuses I might make in defense of my decision to let Bea pose for Vogue are irrelevant,” she writes. “In retrospect, it was not the right choice.”
Still, Ms. Weiss was unprepared for the maelstrom that ensued.
“I felt physically sick. I had written an unsparingly honest article that I’d thought people could relate to,” she writes. “But apparently I had inadvertently outed myself as a selfish, cruel mother. It wasn’t as if I’d been misrepresented or misquoted. I had written the article myself.”
And now, Ms. Weiss has written the book herself. Someday, young Bea will have a very comprehensive record of her prepubescent struggle with her weight. Should come in handy when it’s time to share it with a (hopefully different) trusted therapist. Now that’s heavy.