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.”
As parents’ anxieties intensify, an industry has sprung up to address the problem—from personal trainers who specialize in workouts for 5-year-olds to child-friendly nutritionists who make house calls and teach kids how to navigate a bar mitzvah buffet, to ZoneChefs for kids, a delivery service that cooks up Sloppy Joes with a specific ratio of carbs to fat to protein.
Parental requests can get extreme. “Every other week, I get calls from parents asking if we have pre-Pilates for 2-year-olds,” says Dr. Howard Sichel of Power Pilates. His response: He laughs.
Then there are the social concerns. Kids are tuned in earlier and earlier to the notion that fat is undesirable—could it be all those pop tartlets on TV in teeny tube tops?—and parents fret accordingly about negative self-image and potential ridicule for a kid whose ribs don’t show. “Nobody wants to have loser kids. Your kid is going to be ostracized if they’re fat, and you don’t want your kid to go through that,” says a mother of a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old. “In New York, it’s even tougher because there is such a premium placed on being fit and glamorous and there’s nothing less in style than being fat.”
In a sense, a child’s waistline has become a public indicator of parental success or failure. Many embarrassed moms and dads ask themselves, and their shrinks, what does my kid’s weight say about me? “It’s a black mark against you as a parent,” the mother of two says. “You could have a kid who has horrible behavior problems, but at least that’s not apparent on the Christmas card.”
“No one wants to have loser kids,” says a mother of two. “Your kid is going to be ostracized if he’s fat.”
To any working parent wrestling with the fat issue, it can feel as if a New York life conspires against his or her best efforts. The Pearsons are certainly not the only ones who delegate their kids’ evening meals to a nanny. “Family dinners have become almost historical,” says Natalie Garfield, a psychotherapist with a speciality in early-childhood development. “Often, one or both parents work late and aren’t home to monitor their kid’s supper or emphasize eating well by preparing a healthy meal together.” Plus, if neither you nor the nanny can face cooking, there’s the tantalizingly easy prospect of takeout delivered faster than you can steam a head of broccoli or grill a salmon fillet on the George Foreman.
Then there’s the fact that kids, cooped up in co-ops without yards, have a shortage of play space, which accounts for parents forking out thousands to keep them moving at places like Jodi’s Gym or Asphalt Green, but this only goes so far. When kids are at home, the computer games and the TV, rife with snazzy ads for the latest sugar cereal and candy bars, are magnetic forces adults must struggle to overcome. (Having a television in the bedroom is a strong predictor of being overweight even for preschool-age children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.)
“Sometimes you feel like you are fighting the tide, and you can’t hold it back on your own,” says a weary Upper West Side mom with two boys under 5 who are both thin, though she still worries. “There is a huge system designed to make them eat junk food—just look at the movie-and-McDonald’s marketing tie-ins. I mean, thank God for pizza! At least it’s healthier than those awful McNuggets.”
In the basement of All Souls church on Lexington and 80th, two rows of 5-year-olds have just finished a set of sun salutations and are hovering in push-up position over their blue yoga mats. “Who’s going to show me a baby cobra?” asks their instructor, Tara Stein. To a chorus of “Me! Me! Me! Me!” they drop to the floor. “Strong bodies!” says Stein, who holds the pose with them. “Now, let’s see aaaaaa … mommy cobra!” They straighten their tiny arms and look up to the ceiling, backs arched.
When Stein began teaching classes last August, she figured parents would sign their kids up to relax them and keep them occupied after school. And some do. But the majority, including most from this particular Monday group, confess that their real motivation for shelling out the $325 for ten sessions is managing their kids’ weight. In this group of six girls— some wearing yoga pants, some wearing lipstick—and one very rambunctious boy, body types are already clearly defined. There is a rail-thin ectomorph, a thicker, apple-shaped mesomorph, and a few who are a step past doughy. “Parents call me up and say, ‘I’ve heard about your program,’ ” says Stein, who has a 19-month-old son herself. “ ‘I noticed my friend’s daughter is really looking great.’ ” Her classes are fully booked through summer.
An even bigger surprise for Stein than parents’ weight fixation was just how much the subject is on the minds of her young charges. The 5-year-olds regularly talk about the size of their arm muscles and “six-packs” of abs. With years to go before puberty, skinny girls strut around in sport bras. During class, if the ones with baby fat reach up to the ceiling in tree pose and slightly expose their tummies, they immediately pull their shirts down, embarrassed. A few weeks ago, when the kids were practicing a partner pose Stein calls “clown car”—one kid balances on another’s back—“the girl on the ground complained about the other, ‘I can’t hold her, she’s too heavy!,’ ” says Stein. “I said, ‘No, you can hold her“you can hold me if you do it right.’ When the girl who was doing the balancing fell off again, she got up and said, sadly, ‘I guess I am too heavy.’ ”
While yoga is now an option for 5-year-olds, calorie counting can start at any age. “You’ll have a kid at 4 months who plots at the 90th percentile for weight, and the parents will say, ‘Are they eating too much? Are they eating too much?,’ ” says Bruce Brovender, a pediatrician. “They’ll decrease the formula, try all different kinds of things to lower the amount of calories that are going into their child. They’ll push more water.”
Many thirtysomething parents are part of what Natalie Garfield, the nutritionist, calls “the anorexic generation.” “That was their epidemic for the most part,” she says. “For them, having a child who’s overweight is even more difficult.” Garfield has worked with parents who have tried to limit the intake of babies as young as 3 weeks. “I’ll see a mother breast-feeding who will say, ‘Oh, that was enough,’ and stop the feeding! Babies know when it’s enough; you don’t need to take a bottle or a breast out of a baby’s mouth. But women who are geared toward limiting their own consumption limit their babies’. If you call them on it, in a nice way, they can’t believe that they did that. They can’t believe themselves.”
When kids get old enough for solid food, depriving them of sweets is a popular strategy that can often backfire. Caitlin, 36, a housewife with two kids, tells of a friend who doesn’t let her 3-year-old daughter eat any sugar whatsoever and has essentially invented her own version of Baby Atkins. “Whenever her daughter would see something sweet, she’d lose it, just be crazy,” says Caitlin. “We were in Central Park one day, and we couldn’t find her daughter. Then I found her behind a rock. She’d found broken cookies and was eating them off the ground. I pulled my friend over, and I said, ‘You look at me. Either you want to pay for therapy bills now or you give her sugar when she wants it. Limit it, but give it to her, for God’s sake!’ ”
The recent campaign against carbs is particularly alarming to parents, since children seem naturally inclined to be the biggest carbo loaders in existence. But nutritionists say the mistake here is thinking that kids are simply mini-adults.
“Carbs are not bad guys,” says nutritionist Dr. Carol Forman Helerstein. “Children need carbs to help their brains grow and to give them energy. You don’t want to do an Atkins with kids—ever!” The carbs they should be eating, however, are not the Cocoa Puffs or Pringles variety but rather fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads and pastas, which have hefty doses of nutrients and fiber and less sugar.
Putting kids on “fat-free” diets is another mistake Helerstein sees a lot. This runs the risk of depriving them of “good” fats like omega-3 oils. What Helerstein recommends for kids is a Zone-like ratio of 40 percent carbs, 30 percent fats, and 30 percent protein. “There are only three ways to take in a calorie: through a protein, a carb, or a fat. When parents say ‘Take my child off carbs,’ it’s a very simplistic approach,” she says.
Parents are becoming increasingly fixated on what their children are fed at school, even though these meals account for a small fraction of their diet. Administrators are responding in various ways. At Chapin, the East Side girls’ school, Cynthia Pegler, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent eating disorders, has been called in to address food concerns for the parents of second-graders.
At Trevor Day School, in the East Eighties, administrators have swapped sugar-laden cookies at morning snack for baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, and mini-pretzels, and the lunchtime menu is available for parental approval on the school’s Website. At St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s, when a parent requested hummus and red peppers for the 4-year-olds, staff put it on the menu but “could not convince the children to touch it.” When they tried placing the hot vegetable of the day directly on the trays of the junior kindergartners, disaster struck. “This one little boy who was 5 burst into tears. Hysterical tears,” says St. Hilda’s Holt. “He said, ‘I hate peas! I just hate peas!’ We told him it was okay, that he didn’t have to eat them. But knowing he didn’t have to eat them didn’t make him feel any better. Now, that was a fairly extreme reaction,” says Holt, who is not going to try that tactic again. “But there’s no reason to make a child cry over this. We don’t want to make eating an ‘issue.’ ”
But all this effort by parents and teachers can be easily subverted by enterprising children. Pearson would pack her older son a healthy lunch for school that she eventually learned he would promptly trade for the calorie-laden feast of a skinny classmate, whose own mother was trying to beef him up. Meanwhile, Pearson’s younger son would trade his friendship for Fruit Roll-Ups.
For parents who are overweight themselves, or who have struggled with their weight in the past, the slightest uptick in the size of their children is taken as a sign that they’re on the same painful track. One father, with a teenage son who weighs 210 pounds, describes himself as a “compulsive overeater” and estimates he’s gained and lost more than 700 pounds in his lifetime. What kills him is watching his son struggle with his eating in the same way as he did. “Normally, a man wraps a towel around his waist when he comes out of the shower,” he says. “My son started wrapping a towel around his armpits when he was 11.”
Sometimes, says Pegler, the kids appear to be handling their weight issues better than their parents do. “The weight is not necessarily affecting the kid, but the parents are the ones with the anxiety,” she says. One mother who was 35 pounds overweight as a child cringes at the thought of the dressing-room brawls she and her preteen daughter have. “She wants to wear all the things the other kids wear. She’ll put something on, and it won’t close right or under the arms it would pucker. I’d say, ‘Why don’t we try the next size?’ She’d say, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
Shopping for jeans produced the most fireworks. “I remember lying down on my bed with Gloria Vanderbilts and trying to pull them up,” says the mom with a sigh. “Now they make everything with Lycra. You can get it on, but that doesn’t mean it looks right.”
The trickiest part is when parents have a distorted body-image problem of their own, one that goes way beyond chronic dieting to how they actually see their own kids’ bodies. “There are times,” says Dr. Richard Kowal, a nutritionist, “when a mother comes in and I have to turn her away because her daughter is normal weight. It goes without saying that mothers in this city are in terrific shape. They’re slim,” he says. “And they are hypersensitive.”
As Helerstein says, “We all hand our kids our own baggage very efficiently.”
Kids are overweight for many reasons. Like adults, some eat too much because they are bored or depressed. Another cause, says Helerstein, is stress, which she says can stimulate the production of insulin. “And more insulin,” she says, “causes more body fat.”
“I had a young girl whose mother worked in a medical office,” says Helerstein. “She was always getting on this girl’s case about eating. The kid was a nervous maniac because of this nutsy mother. All she was doing was making the kid heavier. First of all, she wanted to rebel, and her way of rebelling was to eat incorrectly. And the kid was under so much stress, which made her heavier, too.”
The most highly charged scenario, however, may be when kids are overweight because of their own genetics, even though their parents and siblings are thin. “Just because parents are skinny doesn’t mean that their genetics are skinny,” says Brovender.
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.