Weight Watchers (or WW as they’re trying to rebrand themselves, as if it changes their legacy of harming fat people for money) has launched a new app for children ages 8-17 called Kurbo. I’ve had a few hundred requests to write about it, but it took me a while because I’ve been in a rage coma ever since I learned that, upon hearing from eating disorder experts that this app would harm children, Weight Watchers CEO, Mindy Grossman, responded by saying “It actually strengthened our resolve and made us offensive.” (Trust me when I tell you Mindy, you were already offensive.)
So this is your “Tldr” – experts told Weight Watchers that they are going to hurt kids, and their response was “that just makes us want to do it more.” If that doesn’t convince you of that plain fact that Weight Watchers is a dumpster fire in every dumpster in a factory that manufactures industrial-sized dumpsters, it’s not likely that anything will. Still, there’s more to know here.
First, it’s important to understand that Weight Watchers built their business model with the full understanding that most people lose weight short term while dieting, but that in the long term almost everyone gains the weight back on matter what they do, with a majority gaining back more than they lost.
Their marketing “genius” was in finding a way to take credit for the first part of that biological response, and getting their clients (and everyone else) to blame themselves for the second part, and thus be duped into returning to Weight Watchers to start the cycle again. That created the base of a business model that guaranteed the repeat business they needed to succeed wildly.
Having had success with that model since 1963, until a few years ago people finally wised up, their stock took a dive and they went to desperate measures, including their ridiculous rebrand and their choice to target young children to try to create life-long customers.
Their most recent, and possibly most horrific, attempt at a money grab is to launch this app aimed at kids ages 8-17. The app starts with a seven-day free trial, but for kids to continue with their personalized coach, the monthly subscription fee starts at $69 a month. (The adult version of Weight Watchers online with coaching is $54.95/month)
Let’s look at some facts that are pertinent here:
- 95% of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25 (SAMHSA)
- 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming overweight. This concern endures through life. (Smolak, 2011)
- Among high-school students, 44% of females and 15% of males attempted to lose weight. (Serdula et al., 1993)
- 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. (Shisslak & Crago, 1995)
- Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors (ex, skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, purging) (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005)
- In a decade we saw a 119% increase in eating disorder hospitalizations in kids UNDER TWELVE.
Hence those, uh, warnings from eating disorder experts that made Weight Watchers reeeeaaaaallllyyyyy super very much extra excited to do this.
Maybe (in a perfectly reasonable but entirely misguided attempt to feel better about this) you’re thinking to yourself – I’m sure this isn’t about dieting, I’m sure they are just trying to encourage healthy behaviors.
Well, think again, here’s a screenshot that a blog reader sent to me:
How do I plan for red light foods?
“I know there will be red light foods at my friend’s birthday party on Saturday.”
E.g. of 3-step game plan
1. Wake up early to workout (60 minutes minimum)
2. Aim to consume no red light foods until you arrive at the party.
3. Decide how many red lights you reasonably want to budget for the party ahead of time.
Tip 4: remember 3 servings of a yellow ligt food = 1 red. ]
Before we break this down, I think it’s important to note that Weight Watchers doesn’t have any evidence that any of this will make or keep kids thin. There are no studies that show any method of eating and exercising that predicts thin kids, research from the University of Minnesota found that “None of the behaviors being used by adolescents (in 1999) for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss[in 2006]…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors.” Even the thoroughly-steeped-in-fatphobia American Academy of Pediatrics advised doctors and parents to avoid conversations about weight and focus on being healthy instead.
I also think it’s important to point out that the target ages of the app also include the typical ages of puberty, during which an average weight gain of 40 to 60 pounds is expected. Scenario: a kid who has been trying to manipulate their weight with this app for five years – since they were 8 years old – experiences sudden weight gain. I’m sure that won’t cause any problems at all, right? (Sarcasm meter is an 11 out of 10 here.)
Ok, so let’s talk about this absolute disaster, starting with the fact that Weight Watchers thinks third graders should be making three-step plans to attend birthday parties.
The app divides foods up into “stop-light” categories of green (“Go!”), yellow (“Slow Down!”, and red (“STOP and Think!”) (Exclamation points and capitalization strategy are verbatim from Kurbo which, as you probably already guess, I will not be linking to.)
Dividing food into categories like this is a red flag for disordered eating, but it’s pretty clear at this point that Weight Watchers doesn’t care. It’s also an issue for kids who are food insecure and other kids who may have limited options for what to eat for whom just getting enough nutrition to survive can be an issue. (Let’s remember that most kids are not in charge of the foods to which they have access.)
Note that step 1 of the plan says to workout for “60 minutes MINIMUM” (emphasis mine) So, again, we’re telling 8-year-olds that in order to eat some cake at a birthday party, they must earn the right through exercise of at least an hour. This is a three-fer of harm:
- It creates the belief that one has to earn the right to eat through movement which is, you guessed it, a red flag for disordered eating.
- It creates a “never enough” belief around exercise. Suggesting that kids as young as 8 should lose sleep to force themselves through an hour or more of exercise that is not by choice or for fun is ludicrous.
- It sets kids up to see exercise as prevention of and/or punishment for not being thin, which gives them an excellent chance of learning to resent movement and exercise – especially since kids come in lots of sizes, and this app will never change that.
Which brings us to a fact that should be obvious – the app will harm every kid who uses it and every kid who knows about it, but it will do the most harm to fat kids (who are already trying to navigate a fatphobic world) both because it will be another tool to marginalize them, and because they are unlikely to change their body size so it will be seen as another alleged “failure” to attain thinness, which never should have been a goal in the first place.
The marketing for the app includes “before and after” photos of children, so that if kids aren’t sure what kind of bodies they should hate (be it their own body, or other kids) they can check the before pictures to make sure.
I’m already hearing stories from blog readers about parents who are actually bribing their kids to use the app with, for example, a phone. Which tells fat kids that in order to “deserve” what everyone else has – the ability to connect and communicate with their social network (which actually IS tied to health,) they first need to be thin, or at least commit to trying to be. That’s a lesson that will continue to harm them for the rest of their lives if they internalize it.
I’ve been doing this work for over a decade and have heard hundreds, if not thousands, of stories of people whose lives have been harmed by Weight Watchers. And now they want us to hand them our kids. Say no. Fight Back. Teach your kids that the world is mess up, but they are fine.
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