Each April, Vogue puts out its “shape” issue. This year’s shape issue, with the buxom Jennifer Lopez on the cover in a tight red gown, has drawn more ire than previous shape issues, all of which profess to celebrate women of varying body types — something that’s seldom noticeable in any issue of Vogue. The piece drawing the backlash is Dara-Lynn Weiss’s first-person essay about trying to get her daughter to lose weight after a doctor found her to be clinically obese. Meanwhile, women who have experienced this firsthand describe to me how psychologically damaging it can be, and how overcoming the resulting body-image issues is a decades-long challenge.
In the story, Weiss writes about forbidding 7-year-old Bea to eat a nicoise salad because it had an olive oil-based dressing on it; throwing a Starbucks hot chocolate in the trash and storming out the door because the barista couldn’t provide the calorie count; depriving her daughter dinner after she enjoyed filet mignon, bri, bread, and chocolate for French Heritage day at school; and putting the girl on a Weight Watchers-esque diet for kids, called Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right; engaging in “heated” discussions in public with her daughter when she wanted to eat cookies and cake. But within a year, Bea lost 16 pounds, grew two inches, and and was rewarded by Mom with new dresses, and a Vogue photo shoot. If only those could begin to outweigh (no pun intended) the far-reaching negative psychological effects Bea is likely to experience because of how her mom addressed her weight.
“Your mother is someone you look to to feel validated,” says body image expert Dr. Robyn Silverman, author of Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It. She adds that the stigma of “fat” or “overweight” in society today is hard enough for children:
If someone’s gleaning from society that their body is less accepted than somebody else’s you would hope your mother values your worth. When your mother is essentially siding with society that something’s wrong with you, girls don’t have a safe haven to go to when they’re home. You’re being watched and that creates a lot of self consciousness; and the message the girl is receiving quite widely is that when you’re overweight, “I’m going to be on you and you’re going to need me to take over for you because you’re unable to take care of yourself.” And when you’re thin, you’re going to get a lot of accolades and, "I’m going to put you in Vogue and I’m going to cheer you on and be proud of you." That can backfire.
One 30-year-old woman I spoke to, whose mother criticized her food choices and called her fat her whole life, says:
As far as body image goes, I think I just didn't know what to do in terms of weight. Like, I definitely felt self-conscious all my life, and it made me shy away from [romantic] relationships, because I always felt too fat. For the longest time. But I don't know if that was her or me.
Another 23-year-old, who says she’s a size four and currently on a diet because she “always wanted to be really skinny,” grew up with thin parents and a mom who was always visibly concerned with her own weight:
I remember my mom saying, “Do I look thin?” from really, really young. I don’t think she ever put me on a diet, but she would always be watching what I ate or be commenting on it. Still, to this day, if I go for the bread basket, she’ll give me a look and it’s really embarrassing and makes me feel like a child. It just makes you feel terrible about yourself.
When I was really young, in high school, my mom was very, very happy when I was thin. I was great when I was thin, which was just hard because your mother’s judging you, how you look and everything. If from a young age your mother is proud of you when you're thinner than this stays with you.
You have to try as hard as you can not to make it a huge part of your life, and also learn how to eat normally because that’s something that people who have regular eating habits and don’t think food is a big deal — I’m just like wow, that is amazing. Knowing how to eat when you’re hungry and not eat after that is something I will forever want to do.
Brittany Gibbons, 30, founded the website Curvy Girl Guide to help girls value themselves more than their weight. Her parents also struggle with their weight and she believes they were “trying to save me that same misery. But,” she adds, “it backfired. I would eat in my closet and hide candy wrappers under my bed.” Overcoming her body issues was a huge hurdle:
I think the smallest I ever was was a size 12, but my freshman year of college I was bulimic and I lost tons of weight, and that was great but I still hated myself. That wasn’t the answer.
When Gibbons had her third child — her first daughter — she let her body image baggage go.
I realized that every time I was getting dressed I had this audience of little ears all around me, and I realized I had to stop [the cycle of self-loathing] not just for me but for them.
Dr. Silverman encourages mothers not to fixate on their kids’ weight, but overall health. She said Weiss’s great mistake was, well, not only putting Bea on a restrictive diet, but also not teaching her about what health means — that certain foods are healthier than others, that she should get an hour of exercise a day, and that she should find healthy ways to manage stress. If, after the daughter learns what a healthy lifestyle is and makes it her own, she’s still overweight, then that’s fine.
Moms who obsess over their weight, Silverman’s research and studies show, often pass the same body-image issues on to their daughters. Weiss admits in the story to taking laxatives to lose weight as a teenager, writing, “Who was I to teach a little girl how to maintain a healthy weight and body image?”
For starters, she should not express her own frustrations to her little girl. “You confide in your friend, your mother,” Silverman suggests. “To have a discussion with your daughter about your weight insecurities — no I don’t think that’s a great idea. This is not your friend, this is your daughter.”