Hello, welcome to The Fat Lip, the podcast for fat people, about fat people. I’m your fat host Ash, and today we’re going to talk about kids and the diet industry. So, a word of caution before we start: if hearing about children being put on diets or childhood and teen eating disorders is something that is going to harm you or set you back, you should avoid this one.
Okay, so, several weeks ago now, WW (the ridiculous new name of the company that was formerly Weight Watchers) introduced a new app for children called Kurbo. K-U-R-B-O. Kurbo is billed as a quote “health coaching” app for kids and teens. On the website there’s a lot of mixed messages–first that the Kurbo coaches will teach your kid that their worth is not dependent on their weight but also that weight loss is important. They also say that their program was developed at Stanford and that scientific studies have shown that it’s quote “effective for weight loss” but then every weight loss testimonial has a star and a “results not typical” disclaimer.
Basically what we see here is what we’ve always seen with weight loss programs: convincing scientific studies, promises of effectiveness, but then fine print that proves what we all know–that these programs don’t work for nearly everyone who uses them. In fact a former finance executive for Weight Watchers once acknowledged that this was precisely the point when he said that the company is financially successful because 84% of users do not maintain their weight loss so they have to come back and pay again. I’ll leave links to a BBC piece about this in the shownotes. And this isn’t even half of the problem. A content analysis of weight-loss advertising in 2001 found that more than half of all advertising for weight-loss products made use of false, unsubstantiated claims.
So we know that Weight Watchers doesn’t work, and Weight Watchers knows that Weight Watchers doesn’t work. The difference here is that until recently companies like this at least pretended that they were only selling these ineffective programs to adults. Many, many fat adults, though, were once fat children or fat teens whose families put them in these programs.
I was recently hanging out with two of my fat friends, and all three of us were on Weight Watchers as kids. Three kids from very different familes and socioeconomic backgrounds but all in this program at a young age. Like I distinctly remember the smell of the church basement where I attended meetings weekly with my grandmother. We went for several months, and we shared a points binder because she couldn’t afford to buy one for each of us. Every meeting began with us all lining up for weigh-ins where a cheerful thin lady would record our progress on a hand-written chart. I can still remember the quiet humiliation of taking off my shoes and stepping on the scale while nervous women behind me in line wished they’d worn something lighter. And so many fat people have these stories. If programs like this worked for fat kids, many people I know would not be the fat adults that they are. YourFatFriend wrote an article last week for SELF magazine about her own childhood Weight Watchers experience.
More important, though, than the effectiveness of programs like this is the very real concern that they contribute to the likelihood of kids developing eating disorders. A research review in the 2015 Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that The best-known environmental contributor to the development of eating disorders is the sociocultural idealization of thinness. Kurbo’s marketing images show photos of kids as young as 8 years old with their real names and the amount of weight they’ve lost. Focusing on weight loss is the definitition of the idealization of thinness. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. In a large study of 14– and 15-year-olds, dieting was the most important predictor of a developing an eating disorder. Those who dieted moderately were 5x more likely to develop an eating disorder, and those who practiced extreme restriction were 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet. And people of other marginalized identities have it even worse. Transgender people experience eating disorders at a much higher rate than cisgender people and Latinx adolescents have been found to be much more likely to suffer from bulimia than non-latin peers.
This is terrifying stuff, and it’s more terrifying because eating disorders and symptoms of eating disorders are often ignored in fat people and fat kids–the restriction that is alarming in thin teens is considered a triumph for fat teens. But eating disorders are serious conditions that have serious mental and physical consequences, including death.
Concerns about Kurbo’s effects on children drove NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association, to issue a statement. I’m just going to read some of NEDA’s particular concerns for you here.
1) The app treats higher weights in children as a straightforward diet and exercise issue rather than recognizing a natural diversity of sizes.
2) Many factors in relation to weight are environmental and outside of a child’s control.
3) There are children who do not have access to a wide variety of foods because of their economic status and geographic location.
4) Teens who self-report dieting are twice as likely to become overweight as non-dieting teens, regardless of their beginning weight.
5) Even if there were no concerns related to encouraging weight loss in children, there is no long-term evidence showing that weight loss can be maintained in the majority of those who lose weight.
6) The app relies on self-reporting and there is no screening to determine whether a child is at risk for or suffering from an eating disorder (anorexia, atypical anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders) before they are provided access to the meal tracking features of the app.
7) Children at the ages targeted by the app are preparing to enter puberty and are supposed to be growing. Specifically, they are supposed to gain fat. Interrupting the growth process, especially at such a critical time of development, is irresponsible. Indeed, there is evidence it can cause irreparable harm.
And then they again cite the study of 14-15 year olds that found that dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder and that those 14-15 year olds who dieted moderately were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder and those who practiced extreme restriction were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet.
They closed their statement by saying quote “While we acknowledge the good intentions of researchers working to develop programs to keep children healthy, we must point out the serious risks associated with an app that requires kids to track everything they eat and self-report their weight and behaviors. We encourage parents who may be considering this app for their children – and adolescents thinking of using it themselves – to seriously consider the potential risks.”
And listen, I’m not a parent, but I do know what it’s like to be a fat child who is constantly receiving the message that joy and success and love were privileges afforded only to thin people, and that if I wanted those things I was going to have to earn them. That message was stuck tight to me well into my late teens–that I’d have to prove I was worthy by changing, by starving, and by shrinking. I learned in those Weight Watchers meetings that approval and praise was earned by a negative number on a chart. And because in programs like Weight Watchers, those negative numbers start to disappear very quickly, I learned to be ashamed of my body and how I was failing it. I chased the dream of thinness over and over again, cycling and cycling and only getting fatter.