Weight Watching Teens

[Content Warning: discussion of eating disorders]

Over the past couple of months, dieting business Weight Watchers has evoked havoc throughout social media following the announcement of its free dieting programme that will be directed towards those most impressionable in society: 13 to 17-year-olds. This summer, teens in the United States and the UK will be offered free access to a 6-week-long weight loss plan that will encourage them to carefully control what they put into their bodies, with the end goal being achieving their ideal weight. Glamorised as an easy, forward-thinking solution for teenagers struggling with their weight to shed those pounds, this revenue-driven initiative has infuriated many. Body image activists, dieticians, and eating disorder specialists have criticised the programme for ultimately exposing vulnerable teenagers to a wider, perilous societal problem: the toxic world of diet culture.

The premise of Weight Watchers is that each food item is represented as a SmartPoints value, with every customer getting an individualised weekly budget of SmartPoints to spend wisely. For example, a glazed donut is assigned 10 SmartPoints, whereas yogurt with blueberries and granola costs 2 SmartPoints, which is determined based on their calorie content, sugar, saturated fat and protein. Admittedly, it is refreshing to see a diet intervention moving away from the heavy focus on the destructive “calories in, calories out” mantra, and instead emphasising the essential role of protein and fats in fuelling the body. In this respect, Weight Watchers attempts to educate its customers on nutrition and eating healthily to combat health-compromising weight loss behaviours such as consuming only low-calorie, low-nutrition foods. However, what Weight Watchers advocates the most, despite its reformation as a “wellness company”, is, undoubtedly, weight loss, weight loss, weight loss.

Its website is teaming with phrases such as “weight loss journey” and “weight loss goals”, accompanied by shiny photos of exemplary, newly-slim customers smiling proudly next to statements like: “I said YES to my favourite food and still lost 4st!”. Unfortunately, such attempts to lose weight are not grounded in improving one’s health and longevity, but instead in obtaining a certain body image – the revered slim female figure, with curves in only the right places. We are trapped in a society which ominously values this “perfect” body. No matter how much we are told to “love the skin we’re in”, these messages of body positivity are difficult to internalise when, paradoxically, society also tells us that there is only one truly acceptable body shape to have. This body weight fixation is detrimental enough for us as adults, so entering teenagers into the Hunger Games of Body Image and robbing them of their worry-free days is a cruel ploy on Weight Watchers’ part in their attempt to, as their press release so bluntly says, “grow revenue to more than $2 billion”.

Understandably, and rightly so, the introduction of this teen-focused programme has prompted rapid backlash from eating disorder consultants, who are horrified that dieting is being promoted to teenagers during the years where their self-image is at its most fragile. Heart-breakingly, disordered eating is most likely to develop during these vulnerable teenage years. Many teenagers report engaging in unhealthy eating behaviours, such as fasting and skipping meals, in order to control – and reduce – their weight, as food slowly but surely becomes the enemy. Dieting, particularly through SmartPoint-counting strategies, inevitably creates a love-hate relationship with food. We learn which foods are “bad” (e.g. those high in SmartPoints) – however, these are also the foods which happen to be the most tempting. We are told not to give in to the temptation despite our bodies so powerfully craving that gooey chocolate brownie or salty fish supper – and if we do, the guilt immediately sinks in as we internalise the idea that we are bad because we ate “bad” food. It is an exhausting, draining, and harmful mindset to be engulfed in, and one that is extremely dangerous to introduce at such a young age. By combining already body-conscious teenagers with restrictive, SmartPoint-controlled eating behaviour, Weight Watchers are treading an extremely fine line between healthy eating and a lifelong turbulent relationship with food.

The uproar that this initiative has caused warns Weight Watchers that they must meticulously moderate their programme – if it still goes ahead, as the Twitter hashtag #WakeUpWeightWatchers, various opposing petitions, and myriad furious opinion pieces are ferociously generating public action against the programme. At the end of the day, Weight Watchers is a business with profit at the top of its agenda. It will never truly come from a place of concern for public health or wellness – it relishes on diet culture keeping us obsessed with losing weight to obtain the perfect body, no matter how much it sugar-coats its intentions. Now, it attempts to reel customers in as early as they can with a “free” diet scheme – at the cost of how teenagers permanently think about and behave towards eating.

[Sinead Sweeney]

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