By the time Julie Pearson’s older son was 7 years old, he was 35 pounds heavier than any other child in his class. It was not a question of eating badly. His mother, who is five-nine and weighs 135 pounds, went to yoga three times a week, didn’t keep cookies or chips in the house, and was big on healthy eating. So was his father, a network-television reporter who spent his lunch hour at the gym. The problem, Pearson initially diagnosed, was her son’s own activity level, or lack thereof. He loved video games and was passionate about computers, and after school liked nothing better than to chill out in front of the family iMac. If Pearson or her husband were home from work early, they would encourage him to do something else, even if it meant an inevitable fight, or, in the summer when it was still light, try to take him to the park. “We’ve always lived near a park in the city because I know kids have to be run like dogs twice a day,” says Julie, “both for their health and energy levels.” But during the cold winter months, it was hard to persuade the nanny—who was overweight herself—to take him outside. “Most of the nanny pool I knew came from warmer climes, and they hated the cold,” says Pearson, who worked long hours as a television executive. The nanny also fed him supper during the week, which Pearson says she felt mildly anxious about. But as she rarely left work before 6 p.m., it seemed the best option.
Then she had what she thought was a brain wave. She hired a young male nanny instead.
“It was like a big-brother thing, and my son was the envy of the playground,” Pearson says. He played tag and ball and didn’t seem to notice the cold, and the two of them hiked through Central and Riverside parks. What Pearson hadn’t anticipated, however, was that the nanny, a healthy young man in his early twenties, had an appetite to match. When the games were over for the day, he cooked himself an enormous meal. “Well, my son started eating the same huge portions,” she says. Before long, he had gained twenty pounds. Pearson pauses and laughs ruefully. “You never know when you are going to get sabotaged.”
By the time her son turned 13, he was six feet tall and weighed 240 pounds.
When Pearson gave birth to her second son—ten years younger than his brother—she was determined that he would not have the same weight issues. She even made a deal with her older boy: He was not allowed to bad-mouth vegetables in front of his sibling. “He could never say yuck and refuse them at dinner,” she says. “He had to put them on his plate.” But despite her efforts, “I was watching him blow up right before my eyes. It was unbelievable. I always thought my kids would be like me,” she says. “I was a beanpole. I thought I was going to have skinny kids. But instead I had these hunky chunkies.”
On top of everything else perfectionist New York parents worry about, from getting their kids into the right nursery school (or any nursery school, for that matter) to keeping them safe from Internet predators, there is a new anxiety trumping them all—fear of fat. There’s nothing new about adolescent weight wars: moms trying to keep their teenage daughters from holing up in their rooms and inhaling a pint of Ben & Jerry’s; for younger kids, the age-old struggle to limit their intake of sweets and to ration those desperately desired visits to McDonald’s. But now the obsession starts practically at birth, as parents pore over the height-and-weight percentiles for their infants and toddlers. Baby fat, traditionally the signifier of healthy growth and development, is suddenly the enemy, a potential harbinger of childhood weight problems. The fear of fat has grown into a social phobia that’s driving New York parents to new and occasionally bizarre behavior.
This anxiety has several components. First, it is a legitimate medical concern—childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions. In May, a survey by the city’s Health and Education departments discovered that nearly half of New York’s school-age children are either overweight or obese.
Though the solutions may initially seem obvious—less fast food and more exercise—they are not easy to implement, and the standards about what constitutes a healthy diet are in almost complete disarray. First the enemy was sugar, then it was fat, now it’s carbs—if not all of the above. And parents whose own eating habits have careened wildly as each new diet claims the high ground (Zone! Atkins! South Beach!) are at a loss as to how to apply their regimens to their children. No wonder pediatricians’ phones have been ringing off the hook and schools are getting calls from parents begging them for help. Emily Holt, head of the lower school at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, an independent school on the Upper West Side, has gotten so many pleas from parents this semester to cut out pasta in school lunches that she invited a consulting pediatrician, Celia Ores, to address parents’ food concerns. “Adults shouldn’t necessarily have pasta every day, but a child needs energy in a different way,” says Holt. “Our third-graders were doing a project where they each got a chance to wear a pedometer to see how many steps they took in a day. One child traveled over three miles.”