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Baby Fat

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Linda, a 32-year-old physical therapist, has a daughter, Melissa, who was scrawny until she hit 4. At 6, she is now fifteen pounds larger than she should be. “I wasn’t like that,” says Linda, who exercises four days a week. “My husband wasn’t like that, my nieces aren’t like that. For a while, we just kept an eye on her. You don’t want to create an eating disorder. But kids know they are bigger.”

Especially when other kids on the playground point it out. The last straw for Linda was a birthday party for a friend of Melissa’s at a gymnasium. A group of girls were pointing at Melissa, who was wearing leggings and a T-shirt, and saying, “She’s so fat! Look at her!” “I didn’t know if she’d heard them or not,” says Linda. “She looked funny. But when I asked her if she was okay, she said she was having fun. That night, when my husband was tucking her in, he asked about the party and she started to cry. She said there were mean girls there who said she was fat. It turns out she was pretending she didn’t hear to protect me.”

After crying herself, Linda talked to Melissa’s pediatrician and hired a nutritionist. Melissa was eating properly, or at least the same way as her little brother, who was not heavy. “She wasn’t a couch potato. We weren’t sure why she was having a problem,” says Linda. They charted her eating habits, and discovered that while Melissa is a big snacker, especially when she’s at other friends’ houses, the main reason she is overweight is her body’s particular predisposition. “The fact that my son is skinny and she should be the thick one, it stinks,” says Linda with a sigh. “That’s the one thing we’re trying to accept, that this is her body type.” They have a chart on the fridge to keep track of everything she eats. When Melissa eats her veggies, she gets a gold star. After two gold stars, she can have a treat. “We go to the supermarket together, and we cook. Sometimes she’ll ask me, ‘Does this have carbs in it?’ ” Linda says with a laugh. “These are all good lessons. I just was hoping to teach them to her at 12, not 6.”

Trying to explain to a kid that his or her genetic makeup is different is a complicated battle. Susan, a real-estate broker, has a similar situation. In her case, her daughter is miniature and her son is “completely genetically different. He’d see all these kids eat all this garbage and they wouldn’t gain weight. He was a secret eater. I would find candy wrappers in his room. I tried to say, ‘Listen, you’re going to have to be really careful—look on your father’s side, look at Aunt Carol, Grandpa, look at Grandma. They’re all big. That’s just the roll of the dice.’

“You see them on a certain track, and if you could just take the weight away from them and put it on yourself and lose it yourself . . . ” She pauses. “I did right by him, I breast-fed. I was always into nutrition. I was making spelt pasta, but he would go to school and buy a bagel in the morning. All the talking in the world isn’t going to do anything, just make our relationship worse. I don’t feel like a failure,” she says. “Well, maybe just slightly.”

In a city where status is paramount, having thin kids is considered a mark of achievement, not unlike a new BMW or a classic six on Fifth Avenue. “Being overweight is an indicator to the rest of the world that they are out of control, they’re greedy,” says Dr. Joann Paley Galst, a psychologist who treats women with eating issues. “Even though that might not be the case. Whereas being thin indicates that you have self-control and willpower. And that is a very powerful feeling.”

When Linda walks down the street with Melissa, she says, “I’ve seen people looking at her and looking at me like, ‘What are you doing to your kid?’ I guess I do feel embarrassed in a way,” she says, “which makes me sick to my stomach to say. But I think it’s a reaction to people reacting to me.”

When Melissa was with a group of friends eating at an outdoor café, a complete stranger came up to the table and hissed to the mother who was with them, “How dare you give your kid French fries. Look at her!” Linda reports. “She’s lucky I wasn’t there.”

Parents criticizing—or condescending to—other parents over what they feed their kids has become a serious fault line in the preschool and elementary-school set. When Caitlin’s daughter goes to ballet, she says, everyone looks at her because she has “the biggest bum” in the class. One day, her girlfriend, who has a daughter in the same section, asked her what she was going to do. “I said, ‘What do you mean, “What am I going to do?” She’s 31⁄2—do about what?’ She said, ‘Her weight.’ This woman feeds her daughter chopped-up vegetables for dinner and sometimes lets her dip it in fat-free dip,” she says, having worked herself into a lather. “I could not care less. I feel like saying to these women: ‘You are so sick, it’s pathetic!’ ”

“It goes along with the pressure in New York to look good,” says Tanya Zuckerbrot, a nutritionist who counsels parents on this very issue. “That’s why parents buy $200 J.P. Tod’s for their kids before they can walk. The thinking goes, your child is a reflection of you.”

Some names have been changed to protect children's privacy.


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