Trigger warning: eating disorders
I was 11 years old when I attended my first Weight Watchers’ meeting.
I was a preteen who didn’t understand diets, exercise, or what made a healthy lifestyle. Every Tuesday, my mother would tell me to pick foods that were low in salt, because salt caused water retention. I would go to our local banquet hall every Wednesday after school and step on a scale in front of what seemed like hundreds of women who were at least three times my age.
I remember her telling me to wear a light t-shirt and shorts, and take off my shoes to make sure I got the lowest weight possible. Those meetings quickly taught me that fat was the enemy.
US News and World Reports rates Weight Watchers as the best weight-loss diet of all. The program uses spokespeople like Oprah Winfrey and DJ Khaled to bring a friendly face to calorie restriction. Weight Watchers claim that their points system is designed to help you eat whatever you want and still lose weight.
In February, Weight Watchers stated that they would offer free memberships to teenagers looking to develop healthy habits and get in shape this year.
The problem with this? The program epitomizes diet culture.
Diet culture is what fuels us to attach morality to food – that is, when we feel morally ‘bad’ for eating some foods and morally ‘good’ for eating others. It drives fatphobia – that is, the oppression of fat people, which is evident in the discrimination they face. Diet culture pushes many people to develop eating disorders, like anorexia, bulimia, or even orthorexia – which is an eating disorder that involves an obsession with eating ‘healthily’.
The ‘points’ system used by Weight Watchers does a perfect job of revealing the arbitrary nature of how we categorize ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. In their system, some foods have the illustrious title of ‘zero points foods,’ meaning you can eat them without cutting into your bank.
It is blatantly arbitrary in what foods are ‘zero points’ and what aren’t. For example, an egg is zero points in the Weight Watchers system, while an avocado isn’t.
As an 11-year-old kid, I struggled to adhere to the Weight Watchers system. My mother eventually grew bored of trying to create child-friendly diet meals, and let me returned to my kid-approved chicken fingers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches without much protest.
When I was 17, I chose to attempt Weight Watchers a second time. The seeds of diet culture were firmly sown in my mind by then, and I was dead set on changing my ‘obese’ frame. I started with a bank of 17 assigned ‘points’ and got to work eatingsalads, skipping breakfast, and stockpiling my allowances for ice cream after dinner.
I realized, if I strictly ate 17 points worth of food, I lost weight. If I ate 15, the weight came off even faster.
Points ticked down quickly, and within six months I’d lost 80 pounds. The mindset taught to me by Weight Watchers influenced me into participating in unhealthy behaviors – behaviors that could only be described as anorexia. I did shots of hot sauce to suppress my appetite after school and drank gallons of water to stave off being dizzy. These habits came to a grinding halt after I’d passed out during a shower.
Weight Watchers’ website addresses this behavior in mild language on their FAQ page. “Should members be eating ONLY the zero Points® foods on the new WW Freestyle™ program? In a word, no,” it says. “While there are many foods with a SmartPoints value of zero, a healthy and realistic lifestyle includes eating a wide variety of foods to prevent boredom and ensure proper nutrition.”
Even so, the mindset that Weight Watchers promotes can be unhealthy for adults and teenagers alike. Weight Watchers promotes dangerously restrictive behaviors, even if that’s not their stated intention. Not to condescend to teenagers, but they can be even more vulnerable to this unhealthy doctrine.
The time of a high-school student is too precious to be wasted. It’s a time for experiencing life, building relationships, uncovering interests and being empowered with the strength to carry on a lifetime of growth. This time is too precious to be spent on weight loss.
Companies like Weight Watchers do not want you to love your body. With millions of members, their business model relies on the fact that you don’t.
Instead, let’s teach our children what’s truly empowering: loving yourself despite what the advertisers want you to believe. Through self love, you can unlock the kind of power that no one else can give. That kind of power can change the world.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, please consult the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website for help.