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The call is coming from inside the house

I was on vacation — my first real vacation in many years — when the news broke that Weight Watchers was rolling out a weight loss app for children. Because I was late to the conversation, I also had a vantage point that benefited from the conversation already in progress. It took time to review all the articles, responses, and the volume of emails I received asking what F.E.A.S.T. meant to do about it. As a result, we published a Position Statement today

It was gratifying that our community, and allies, wanted to know our position. I felt honored that our families could rely on us to hear them and respond.

It seemed straightforward. Although there are countless apps and weight loss programs for children already, this one is high profile and well-resourced. An app that children could use to track their eating, chat with strangers about their eating and exercise, that came with the incentive to post Before/After photos, rating foods as healthy and unhealthy, exercising to compensate for eating? That sounds a lot like the disordered thinking and behaviors we TREAT. Why on earth would adults allow, encourage, and even pay for this disordered stuff? How tragic that families would feel under pressure to fix these growing bodies and put them at risk of unhealthy behaviors or, for those with a predisposition, trap them in mental torture. For some, that app could be the first step to dying of an eating disorder, encouraged by their parents who trusted a well-known brand.

Why? How did this happen? It would be easy to say the answer is “money.” I’m leaning another way. I think that those whose business it is to sell weight loss are driving a truck through a growing division in the child health and nutrition — and eating disorders — fields. There are two schools of thought and they have, up to now, agreed not to disagree. Those who believe in suppressing weight in larger children, “for their health,” are sometimes also in the business of treating those whose weight suppression is associated with deadly mental illness.

I was gutted to learn that the Kurbo app was known to many in the eating disorder treatment and research and advocacy worlds before it launched. I assumed they would, as a community, not only have spoken up loudly but have been ready to stand against it as a body alongside our community. The parent community got it immediately. The parent community saw this as the danger it is as soon as we heard about it.

But with the benefit of having delayed my response, I noticed that the protest is muted. That in the small world of eating disorders everyone is no more than one degree of separation from those who consulted on the app. As my husband so wisely observed, the professional reaction has been de-fanged by a distaste for conflict. The idea of teaching children to diet early, based on BMI no less, and advising children to get up an hour early to exercise so they can eat cake at a birthday party, should scare the bejeezus out of anyone, but it did not.

When I learned how many organizations and individuals knew, and did not protest or warn the world, about Kurbo, I was surprised. When I saw that Kurbo’s developers didn’t seem to anticipate the “hostility” and backlash, I realized that “the call is coming from inside the house.”

Things like Kurbo, which is only one of the weight loss tools kids can use and only one form of the ways our children are taught to fear weight gain and moralize about their food, these apps are not the only problem.  There is a silent divide between those who fear child “obesity” and those who see child health across the spectrum as harmed by restrictive thinking and behaviors. We haven’t faced that divide, and I think families deserve that we do so, and urgently.

I am proud to be part of the F.E.A.S.T. community and especially proud of our financial independence from sponsorships or advertising. We would never have taken any money or benefits from Weight Watchers, but we do not have to fear backlash either. We can stand up for what is right and say what is wrong: teaching children disordered eating and exercise are just wrong. And, all too often, deadly. The challenge now is to figure out how we could possibly disagree about this, and how we close that gap.

3 Comments

  1. Eva Musby

    You explain the situation well, Laura, thank you.
    I am bewildered and dismayed that a few of the top professionals in adolescent eating disorders have their names behind this app.
    I hope this paves the way to conversation and progress for the sake of children.

    Suggestion: a respectful video interview of one or two of the experts on that list?

    (Note I have not had the stomach to explore the app and see for myself. Will do if necessary.)

  2. Laura

    Eva, those who consulted on that app apparently signed a “non-disclosure agreement.” They are not allowed to speak, as I understand it, about why they signed on and what they told Weight Watchers about Kurbo. Weight Watchers is no longer distributing the list, I notice, so perhaps some shame has now surfaced. But I’ve talked to enough people who are not Kurbo advisors who believe weight loss dieting for larger children is fine that I no longer trust that this is a scattered few: I think we have a genuine division that must be addressed head-on.

    I have the app on my phone. It reminds me daily to track my food, and sends me emails every day to brag about “success stories” of child weight loss. I keep it there to remind me why I do what I do.

  3. Anna

    This is so sad. My 12 year old daughter is a child who would be targeted for weight loss according to Kurbo’s standards. She slipped from the so-called “overweight” range (above the 85th percentile for weight for age) into the “normal range.” She lost weight very gradually with a focus on “eating healthy” and “being fit,” NEVER expressing a desire to be thinner. All seemed well until it wasn’t. She presented at the hospital with a heart rate of 40 and a risk of bradycardia and heart failure. She was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa shortly after while still in the so-called “normal” weight range. Six months of hell on earth followed bringing her back from the brink. Many are not that fortunate. Her health markers and state all improved but only after gaining back every single lb she lost then 20 lbs more for missed adolescent growth, bringing her back to between the 85th and 95th percentile for weight. If we, her parents didn’t notice, nor the doctors we first visited know there was something wrong, how the he** would these so-called coaches know, that is if they in fact get one. This is a tool for disordered eating and for some may very well be an instrument of death. I get how a company only cares about their bottom line but these ED specialists? To be quite honest I have lost total respect for each one of them for the disregard they show for children like mine for allowing their name and reputation to be associated with a product that will harm the very people they are meant to help.

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