Photo: Jessica LaForet
Last week, Weight Watchers announced that it's planning to offer teens ages 13 to 17 free memberships this summer. Don't be distracted by the word "free." This is not good news for parents or kids.
When you look at my body, there is no way to escape it: I’m fat. It’s the first thing you'll notice about me. As much as it may make you uncomfortable to admit it, it’s OK because I have finally grown the strength to not care what you or anyone else thinks. This is my reality: I’m a fat and I am proud.
But if you had asked me how I felt years ago, my answer might have been different. You see, all through my life, I've been taught to hate myself and be ashamed of who I am—by family, by friends and by various media sources. I never understood how much energy my fat body harnessed, nor did I realize the outright rage, disgust and emotional warfare it provoked in others. Fatphobia was not part of my lexicon.
From my mid-teens on, I tried everything to obtain social currency with my body. I'd thought that if I could obtain a slender, feminine physique with a small waist, I would be wanted and desired. I thought that people would like me and I could be popular. My body size made me angry and sad, but most of all frustrated, as I didn’t know why people reacted to me in such a negative way. This is when, at the suggestion of a parent, I joined Weight Watchers. I was still in high school.
Week-in and week-out, I would fill up notebooks that meticulously recorded each and every single meal I ate. Sometimes, I would just skip meals altogether in the hopes that I could save my Weight Watcher points. I would run my own tally and score in my head of the calories I was consuming and burning, thinking that it somehow made me stronger or better. I never took stock of the fact that I was struggling with disordered eating. Instead of helping me, Weight Watchers actually gave me the tools, language and methodology of enabling and engaging fully with my own disordered eating habits.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I was able to break the diet cycle and become body neutral. Getting to this place was not easy and took a lot of unlearning. For many children and young teens, they are unable to get to this space without the help and guidance of their own parents.
Kids are inundated with messages from friends, family and media about how an ideal body should look and be presented. Their attitudes towards food and weight developed within their own homes and via the media, and a lot of times, misconceptions, stigma and shame can be attached to those deeply ingrained messages. With a moralization on eating happening everywhere we turn (with foods being labeled "good" vs "bad" and food choices seen as "right" or "wrong"), girls as young as five are now associating the word "diet" with food restriction, weight-loss and thinness. This is a problem.
While Weight Watcher's new teen program does ask adolescents to attend meetings with a parent or guardian, the intent of program at all is rather questionable. You see, rather than promote a healthy lifestyle, the Weight Watchers brand is doing quite the opposite. Dieting can be a slippery slope. The weight-loss industry is a $61 billion market, and what they would like you to believe is that fat is inherently unhealthy and that it’s better, health-wise, to be thin, no matter the cost.
As someone who has been down this path numerous times, I know for sure that dieting does not work. It's well-documented that most dieters gain all their weight back, or even sometimes more. I'm not a parent, but I feel strongly that parents who enroll their teen into a Weight Watchers program are not only promoting unhealthy body-image issues, but could also be encouraging their teen to create unhealthy eating habits. Instead of teaching young folks about their worth, we’re only teaching them they are worthy of the numbers on the scale or in the back of their jeans.
While Weight Watchers often says it's not a diet but a lifestyle change, the fact that most of their plans are about calorie restriction means that it is, in fact, a diet. And I don't think teens should be on diets. Instead, I think parents should be promoting that all bodies are good bodies and that you can be happy and healthy at any size. So Weight Watchers, I think it’s time that we break up. Your marketing to teens is kind of gross and I’m not going to stand for it.