An open letter to Weight Watchers International

By Sarah McMahon

I discovered today that Weight Watchers International is offering free membership for teenagers aged 13 to 17 under the guise of “helping the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage”.  This was announced this week, simultaneously with their three year “2020 goal”,  which includes expanding the Weight Watchers International business by “increase[ing] revenue to more than $2 billion, driven primarily by new member growth and improved retention while increasing profit at a faster rate than revenue”.

I am worried. Very worried. And plenty of colleagues are too. I have expressed my concerns in an open letter to Weight Watchers International. Please join me by communicating your views to them via any platforms you have access to.

Dear Weight Watchers International

I am horrified to hear you are offering free membership to vulnerable teenagers in a bid to raise your profits. I beg you to reconsider preying on “teenagers” as your next target market.

Already teenagers live in an environment saturated by messages about weight, appearance and “health”. Body image continues to be one of the biggest concerns for young Australians. Disordered eating is mainstream in the playground, with teenagers competing to see who can eat the least at school and eating disorder sufferers being upheld as “weight loss champions”. Unhealthy weight loss practices such as smoking, recreational drug use or drinking highly caffeinated drinks is common, under the belief these will increase ones metabolic rate and control body weight. This is a prime example of weight loss being pursued at any cost by teenagers.

Unfortunately for many teenagers, shame and confusion about changes in their bodies is a rite of passage. And it goes without saying that teenagers who sit at a “higher” body weight already usually know it. They may have been subjected to weight based bullying or are simply filled with shame for looking different. They may also be managing their parent’s anxiety about their weight. Even teenagers sitting at more typical weights spend hours refacing their social media images or trying to look thinner.

We also need to be real here: sitting at a higher body weight does not necessarily mean a person is sitting above their natural body weight. Any person’s weight is determined by a complex cocktail of factors. If someone sits at a high body weight it does not mean there is something wrong with their body and it certainly does not mean they should diet. To have you, an international dieting company, capitalising on teenager’s body anxiety by sending the message that their body is wrong or doesn’t work is bad enough. To follow that up with the idea that they need your “help” is exploitation in its worst form. There is tremendous danger that teenagers will believe the message you are telling them- rather than seeing your effort for what it really is: preying on their vulnerability for your bottom dollar.

You are also sending a strong and unhelpful message to teenagers that what matters most is their size.

The research does not support that dieting will lead to sustainable (and significant) weight loss for the majority of people. Rather, that people who diet will ultimately “diet themselves fat” by sitting at a higher body weight once the diet has ceased. Often this is a gateway for disordered eating, weight cycling and a lifetime prescription of unhealthy weight loss practices.

This is a huge cost considering your product does not guarantee sustained weight loss. Why prescribe a solution that doesn’t even fix their “problem”? Dieting has a failure rate of approximately 95% after 2-5 years. I am unaware of any independent research that demonstrates that your approach leads to sustained weight loss after 2-5 years in the majority of the population.

So often the weight loss industry markets their approach as not a diet but a “lifestyle” change, portraying itself as a health company that teaches people how to lose weight in a manner that is healthy and realistic. You are no different. You have claimed you want to offer free membership to teenagers to help “the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage”. But your brand internationally is worth more than a billion dollars and your product range is expansive, ranging from “local meetings” and “lifestyle centres” to an online shop, “supermarket food”, an app and “coaching” (as an aside, I note that main the criteria for becoming a “coach” is having experienced weight loss yourself!). This is not promoting “healthy habits” but fostering dependence on your products and services. Your “free membership” is pitched as gesture of good will however we all know that conditioning teenagers to become brand loyal to Weight Watchers is your ultimate, lucrative goal.

You are an international, billion dollar business. Your mandate is to make money. The thing that concerns me is that your “free membership” comes at a hefty price for our youth.

Rather than focusing on weight, especially for young people, we know that focusing on healthy lifestyle behaviours is what is most important (quick note, engaging in health giving behaviours also does not ensure weight loss). You don’t need to flog your brand to teenagers to promote health. In fact research shows that fitness is a far better predictor of health than weight. This approach is safe for all – and it avoids the unintended consequences of attempting weight loss which includes food and body preoccupation, binge eating, weight regain and loss, distraction from personal goals, weight stigma and discrimination.

If you must sell weight loss products that don’t work, I urge you to at least be ethical. Adults have the capacity for informed consent. Teenagers don’t.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah McMahon, Psychologist

Image source here.

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