Our teenagers are under attack.
This culture already insists that our bodies only have value, are only acceptable, if they are small enough. Teenagers (all of us, really) are inundated by this message from every direction. Sometimes the message unapologetically equates smallness with physical attractiveness (which is enough to get the attention of adolescents trying to survive these difficult years). As reprehensible as that is, at least it’s an honest reflection of this gross cultural ideal.
But sometimes this body-shrinking imperative is masked as a concern for “health.” And adults positioned as caring providers and supportive advocates of these children send the message that their larger-than-culturally-ideal body is not only socially unacceptable, it’s dangerous. And if their body is allowed to continue existing as it is, they are actively choosing an increased risk of (insert your favorite alarmist scary health threat here).
Weight Watchers has launched a business initiative to offer free memberships this summer to teenagers as young as thirteen. They are leading with the narrative that they are teaching “good habits at a critical age.” They are also scrambling to distance themselves from the explicit goal of weight loss and claim a more “holistic,” “wellness” narrative, despite the fact that their name, the reduction of food to points values, and the weekly tracking and celebration of weight loss remain unchanged.
Let’s set aside, for a moment, the fact that this represents a major step toward Weight Watchers’ goal of reaching $2 billion in sales by the end of 2020—because parents must be paying members, and the “free” part of the teen membership lasts 6 weeks. (Pardon me while I take a few deep breaths.)
Let’s go so far as to pretend that Weight Watchers actually wishes to promote health in these teens. That this is a purely humanitarian initiative. Because many people, understandably, are celebrating this offering as a great way to promote health for young folks, building healthy habits that can last a lifetime. I say “understandably,” because our culture, including many presumably reputable and trustworthy voices of authority, insists that “healthy habits” are synonymous with eating less and attempting to shrink your body.
Promoting weight loss in teens (or anyone) accomplishes the opposite of making them healthier. The goal of moving the scale number down promotes behaviors that are believed to be most likely to achieve that goal, rather than behaviors that actually enhance health. Things like restricting food and overriding natural body signals, mistrusting and battling the body, choosing to exercise for maximum calorie burn rather than intuitive and joyful movement that will be sustainable, and prioritizing weight-suppressing efforts over other essential aspects of health, such as stress management and adequate rest.
And then, generally, one of two things happens. In some, these measures fail to result in the desired weight change, and health behaviors are abandoned as “ineffective.” As in, “what’s the point of eating well and moving my body if it doesn’t make me smaller?” Often, this is followed by a physiological and psychological rebound effect that causes weight to accelerate above the initial point.
In others, what will become a dangerous eating disorder takes root. This first diet is the exact point at which a lifelong battle with disordered eating begins for countless individuals. Story after story has arisen in the wake of this Weight Watchers announcement from adults who can trace their decades of struggle directly back to joining Weight Watchers, or some other restrictive diet, often as an adolescent.
These outcomes are documented in the literature as well. Research is clear that dietary restraint (of which Weight Watchers is the very definition, whatever they’re trying to claim) in adolescents is predictive of both increased weight gain and disordered eating behavior at 5- and 10-year follow-ups.*
And beyond these measured and documented outcomes, how can we tolerate the teaching of children that their bodies are not okay? How can we defend that?
If we care about kids’ health, we need to teach them that their bodies are wonderful, worthy, and wise. That their bodies will grow and change through these adolescent years, and that those changes are to be celebrated, not feared or resisted.
That their bodies are their vehicles for doing all the things they love in this life, and they can be empowered to intuitively and authentically care for their bodies through the growing years and beyond. That they can support their physical well-being best by embracing the body they have and letting it be. That joyful movement, intuitive nourishment, self-care and human connection are true health behaviors.
We need to teach them that their value has nothing, nothing to do with the size, shape, or appearance of their body.
Today’s teens need our help. We are being called to defend them against this onslaught of insidious and damaging attacks on their well-being and sense of worthiness. To be their shield.
Parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, caregivers, coaches, doctors, community members, friends, let’s use our voices and do what we can to defend the children and adolescents in our lives from these attacks. Let’s affirm their worthiness and support their wellbeing. Let’s be very clear in our rejection of the body shrinking agenda.
Let’s show up.
Katherine Zavodni, MPH RDN, CD, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist specializing in eating disorder treatment, intuitive eating, chronic dieting and weight concerns, and family and childhood feeding dynamics. Her counseling approach is based on non-diet principles, consistent with the Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size Models. She is based in Salt Lake City. Website
Obesity, Disordered Eating, and Eating Disorders in a Longitudinal Study of Adolescents: How Do Dieters Fare 5 Years Later? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2006
Dieting and disordered eating behaviors from adolescence to young adulthood: Findings from a 10-year longitudinal study, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2011