The latest news on the street with regards to the childhood obesity epidemic revolves around an article published in the most recent issue of Vogue. In it, Dara-Lynn Weiss, a mother of a 7-year-old girl who’s been diagnosed as obese, depicts her efforts of trying to help her daughter lose weight. Jezebel called it Vogue’s “worst article ever.” Debating whether I should spend the money to support such a despicable cause, I decided to cough up the $4 to see what the hubbub was about. And I’m glad I did: because I think this may actually be one of the best articles about childhood obesity currently written.
Don’t get me wrong: When I first read the article, I was disturbed. I was saddened. I wondered how Vogue could ethically publish an essay that so vividly depicts emotional child abuse. Weiss talks about publically humiliating her daughter when the girl wants to drink a cup of hot cocoa with an undetermined amount of calories and depriving her of dinner after she ate too much at a school event. Similarly, she shows herself teaching her daughter many unhealthy ideas and habits that generally cause long-term disordered relationships with one’s body and food: engaging in physical activity only once or twice a week, depending on processed diet snack foods, obsessing over calorie counts. Worse, she teaches her daughter to believe that treating one’s body as though it will always “rebel” and tend towards obesity and thus needs to be punished accordingly. What human being who cares even slightly about health wouldn’t be appalled?
But then she ends the article with her daughter’s perspective:
“’That’s still me,’ she says of her former self. ‘I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.’ I protest that, indeed, she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek, past the glued-in feather. ‘Just because it’s in the past,’ she says, ‘doesn’t mean it didn’t’ happen.’”
At that moment, something didn’t jive with me. I set the article down. I texted a friend, complaining about how disturbing the essay was. I went and read a few other blog posts discussing the same concerns with the article that I mentioned, in further detail. The internet is up in storm about how this woman treated her daughter and probably scarred her for life.
Then I realized we’d been duped.
The point of the article is not to depict the struggles that parents of obese children face, as most bloggers seemed to gather. The point of the article is to be highly inflammatory and cause a ruckus. Plenty of magazines publish these kinds of articles to raise awareness, we just didn’t expect it from a women’s magazine that usually focuses on fashion and mostly comprised of ads.
Consider how the article is constructed: The very first scene, Weiss depicts herself denying her daughter, Bea, a salad because the girl had already eaten dinner and had too many calories, even though she’s hungry. The moment is a hook to draw the reader in, and Weiss is fully aware that her actions during it are controversial. She wants our attention.
Then, to build our trust, she develops a sober and believable backstory: She talks about childhood obesity statistics and the problems obese children face. She tells about her own struggles with weight and body image. We learn about Bea’s weight gain, her doctor’s suggestion to lose weight, Weiss’s inconsistent attempts to help Bea watch her weight, and the final decision to put Bea on a diet when Bea’s bullied at school. Already, though, we see some indications of a biased perspective on Weiss’s part, like her discussion of her own dieting history and tendency to eat ice cream for breakfast. If anything, it helps us believe her as a narrator more, since it allows us to see that she knows how their home environment caused the daughter to gain weight in the first place.
Thus, when we get to the point where she starts talking about the events of the diet, we believe this is an account of a woman who wants to explain her perspective as a parent trying to put her child on a diet. The irony is that she repeatedly points out the faults in her ways of thinking, without acknowledging that she recognizes them as faults. She mentions that Bea “threatened violence against the doctor in the waiting room every week” and “whined about being hungry and begged for food she couldn’t have.” She lists all of the different ways other parents and family members questioned her efforts. In fact, she spends significantly more time focusing on arguments against her case than arguments for her case. This disproportionate attention to the opposing viewpoints is our first major indicator that Weiss doesn’t actually want to show the difficult situation of parents of obese parents: she doesn’t sympathize with “her” viewpoint enough, or give it enough attention.
In fact, the climactic moment of Bea’s successful weight loss of 16 pounds is couched in moments depicting Weiss denying her dinner or berating her in front of friends and family for eating too much. No writer whose purpose is to create sympathy for her perspective would depict her ultimate “success” in such a blatantly negative light. Nor would she end the article on a moment of a child crying if she’s trying to show how she bettered the child’s life. Instead, she leaves us with her true point, her true purpose of the article: we need to be careful of how we treat our children, because what we teach them and how we treat them will stay with them much longer, even if we “fix” their bodies.
Which is why I applaud Vogue for publishing this article. The magazine uses its international status to bring light to a hot topic and make people discuss it more fully—because with all this dissent over Weiss’s supposed viewpoint, more people are becoming aware of and furthering the conversation about how we can effectively and empathetically help childhood obesity. Previous discussions of the topic have been limited to theoretical debate, but Weiss brings us into the life of a child undergoing these changes, so we can better see our health teachings’ possible effects. She gives us another way to talk about childhood obesity, humanizing the discussion for a more general audience. Perhaps more interesting to me, Vogue editors must have acknowledged in some way that their magazine isn’t known for cunning debate; as a result, readers wouldn’t expect nuanced argument from Weiss’s piece, thus being more likely to take it at face value, and then talked about the article more than if it had shown up in a venue better known for its innovative perspectives on cultural topics. By talking about abusing her daughter, Weiss showed us what it means to watch out for our kids’ health