Home > rant > Parents: don’t put your kid on a diet

Parents: don’t put your kid on a diet

March 31, 2012

Yesterday I read this article about a mother, Dara-Lynn, who put her daughter Bea on a diet, tiger-mom style, and then triumphantly wrote about it in Vogue, and more recently got a book deal. This brings up lots of stuff for me personally, and I think it’s time for me to write about it.

First of all, I would like to address the issue of why people care so much about parenting issues in the first place. I mean, I guess if you aren’t a parent and don’t plan to be one, this doesn’t matter quite as much (even though you of course were yourself parented, so it should still be somewhat relevant).

My message is basically, don’t dismiss parenting discussions- they expose who we are and what we aspire to be as human beings. Questions of how we parent and what values we choose to impose on our children, who are of course vulnerable to such things, are question of how we individually form and inform culture, creating a tiny piece of the larger culture inside our homes. As parents we want to both affect that culture and prepare our children for the larger world, and it’s a tricky balance.

So given that, what values are we imposing on our kids when we put them on a diet? I can infer that somewhat from the article but I can also speak from personal experience, because my parents put me on a diet when I was 10. My parents set up system whereby I’d be punished (by losing my allowance) if I didn’t lose at least a certain amount of weight each week. They also explained to me how calories worked. That’s it. They let me loose with that information and ultimatum. (ooh, just remembered: the reward for losing 5 pounds was, ironically, a candy bar.)

It was a little strange, in retrospect, for a few reasons. First, I had been chubby since soon after birth. My parents are both and were both chubby. My grandmother lived with us off and on and constantly hoarded bags of candy and fed them to us constantly while watching soap operas. My older brother was also somewhat chubby. In spite of this, I was the only person on this regimen, and nothing else about our eating habits changed besides that I was expected to keep track of the calories I ate- the food itself was still hamburgers, boiled vegatables, and spaghetti with butter.

I guess this may have been my first experience dealing first-hand with a misleading, pseudo-quantitative model. I was told by my parents that losing weight was a simple concept of calories in and calories out, and thus must be simple to deal with. I was honestly too young to question this, and to also question why they hadn’t achieved their perfect weights if it was so simple.

Now, to the question of values. From my perspective as a kid, the values I learned were the following:

  1. I am terrible at following simple directions, because I can’t seem to control my eating,
  2. I don’t look good to other people, and
  3. it’s really important to look good to other people.

All in all, a pretty nasty set of values that I carried around with me like a sin for years, until something else happened, which I will get back to soon.

You might say that the article with Dara-Lynn and Bea is completely different, because first of all the mother wasn’t offhand in planning her daughter’s diet: she lived and breathed the control that she thought was required to get her daughter to lose weight. Also, it was a “success,” in that Bea lost the weight her mother set out for her. Even so, I see parallels for Bea’s received wisdom from her mother:

  1. You have to submit entirely to someone else (me, your mother) because you can’t be trusted to follow your instincts,
  2. You didn’t look good to other people, and
  3. it’s really important to look good to other people.

But I do feel sorry for her on top of what I went through, because now her mom is not only in a national magazine bragging about her control over her kids, she’s also gotten a book deal to go into the details of this control freakiness. Because it’s all about how a mother can foster good eating habits in her kid. I guess.

If there was any justice in the world, it would be Bea getting the book deal, in advance, to describe what it’s like to live with such a control freak mother. I honestly wish her luck.

A few concluding remarks. First of all, if you were wondering when the nerdy stuff was coming, here it is: there’s enormous selection bias going on. For every mother you hear about who drags their kids kicking and screaming through a diet, there are hundreds of poor kids who ended up like me, with failed enforced diets and incredibly guilty consciences (but at least no pictures in Vogue of their shame). We don’t hear about them, of course, because nobody wants to.

Next, although Bea is a “success story” now, I’m pretty well versed in statistics on teenage dieting and I’m anticipating lots of terrible experiences for the daughters of the women who will buy this book. A generation of girls who are ashamed and self-conscious.

Finally, how I got over my shame. It was mostly a coping mechanism. I went into a hospital when I was in 10th grade, with deep feelings of depression, and missed a few weeks of school. It was a critical moment for me, and I knew it. I had to decide whether to be depressed and passive for the rest of my life or whether to try to live life on my own terms. I basically decided to take on the following “anti-values” in order to obviate the terrible self-image I harbored at that time. I came up with these three anti-values, which I still live by:

  1. I forgive myself for not being good at controlling myself, because I love my body, even parts of it that confound me,
  2. I look good to myself, and
  3. it’s not that important to look good to other people.

Probably not stuff for a book deal, but at least it’s kept me from giving my kids eating disorders.

Categories: rant
  1. elaine
    March 31, 2012 at 11:32 am

    I would read that book. I think a whole lot of struggling young women would too.

  2. March 31, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Your last three anti-values apply as well to something else we can’t seem to adequately control—”getting old.” I’ve actually heard “she’s not taking care of herself” to mean—not that her toenails are now five inches long, or that she hasn’t bathed in a week—but that she’s not getting a facelift she could afford. So yes, you’re allowed to grow old as long as you don’t show it and, god knows, embarrass us and even scare us with any evidence of human mortality.

    • March 31, 2012 at 12:22 pm

      Great point, and one that has occurred to me more and more lately. Thank you.

  3. Leila Schneps
    March 31, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Oh my God – I know this woman!!! At least, I’ve never met her, but I am really close friends with her mother-in-law, who was my Hebrew professor at Harvard – she’s talked to me about her grandkids since the day they were born! It has to be the same person, how many people are called Dara-Lynn Weiss? It’s so funny, my friend used to describe to me how Dara had no idea how to cook anything, so when her husband would invite over his European artist and actor friends, she would serve them cupcakes on her kids’ paper plates decorated with pictures of this little cartoon girl, Dora…

    I also remember hearing (to my astonishment) that the little girl was accepted into a school for genius prodigies somewhere in New York city, and was studying incredibly long days and learning Mandarin Chinese at age 5. There was a big family tempest when her 1-year-younger brother didn’t get into that school because, oh horror, the admissions committee said he was “immature”…at 4 !!!

    It’s funny, the tiger-mom says in her book that Western parents are laxist and let our kids play computers and visit friends instead of enforcing more education in all that free time. But I also often here that American parents are hunched over their kids, concentrating on their education every second and trying to get them ready for Harvard at age 3. It sounds contradictory, somehow. But maybe New York city is just a weird microcosm?

    • March 31, 2012 at 7:54 pm

      Leila,

      Can you come live with me for three weeks? I feel like we’d have awesome conversations while our kids run around like crazy and enjoy their lives.

      Love,
      Cathy

  4. Bertie
    March 31, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    Another wonderful blog entry, I hope this one also gets published in Vogue.

    • March 31, 2012 at 7:55 pm

      Bertie,

      Thanks! This one hurt a bit but I’m glad I wrote it.

      Cathy

  5. John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt
    March 31, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Typo: paragraph 5 regiment-> regimen

  6. JSE
    April 1, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    What I wonder is: are the people buying the “you’re not parenting strictly enough” books and the people buying the “you’re not parenting leniently enough” books the same people?

  7. Leila
    April 2, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Cathy, I’d love to spend a vacation together! It would be so great…Where do you spend your summers? When do you take your Paris vacations??

    In answer to JSE’s question, yes I think it’s the same parents who buy all these books, desperately trying to figure out where they’re going wrong or what they could do better (or maybe, in some cases, how they might be able to do something similar and cash in on the fashion).

  8. Becky Jaffe
    April 5, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Thank you for this brave post, Cathy. Your values are just so subversively reasonable. You might be interested in blogging again on this topic on October 17th, which is Love Your Body Day, sponsored by the National Organization for Women: http://www.now.org/news/blogs/index.php/sayit/2011/10/19/lybd-blog-carnival-posts

    That’s right: one day a year. The rest of the year we can indulge in exquisite self-loathing.

  9. April 7, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Cathy,

    Thanks so much for writing this post on a math-focused blog. I work with people on mental health and queer stuff, and I’m also a math student, and most of the time the conversations I have and the things people care about in these groups seem so different. It’s so refreshing to see them come together, publicly, for someone else too.

    Katie Banks

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