When I was 16, I started to keep a folded-up piece of paper in my dresser drawer. On it was a running tally of the day’s calories. Broccoli, 30 calories. Crackers, 115 calories. Gum, 5 calories
At the end of that list was a spot for me to write down my current weight. I kept the list tucked underneath a stack of clothing, next to a box of laxatives and bottle of ipecac syrup. Those were in case the calorie total became too large and I couldn’t bear to stick my finger down my throat.
I spent the darkest years of my eating disorder wrapped up in numbers — calories, the three digits on the scale, the number of miles I ran, most of them logged in order to keep off weight. I kept detailed journals that outlined methods for shedding pounds, like cutting out all carbohydrates or squeezing in two workouts a day. I was obsessed with what changing various figures could do to make me skinnier.
I was not striving for a healthier lifestyle as I would have liked to believe. No, instead, it was the dropping number on the scale or the sizing up of my reflection in the mirror that proved to be what mattered. And it’s that facade of good health that serves as the core of so many diet and health plans that I discovered then and are still on the market today. Unfortunately, some of those programs are being marketed to teens.
Just last month, Weight Watchers announced that the company is planning to offer free memberships to teenagers as young as 13 this summer. Weight Watchers defines the purpose as “helping the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage.”
“My primary concern is that we are introducing teens to dieting, and dieting has been shown to increase the risk of developing disordered eating patterns, body dissatisfaction, and at the extreme, for those who are vulnerable, a full-blown eating disorder,” Melainie Rogers, owner of NYC-based eating disorder treatment center Balance, tells Yahoo Lifestyle via email. “I am also outraged that Weight Watchers would put this campaign out to the public, appearing to be ‘doing good for the community’ when in fact it is part of a marketing campaign to reach some aggressive revenue targets of $2 billion by 2020. It is an attempt to get brand loyalty at a young age, knowing that people diet over and over, so by introducing these kids to Weight Watchers they are hoping to set up a customer base for many years ahead.”
In response to the Weight Watchers news, Rogers started a #WakeUpWeightWatchers campaign on Twitter — and people all across the country are lending their voices and sharing their opinions.
— Rebecca Staiman (@bstaiman) February 18, 2018
— lauren gostick (@LGwhat) March 2, 2018
#WakeUpWeightWatchers because at 9years old I started going to meetings with my Mom and memorized the points system. It still haunts me. My “comfort” soup is a zero point soup.
— Nicole Madelyn (@NicoleeMadelyn) February 20, 2018
Rogers says the solution for Weight Watchers, and other diet programs, is to have a better understanding of the science, and therefore risks, behind dieting. The idea is to create balanced eating programs that honor each person’s individual weight “but that also is focused on helping people strengthen and ultimately rely on their natural internal regulatory system around eating (e.g., hunger, fullness, and satiety cues, also known as intuitive eating), rather than relying on an external system that is totally disconnected from this, like counting points, calories, and fat grams.
“They all ultimately lead to the same thing. They disconnect us from our natural internal weight and food regulatory system that is built to intuitively tell us when we are hungry, when we are full, when we are satisfied or have a craving.”
This, of course, was the key to my eventual recovery and discovery of a healthy lifestyle. I had an eating disorder, yes. But it was the promise of thinness attached to diet fads or bikini-body tricks I found behind glossy magazine covers that drove me down the path of what eventually became destructive behaviors. My teenage self couldn’t wrap her head around anything more important than the numbers I believed reflected my self-worth.
The other day I was visiting my parents and stepped on their bathroom scale. With the exception of routine doctor’s visits, it was the first time I had done so since I gave birth to my daughter almost three years ago. The number was 10 pounds heavier than my usual weight. In the past, that’s a number that would have sent bells ringing in my head. Ten. Ten. Ten. My focus would have been on that damn number — and how to change it as quickly as possible — instead of the questions I now ask myself: Do I feel healthy? Am I taking care of myself? Is this my best self?
The answers are something that will lead me to choose foods that make me feel less tired when I wake up or more energized for a day at the park with my daughter. I now seek the lifestyle instead of the number, and it’s something I can only hope more teenagers will choose as well.
My hope is that Weight Watchers will too.
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