Recently Weight Watchers announced plans to offer a free six-week program to teenagers aged 13-17 this coming summer.
As someone who made four trips to Weight Watchers before the age of 18, then seven more up until 38, I have thoughts on this topic.
Part of me wants to believe that Weight Watchers had good intentions and didn’t just gather around the table brainstorming ways to capture the next generation of Watchers of Weight. Yet there is no getting around it. Weight Watchers is a big corporation seeking a big profit, and their business model depends on repeat customers. They believe the children are the future.
You may be asking, what’s the big deal? Aren’t Weight Watchers just trying to help kids be healthy? What’s wrong with that, eh?
This tweet echoed my thoughts:
Not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder, but almost everyone who has an eating disorder has been on a diet. Dieting, over evaluation of body, & wt talk are biggest risk factors in ED development. @WeightWatchers #WakeUpWeightWatchers
— Laura Thomas, Ph.D. (@laurathomasphd) February 10, 2018
And this one:
— Fiona Sutherland APD, RYT (@FionaBodyPosAus) February 10, 2018
I’m not a health professional, so my thoughts are purely those of a teenage WW frequent flyer.
I want to stress that this was my experience and that dieting with Weight Watchers was just one factor in a jolly cocktail of things that shaped that experience.
Like so many folks I’ve met who have eating disorders or disordered eating, I first went to Weight Watchers as a young teen accompanied by a well-intentioned parent. I have nothing but understanding and compassion for their decision. This was the 90s and the diet culture was all-pervasive. Weight Watchers was seen as The Sensible Option.
Here is what I learned from teenage dieting:
How to spend every waking moment thinking about food, either with full focus or as an anxious background rumbling.
How to mistrust my own appetite and worry about every mouthful.
How to eat less without anyone noticing. How to eat more without anyone noticing. How to quietly open the freezer in the middle of the night to steal cookies.
How to stop eating after Monday recess because Monday night was weigh-in. How not to drink anything either, even in an Aussie summer. How to eat and eat and eat after weigh-in then start again on Tuesday morning. How to stew on my Failure all week long if the number was Bad.
How to dread or completely avoid school trips and birthdays and slumber parties because they were dens of temptation and I wouldn’t know what I was allowed to eat so I wouldn’t eat much. How to not concentrate on conversations because I was too busy counting the remaining pieces of pizza and wondering if I could sneak one after everyone was asleep.
How to say no to social occasions, pool parties, sports teams, hobbies and big opportunities (hello exchange year in Japan) because I was so ashamed of my body and would do anything to avoid letting people see it move.
How to be with my friends but never really be there.
Once I went off to university with unfettered access to food, the binge/restrict cycle kicked into a much higher gear. Almost annually I’d slink back to Weight Watchers, full of remorse. I’d always been a dedicated student so it irritated the hell out of me that I’d still not aced the programme, despite having tried since I was ten. It was a Sensible Plan! Pills and shakes and grapefruit plans were the crazy stuff, this was just common sense! Clearly I wasn’t working hard enough.
So as an adult I’d rock up with my pencils freshly sharpened, determined to finally score the elusive Lifetime Membership card and WIN at weight loss, dagnabbit!
Of course there was that one time I managed to stick at it for a good few years and lose a great deal of weight. It took a further ten years of lurching up and down the scale to finally appreciate that dieting was not helpful and that maybe I needed to dive a wee bit deeper.
There was one final trip to Weight Watchers, at Inverness in 2015. I lasted one meeting. They demonstrated how to measure a cup of dried pasta and every fibre of my being finally screamed, Abort mission!
I want to reiterate that this was my experience as a teenager and Weight Watchers was only one piece of the puzzle. I also appreciate that some people find Weight Watchers et al to be very helpful for them. But this post is not about those people.
I’ve read so much research about the link between dieting and the development of eating disorders and the long term effects of weight cycling that I can’t ignore the evidence.
Also, as someone who wrote about the pursuit of weight loss publicly for a long period, I want to be open about the reality of my experience over the years.
Two weeks ago I sat in a room full of dieticians and psychologists who were doing a professional training workshop here at Green Mountain at Fox Run, where I’m currently staying to work on my binge eating. Weight Watchers was the hot topic du jour and it was exciting to hear such passionate conversation.
It was also heartening to hear them talk about their work and how they’re embracing new ideas to help people beyond the scale. There are more troops on the ground, which is great because the overwhelming majority of teenagers won’t grow up to have the privilege and resources to go somewhere like Green Mountain if they find themselves struggling with an eating disorder.
Apparently Weight Watchers are now reconsidering their plans in response to the #WakeUpWeightWatchers wave of protest from health professionals on social media. I am curious to hear what this new plan will entail. Dudes, if you need some ideas… step one: change your name!
Again, I’m not a health professional. I can only think of what would have been helpful to hear as a kid, and what I wish we could help kids everywhere today hear too. That humans come in many shapes and sizes. That your body is smart and can actually tell you when it’s hungry and when it’s done, no app required. That a clunky piece of metal cannot dictate your worth. That there is joy to be found in food and movement. That your young, still-growing body is not a problem.