New Weight Watchers Program Encourages Eating Disorders in Kids Ages 8-17
How doing Weight Watchers as a kid led me to disordered eating.
I was 8 years old when I started my first ever diet, Weight Watchers. Before I had finished growing or hit puberty, I was already trying to make myself smaller. This sparked a long journey of crash dieting, disordered eating, starvation, and body dysmorphia. My parents were only doing what they thought was best, guided by the poor advice of a medical professional. If you are familiar with my story, then you know that they had already lost one daughter at this point. I think my changing body was a reminder of my mortality to them. I think we were all existing in a system that preyed upon this fear. I already had so much of my childhood taken away from me through the trauma of losing my little sister. Diet culture was right there to swoop in and take what little childhood I had left.
You can understand my concern, or rather rage when I hear that Weight Watchers is rolling out a new program for kids just as young as I was. This program teaches kids to meticulously calculate everything they consume and exercise. It moralizes food using a “traffic-light” system. It encourages kids to compare their bodies to others using before-and-after photos. This is a breeding ground for eating disorders. This program is unsafe, manipulative, and predatory. During puberty, girls grow about 10 inches and gain 40-50lbs, and boys about 12 inches and 50-60 pounds (Source). If kids are losing weight at this time, it's usually a sign that something is wrong. This program isn’t about getting kids “healthy”. If it was they would know how detrimental encouraging kids to pursue weight loss can be:
This is what the National Eating Disorder Association had to say about the app:
Don’t believe them? This is my lived experience. Starting Weight Watchers at 8 years old had a long term effect on my health, both mental and physical. I know many will dismiss having low-self esteem as a detriment to one’s health, despite the evidence that it is, but feeling uncomfortable in my body lead me to avoid physical activities. Moving my body became a punishment for being the wrong shape. It was something I did to control my weight and earn the right to eat and be loved. Feeling like I was not worthy of love and attention unless I changed my body led me to stay in toxic relationships/friendships later in my youth and blaming myself when people treated me poorly. I have tried just about every diet fad under the sun. Dieting this young without a doubt in my mind drove me to disordered eating behaviors later in my youth and into adulthood. Trying to control my weight in this way has also led me to weight cycling, which may have been more of a detriment to my health than my size when I was 8.
Weight Watchers is all too familiar with weight cycling, though. It’s their entire business model. Just see what former finance director had to say about the program:
This is not about health. For Weight Watchers, this is about money. It’s a marketing strategy similar to when cigarette ads marketed to teens. Get them hooked while they are young, and you have a customer for life. Weight Watchers is a successful business, not because they have found the secret to helping people lose weight, but because their customers keep coming back. I want to be clear for a moment that I am not anti-people who are on or have done Weight Watchers. If you are one of the small percentages of people who have found success on this program, I am not here to attack you. My problem is a program, that only works a small percentage of the time, preying on the fears of children and parents to profit off of a problem that they end up perpetuating or possibly creating themselves. Parents, please don’t put your kid on this program. I know a 23-year old with no kids is the last person you want to hear advice from, but listen to what these professionals have to say:
If you want to learn how to help your kids have a healthy relationship with food, I have heard many parents and professionals recommend Ellyn Satter's work. You can also check out The Full Bloom Project. Also, consider looking into Intuitive Eating and reflecting on your own relationship with food and your body. You may be unknowingly passing your body image and food issues down to your kid. Here are some other resources:
If there is anyone in the age bracket that this app is targeting, know that you are worthy of love and praise no matter what your body size is. Your body is changing and growing. Your appetite is changing and growing. Allow these things the space they need to build you into the person you are meant to be. Weight Loss is not always the answer to better health. Don’t let a preoccupation with food and your body steal precious memories and time away from you. Rebel against the standards society has set for you, and become the person you want to be. Stop listening to what the world is telling you to be, and trust your gut. Trust your body to tell you what it needs.
If you don’t fall into either of these categories, but still want to do something, you can follow the hashtag #wakeupweightwatchers where people from all walks of life are spreading awareness of the detriment of this product. Please share posts like this and many others to help spread the message that this is not okay. There is also a petition that is going around trying to get Weight Watchers to take down the app. If you want to earn more about my continuing journey with healing my relationship with food and my body, check out this blog post. It is also riddled with resource links about this topic.
If you believe you may have an eating disorder find help at https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/
If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis or is thinking of committing suicide, call 1-800-784-8433.
If this is an emergency, call 911.