On February 7, Weight Watchers announced that they would offer free memberships to teens aged 13-17 this summer. Alone at my computer, I winced.
I was 17 when I joined Weight Watchers. It was 2005. My mom offered to pay for their then new option of online only membership. I was too mortified to show my face at an actual in-person meeting, so getting to plug in my “points” from the privacy of my desktop — this was pre-smartphone era — was ideal. In fall, I would start school at Columbia, my dream college in my dream city. Only one thing was wrong: In my fantasy, I was skinny. In real life, not so much. Weight Watchers to the rescue.
On my first day of tracking points, I cried. I was an intern at my local Planned Parenthood, and we were hosting a lunch benefit. In preparation, I had licked envelopes until my tongue turned numb. I showed up to the luncheon with a plan: I would try my best to make healthy choices, then log what I ate on my Weight Watchers app back at home. A Cobb salad seemed like a smart pick. But as I entered the components — bacon, blue cheese, avocado, creamy dressing — into the WW widget in my room that afternoon, I realized that the innocent looking salad had compromised the entirety of my point allotment for that day. It was 3PM and I was hungry. It was Day 1 and already I had failed.
Of course it wasn’t Weight Watchers’ fault that I was unrelentingly hard on myself. WW is just a tool. These days, it’s evolved to keep up with the times. It encourages fruits, veggies, and lean proteins. It calls itself a “lifestyle” and promises to support its members on their “wellness journey.” The company speaks with all the right lingo. But at its core, it’s a diet. It’s all in the name — the whole point is to “watch” your “weight,” and with enough vigilance, to change it. The message is loud and clear: your body is wrong and needs fixing. That’s poisonous for everyone, but especially for teenagers.
"Scientific research has shown that putting kids on diets and commenting on their weight puts them at risk of #eatingdisorders and a lifetime of behaviors FAR worse for their health than being at a high weight," tweeted Christy Harrison, R.D. in part of the #WakeUpWeightWatchers outcry the campaign has generated.
Columbus Park, an eating disorder treatment center in New York City, chimed to say, “Over 15 years as an eating disorder treatment specialist, I've heard literally thousands of stories about the onset of disordered eating. The [vast] majority of stories include the ‘innocent’ diet that opened the flood gates to a full blown eating disorder.” Diets have the power to damage all of our relationship with food and their bodies, but teens are especially vulnerable.
I should know. I diligently counted points, and my diligence morphed into obsession. I loved my relatively low points go-to breakfast of fat-free yogurt with berries and granola, but quickly nixed the granola, which seemed disproportionately high in points. I ate a lot of cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes…zero points! Apples were zero points too, but I had read something about the sugar in fruit derailing weight loss. Math was my least favorite subject, but I became a living, breathing calculator. I knew how many points were in everything I ate and longed to eat but wouldn’t let myself for fear of Thursday.
Wednesday nights were the worst night of my week. I couldn’t sleep, because Thursday mornings I weighed myself. These Thursday weigh-ins became my religion. If I had lost a pound, or miraculously two, I would let myself celebrate with a whole bag of microwave popcorn or eggs and toast at the diner — by then I had started college, and there were plenty of great diners around. If not, I was shaken. I had let myself down. I double downed on my Weight Watchers strictness. I stopped eating breakfast entirely. Weight Watchers recommended 25 points a day, but wouldn’t 22 be better than 25, and 20 be even better than that? The program triggered the most rigid, competitive, narrow-minded part of myself. Today, I can identify this as my eating disorder brain. But as a teenager, I mistook it for truth.
I also started binging. The anxiety about food and my body became debilitating. When I couldn’t stand to starve myself anymore, which is what I was doing, I did the opposite. I shoveled boxes and bags of sweet and salty things into my mouth, devoured whole stashes of “healthy” snacks that I had planned to last weeks. I binged in a sort of fugue state, then woke up seasick with nausea, regret, and shame. I should have been having the time of my life in college, but my eating disorder robbed me of joy. I spent a lot of time on the elliptical, and a lot of energy hating myself. Even though about 30 million people in the US suffer from eating disorders, it is an incredibly isolating, lonely experience.
I received an anorexia diagnosis my sophomore year. I saw a therapist and a nutritionist. I gained weight, but I kept restricting and binging. I told no one. And when I got my first iPhone for my birthday my senior year of college, I downloaded the Weight Watchers app stat. It was a security blanket. If I ate the right number of points on a given day, it was a good day. It was a sort of perverse measure of my morality.
It would take me another five years to delete the WW app from my phone, to see that I hadn't failed Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers had failed me. By then, I had been paying their membership fee for years. (Fun fact: the US weight loss market is a $66 billion industry.) I cancelled the subscription and used the money for a monthly donation to Planned Parenthood instead. That felt like a serious milestone in my recovery.
Weight Watchers may be “free” for young people, but it cost me years of food obsession, body shame, yo-yo dieting, disordered eating, and misery. I wish I could tell my teenage self then what I’d love to tell all teens now: a culture that equates thinness with worth is broken, but your body is not broken. You are beautiful and badass. You deserve to nourish yourself with food you love and create a life you love — a big, rich, and delicious life. And that cannot be counted in points or pounds.
top photo: Pixabay Creative Commons
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Hannah Howard is a writer who lives in New York. Her memoir, Feast: True Love In and Out of the Kitchen, is coming out on April 1. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.