On February 8, Weight Watchers announced its marketing campaign to offer their program for free this summer for teens. Balance, an eating disorders treatment center in New York, is biting back at the corporation by starting a campaign using the hashtag #wakeupweightwatchers. Within the first hour of the Twitter campaign they launched on February 10, the hashtag had become a top ten trending topic in the United States.
Weight Watchers alumni, dietitians, mental health professionals, nonprofit organizations, and body positive influencers have all chimed in to speak out against the company’s teen-targeting promotion.
The backlash has been personal, emotional, and altogether pleading — a visceral protective response against Weight Watchers’ intentional marketing to teenagers, which experts say could promote young people to engage in disordered eating rather than truly healthy habits.
“Balance started this hashtag so that we can shine a light on the dangers this program could have on teens,” Melainie Rogers MS, RDN, CDN, CEDRD, founder of Balance, explained to The Daily Meal. “Teens and the parents of teens should know that dieting is harmful for everyone. In particular, teens’ bodies are still growing, and dieting messes with that process.”
Experts assert that Weight Watchers relies on its repeat customers — that when dieters regain the weight that they once lost on the program, they will return to Weight Watchers and yo-yo diet all over again.
“Dieting has a huge failure rate, and Weight Watchers in particular is known for ‘repeat customers,’” explained psychotherapist Abby Thompson to The Daily Meal. Body positive influencers have tweeted at Weight Watchers citing studies reporting that all diets have a 95 percent failure rate, accusing the company of taking advantage of yo-yo dieters.
Professionals aren’t only concerned for their clients — many of their own histories of disordered eating began with Weight Watchers, as well.
“As a #recovered professional, my first diet was on @WeightWatchers at 17 years old!” tweeted registered dietitian and eating disorders specialist Hayley Miller. “I was constantly told, even though I am considered straight size then and now that I needed to lose weight to be better. Don’t do this to teens!!”
Becca, a blogger under the Twitter handle @bwilsxo, explained how the program led to unhealthy habits. “Weekly weigh-ins at WW meetings beginning at age 12 turned into daily weigh-ins at my house turned into obsessive weigh-ins multiple times a day,” she recalled. “WW is not an ‘innocent program’ it causes severely harmful emotional, mental, and physical distress.”
Shira Rose, a body positive blogger and psychotherapist, shared, “It was a @WeightWatchers diet at age 10 that started my decade + battle with yo yo dieting & body hate. The AAP explicitly says that putting children/teens on diets increases risk for eating disorders so I’m shocked WW is being promoted for teens.”
The report from the American Academy of Pediatrics she is referring to details the correlation between attempts to diet and disordered eating. “Adolescents who are overweight may adopt disordered eating behaviors while attempting to lose weight,” the AAP explains. “Initial attempts to lose weight by eating in a healthy manner may progress to severe dietary restriction, skipping of meals, prolonged periods of starvation, or the use of self-induced vomiting, diet pills, or laxatives.”
While Weight Watchers does not advocate for these extreme methods of weight loss, participants in the #wakeupweightwatchers campaign argue that the company does advocate for dieting as a means of losing weight — which, according to these studies, is likely to lead to disordered behavior and body hatred.
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has joined in the movement as well, calling out to their audience to take their quick online survey and share stories of disordered eating that began with dieting.
“The link between dieting & #eatingdisorders is clear,” said NEDA in a tweet, “and we are concerned about the new @WeightWatchers promotion for teens. Our voices are being heard. They have reached out to us. Stay tuned for updates.”
Weight Watchers responded to the movement after reading NEDA’s tweet, releasing a tweet of their own claiming that they “take [their] responsibility very seriously” and “will continue to talk to health professionals as [they] get ready to launch this program.”
“We know that the teens are in a critical life stage for developing healthy habits, and opening WW to teens with consent from a parent/guardian is about families getting healthier,” Weight Watchers expressed to The Daily Meal. Read more here about the company’s campaign announcement and the immediate response from medical professionals.