A couple of years ago, Dara-Lynn Weiss set out to do something that health experts have urged millions of American moms and dads to do: help her obese child lose weight.
At nearly 4 feet 5 and 93 pounds, then-7-year-old Bea would hardly rate a second-glance from Jerry Springer. But her pediatrician declared she was in the 98th percentile for weight related to height, placing her within the definition of pediatric obesity.
On a physician-approved diet closely (and I mean closely) monitored by Mom, Bea peeled off 16 pounds and grew more than an inch over the course of a year, landing her at a healthy weight. Weiss — with her daughter's approval — reported their experience last year in Vogue magazine, accompanied by glamorous photos.
Whatever applause there might have been, however, was drowned out by fury. Columnists and bloggers around the world accused Weiss of numerous offenses, such as being "the worst mother in the world.''
They thought the diet was too strict for such a young child. They criticized Weiss for "publicly shaming'' Bea by sometimes declining rich desserts. They predicted Bea would develop eating disorders and hate her mother.
Even the doctor who provided the Weiss family with Bea's diet got into the brawl, complaining the child didn't stick with the weekly weigh-ins at her office.
Now Weiss has dusted herself off and turned the experience into a book, The Heavy — A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet. It's in stores starting Tuesday. I received an advance copy among the annual onslaught of diet-related books, and it stands out from the pack.
More than a third of American children now are considered overweight or obese. The childhood obesity rate more than tripled in 30 years. The White House has declared the epidemic a national priority. The Biggest Loser is putting obese kids on prime-time TV, though apparently with far more sensitivity than the grownups get.
But what I hadn't heard until now is a detailed account of a parent watching a beloved child become obese, despite careful guidance, healthy foods and opportunities to be active.
I would not have expected to sympathize with a woman who would take a half-finished hot chocolate away from her child when she found out that it had far more calories than the store advertised.
And I cringed at her weekly panic over her daughter's weigh-ins. How could she help but communicate that angst to her child?
Yet I was touched by her obvious love for Bea and little brother David, who has neither a weight problem nor his sister's drive to consume extra portions. How the family handled the fallout from the Vogue article — and why the book omits photos of Bea — is compelling.
Weiss, in fact, may be her own biggest critic. You might second-guess this mother's methods, but you wouldn't be raising doubts she hasn't already considered.
She clearly admires her daughter, and not just for losing weight. Bea "had the maturity and foresight to understand that the sacrifices she has to make now have a long-term payoff, and that's not something a parent can take for granted in a child so young,'' she writes.
Actually, it's not something to take for granted in a person of any age.
Above all, Weiss makes it clear that parenting is not for wimps. Bea lost weight only when her mother was vigilant and even strident. Unauthorized snacks here or there, a few days with Grandma, and the scale would go up.
I don't know whether Weiss' methods are appropriate for everyone, or even if they were appropriate for Bea. I suppose Weiss will figure out how well she did as a mom in years to come, just like everybody else.
Meanwhile, her experience could be helpful to families battling obesity, if only for the assurance that it really is as tough as it seems. The Heavy also might enlighten individuals — and I think we all know a few — who simply cannot understand why anyone would "let'' their child get fat.
Weiss' book is not a diet manual for the Nickelodeon set. It is a memoir about imperfect but loving parenting, which may be all any of us can expect.