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.