December 7, 2019

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Weight Watchers' free plan sends teens bad message

Weight Watchers has announced that it would be offering free summer memberships to teens aged 13 to 17. Because it’s never too early to start hating your body.

The company’s rationale for allowing children into its ranks sounds good on paper. Weight Watchers focuses on "establishing healthy habits," but that’s pretty rich coming from one of the biggest players in a billion-dollar industry that profits off the fears and insecurities of its own creation.

A teen’s membership might be "free" for a summer, but that teen will bear the eventual costs — financial, physical and emotional. This is a classic get-’em-while-they’re-young marketing tactic. Weight Watchers is recruiting clients for life.

Teens are a vulnerable and impressionable segment of the population already made to feel insecure about their bodies thanks to pop culture, media and peer pressure. They don’t need any additional help getting indoctrinated into the Diet Industrial Complex because many of them are already in it.

One in five Canadian teenagers are already on a diet, according to the Toronto-based National Eating Disorder Information Centre. And, as many studies have found, strict diets in teenagers are often the gateway to eating disorders such as binge-eating, bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

Dieting is a never-ending cycle; once you enter it, it’s difficult to exit. Women, in particular, spend years of their lives trying to shrink themselves on diets that don’t work. Which is all of them.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem that affects girls and women. Boys and men struggle, too, and often in silence. During the 2018 Winter Olympics, American figure skater Adam Rippon revealed his own battles with disordered eating to the New York Times in an effort to break that silence.

The timing of the Weight Watchers plan — summer — also strikes me as particularly problematic. It cashes in on that well-worn fantasy of dropping a whole bunch of weight over the summer holidays, returning to school with a new body. A better body. A desirable body. A smaller body.

My own first-day-of-school fantasy included a slow-motion walk down the hallway — aka the catwalk of junior high — while everyone turned from their lockers, astonished by the fact I had somehow transformed into Jennifer Aniston. (Look, it was the ‘90s.) Because that’s the goal, right? To become an entirely different person.

The weight-loss industry likes to make all sorts of promises, especially where confidence is concerned. And so, teens do the mental arthimetic. If I lose x amount of weight, I’ll finally be able to try out for the volleyball team, or audition for that musical, or ask that person to the dance. If I lose x amount of weight, I’ll be happy and popular.

I used to believe that, too. At the end of Grade 8, my class went to Fun Mountain Waterslide Park. This is an event I remember clearly because it was the first time I actively worried about what my body looked like in a swimsuit.

I embarked on a months-long routine of abdominal crunches, and then ultimately decided on a navy-blue one-piece. (A bikini, I reasoned, would not survive a waterslide called "The Dragon" and, frankly, junior high had contained enough humiliation, thanks.)

When we got to the waterpark, a friend appraised my body with the eyes of a dog show judge. "I don’t know what you were so worried about," she finally said, snapping her gum. "You look good in a bathing suit." I felt a surge of pride.

Overhearing this delightful exchange of female friendship and empowerment, our homeroom teacher, Mrs. Smith, gave her head a tiny shake. She looked sad. She probably knew I was measuring my worth by my ability to pull off American Eagle low-rise hip huggers and not, you know, my ability to get straight As.

Teenagers don’t need a Weight Watchers program. What they need is to be told they are so much more than how their body looks, and taught that the pursuit of weight loss is not a sure path toward self-confidence. They need to be accepted, loved and supported for who they are, not how they look. They need role models.

That’s where we adults can change the conversation. Instead of commenting on how someone’s body looks, we can point out how funny, smart, kind, or thoughtful someone is. We can focus on what our bodies can do, and move them in ways that make us feel good. We can nuture peaceful relationships with food by cooking, and eating mindfully and letting go of useless labels like "good" or "bad." We can be critical of advertising and media that tries to sell us the idea that happiness is directly proportional to the number on a scale.

We’d all be healthier — and richer — for it.

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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