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Food Cop Mom makes Tiger Mother seem tame

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Funny how we once used the term "motherhood issue" to refer to something fundamental, something commonsensical, something every decent, right-thinking person would agree with.

Motherhood issues are now incredibly divisive, guaranteed to provoke outraged headlines, Internet controversies and dinner party spats.

Take the recent case of Dara-Lynn Weiss. In the April issue of Vogue, Weiss wrote a tell-all piece about putting her seven-year-old daughter on a diet. Not since Amy Chua wrote about how to raise high-achieving children has the blogosphere been so fired up about parenting. (You might remember that Chua, the self-proclaimed "Tiger Mother," motivated piano practice by threatening to burn her daughter's stuffed animals.)

Jezebel, a website that offers a feminist take on popular culture and media, immediately branded Weiss's essay "The Worst Vogue Article Ever." This is really saying something, since Vogue's last scandal involved a loathsome piece of puffery about Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian dictator. (That article actually suggested that the glamorous first lady's personal mission was to encourage young Syrians "to engage in what she calls 'active citizenship.'")

Weiss's crusade involves getting daughter, Bea, to shed 16 pounds. Not just with an "eat a little less, exercise a little more" diet, mind, but with a very strict, very public regimen in which Weiss obsessively polices her daughter's cake intake at birthday parties and makes an ugly scene over a forbidden bowl of salade nicoise at a friend's house. One night Diet Mom sends Bea to bed without dinner because the child has indulged in brie and chocolate at her elementary school's French Heritage Day. Weiss's detractors aren't denying that childhood obesity is an issue, but most of them view her article as an illustration of how NOT to deal with the problem.

While little Bea is the one who is perpetually famished, Weiss somehow makes the article all about her own pain. "It is grating to have someone constantly complaining about being hungry," she writes, that "someone" being, of course, her firstborn child.

The article's off-putting, tone-deaf quality isn't surprising, since Weiss is writing for Vogue's Shape Issue, an annual exercise in bad faith and contortionist prose in which the magazine pretends to celebrate bodies of all sizes. You know, athletic (and thin), tall (and thin), petite (and thin), curvy (but still fairly thin), and of course, thin (and thin). One wishes the magazine would just go back to its usual gorgeous, fascist fantasy and be done with it.

Weiss tells us enough that it seems clear she's projecting her own Vogue-sanctioned insecurities and self-image problems onto her daughter. She admits to begging her doctor for the appetite suppressant fen-phen, even after it was proven to cause irreversible heart defects. She concedes that every morsel of food that goes into her mouth is subjected to a tortured process of mental and emotional arithmetic.

Meanwhile, Weiss says remarkably little about what her daughter might think about the whole process. It isn't until the last paragraph that little Bea finally gets to speak with her own voice. "'That's still me,' she says of her former self. 'I'm not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.'" Her mother can't quite let that go: "I protest that indeed she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past."

But it's hard to let the past go when it's also the subject of a future book. Weiss got a publishing deal out of the Vogue article, with Random House planning to release a memoir titled The Heavy. (Get it? The Heavy? ) Random House seems confident that Weiss's experience as a Food Cop is a modern "motherhood issue," that people will understand, maybe even sympathize with what the publisher calls a "damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't" situation.

For most commentators, however, it's just damned if you do, and extra-damned if you decide to write about it in an extremely public forum, starting a cyber-trail that will follow your already traumatized child around forever.

I'm pretty sure that in 15 years or so, young Bea could have a book deal, too -- a tell-all memoir about her fraught relationship with food, and with her mother.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 G6

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