The backlash against Weight Watchers’ program for teens is an absurd overreaction


There’s an odd tension when it comes to confronting society’s alarming rate of obesity. How do we tackle the steady, worrying rise in those qualifying as moderate-to-severely overweight without seeming to shame, judge, or cast blame for what’s now recognized as a chronic medical condition, often influenced by factors beyond one’s control?


This delicate effort — a challenge at the best of times — requires frank dialogue and mutual trust between those living with obesity and the professionals tasked with guiding them away from doomed-to-fail “solutions” such as fad diets, magic pills and fleeting fitness trends. Because obesity is a progressive disease, one that becomes increasingly difficult to tackle over time, early intervention is pivotal in achieving long-term wellness.

Program for teens

In early February, Weight Watchers announced plans centred around early intervention: a new family-oriented wellness program — one that will be open to teens as young as 13 — to foster “the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage.”

Though the initiative will undoubtedly serve the company’s financial interests, the intent appears to noble, and either way: the need is undeniable. The program will offer guidance on matters of nutrition and lifestyle, as well as a space to discuss insecurities and issues of self-perception and body-image. And by offering free summer memberships to teens aged 13 to 17, this proposed initiative would serve as a resource for overweight teens across the socio-economic spectrum.

Predictably, many people have taken issue to the announcement. Melainie Rogers, founder of New York City’s BALANCE Eating Disorder Treatment Center, led a recent #WakeUpWeightWatchers “Twitter takeover,” appealing to fellow “professionals and advocates for body positivity” to share stories of trauma in hopes of pressuring (or rather, shaming) Weight Watchers into shelving their program.

Speaking to Teen Vogue, Rogers said: “Weight Watchers promotes weight loss, and promoting weight loss to teens sends the clear message that to be considered as ‘good enough,’ you must fit a physical ideal… the message [this] sends is that you are not enough as you are, [that] thinner is definitely better, and perhaps even more profoundly, that taking up space is not permitted.”

Erica Leon, a self-described “eating disorder dietitian & intuitive eating coach” suggested that the free teen membership is “as dangerous as drugs.” Writing in Today’s Parent, “fat and proud” writer Amanda Scriver declared Weight Watchers’ plan “all kinds of wrong… instead of teaching young folks about their worth, (they’re) teaching them that they’re only worthy of the numbers on the scale or in the back of their jeans.”

To be clear: Weight Watchers is not suggesting teens — or anyone, for that matter — base their inherent worth on a given weight or clothing size. In fact, Weight Watchers plans to end its before-and-after photo sets, despite inspirational merit, to help emphasize wellness over size throughout its programs.

A balanced lifestyle often sees that weight takes care of itself over time. And teens living with, or at risk for, obesity are being invited to gain health-specific knowledge — and the confidence to apply it — to develop realistic and sustainable habits for long-term success. There will be no focus on scales or tape-measures; the primary targets, in terms of intended loss, are things like self-consciousness and doubt.

If not for a structured program like Weight Watchers, it’s unclear where these critics think young teens should get their information. The status quo will see that many seek guidance from gossip and fitness magazines, both of which are notorious for dangerous dietary advice, unrealistic promises regarding weight loss and shady ads featuring (expensive and entirely ineffective) pills and supplements which claim, among other things, magic fat-melting or metabolism-boosting powers.

Unhealthy by default

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, founder and co-owner of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute, notes that unhealthy living has become society’s default norm. Inexpensive, calorie-dense, highly pleasurable foods are more readily available than whole, unprocessed options.

Clever marketing of (ineffective) alternatives to physical activity — standing desks, for instance — offers permission to forgo meaningful movement. Learning to cook, making time for meal preparation and at-home, sit-down dining has become the exception. Serving sizes seem to expand just as rapidly and routinely as waistlines.

Dr. Freedhoff wasn’t keen to join in the absurd overreaction to the Weight Watchers initiative, given there are few details beyond knowing prospective teen participants would require the consent and accompaniment of a parent or guardian. Nor could he offer an enthusiastic endorsement.

He did, however, express reasonable concern of the possible indirect promotion of a restriction-diet mindset, should the wellness initiative run directly under the conventional Weight Watchers banner, finding it “hard to imagine [the program] will be separately branded and run.” However, he added, “given what else is out there, healthy messaging for teens on food and fitness would be welcome. The spirit of the idea — that’s something I can support.”

To their credit, Weight Watchers has been gracious in the face of the sustained, unwarranted dragging, reiterating that they are actively consulting health care professionals to develop the new program that, again, will not be centred around weight-loss dieting.

The intent remains to teach proper nutrition and healthy eating habits, guiding young members away from the often-conflicting and downright false claims regarding both dietary intake and physical activity they’re bound to encounter, if they haven’t already. The idea is to help them establish, at this critical juncture, a solid understanding of how uncomplicated (and pleasurable) eating and living well can be.

With an established plan, there needn’t be any real focus on the scale at all. So, rather than arguing over what qualifies as “too young for a diet,” we should instead be asking if 13 is too early to early discuss proper nutrition and dispel dietary myths, acknowledge and tackle body insecurities, learn what positive activity habits are and develop an understanding of what it truly means to be healthy and live well.   

That answer should be clear.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.