Last week, Weight Watchers launched a new diet program for children called Kurbo by WW. The news made my body tense with memories and rage and made my heart race with anxiety. I immediately thought, Can we just accept that fat kids exist and deserve to? Can’t we see that their bodies are not the problem? I should know: I was a fat kid, and the learned self-loathing and sense of nobodiness that defined my childhood came primarily from diet culture.
Starting around age 4 ― just a few years too young to participate in a program like Kurbo, which is aimed at kids 8-17 years old ― my parents told me I was fat and put me on my first diet. They said it was for my health as they pinched my stomach and pointed out the fat they claimed would kill me. They said it was for a far-off day when I’d want to get married, that no boy would like me unless I was thinner. Ultimately, they said in words and actions that it was for them, because they were ashamed of me and didn’t know what to do but try to make me thin.
This was happening as I, like all children, was forming a lasting sense of myself and my place in the world. This was also the mid-’80s. Many people, including my parents, didn’t know what has now been proven: Diets don’t work. For biological, cultural and emotional reasons, restricting food and increasing physical activity with the goal of losing weight is nearly always impossible on any but the shortest timelines. In fact, one of the only reliable outcomes of dieting is weight gain. Eating disorders and low self-esteem are another. So, too, is a long-term sense of shame, struggle, mistrust and fear around three of life’s most basic and dependable pleasures: food, movement and the body itself ― not to mention a lifelong preoccupation with dress size and bathroom scales and bread baskets instead of, say, the liberation of people of color, or women, or poor people in one’s local community or around the world.
My parents put me on diets because they were trying to protect me. They thought my life would be easier if I were thin instead of fat. They might have been right, but only because fat people are subject to irrational, cruel, highly political bias and discrimination ― not because there is anything inherently wrong with fatness. Fatness does not make someone immoral, unethical, lazy, hateful, doomed, ugly, worth less, pathological, or damaged; nor is it a dispositive factor in physical health. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but their concern about my fatness located the problem in my body instead of in the culture that problematizes and polices all kinds of “deviant” or “different” bodies, including my childhood one. It’s not the kids, people, it’s the world around them!
The acts of self-hatred I endured ― which are often deemed acceptable in fat people because our culture wants to see them destroyed ― are a tragedy in my life. They robbed me of adventures, relationships, joy, liberty, memories, and learning that would have been available to me, as a fat person, but for my own internalized fatphobia.
For nearly 40 years, I did my best to comply with my family and the culture’s demand that I shrink. My quest for compliance lasted my whole childhood, into high school, into young adulthood, and into my own motherhood. It included “mild” dieting such as the kind touted by Weight Watchers (repeatedly), South Beach, Whole30, Cabbage Soup, I Quit Sugar, The Kind Diet and the like, and also darker stuff: throwing up, seriously contemplating methamphetamine use, rejoicing over stomach bugs, subsisting on spoonfuls of whipped cream and cold cuts, and working out through protracted injuries. These acts of self-hatred ― which are often deemed acceptable in fat people because our culture wants to see them destroyed ― are a tragedy in my life. They robbed me of adventures, relationships, joy, liberty, memories and learning that would have been available to me, as a fat person, but for my own internalized fatphobia.
But the deeper and more sinister tragedy of forcing children to start dieting is that they are too young to resist or give informed consent. They are too young to have, let alone use, the vocabulary, compass or agency to understand or reject diet culture, especially when it is being pushed on them by their families. To the contrary: if most kids are anything like I was, they will try as hard as they can, for as long as they can, through confusion, failures and pain, to do what their families ask of them.
This is why I don’t trust the “before and after” pictures of children that Weight Watchers is using to sell its fatphobic, harmful ideology to parents and families. Those kids may be smiling in the after photos, and they may even be happy, but they are also performing.
Kids aren’t stupid. I wasn’t, and that is why I didn’t protest when my parents put me on “Two at Noon,” a local TV show, for a segment about kids who had lost weight and were finally happy and enjoying life. I grimaced my way through the interview, lying about how much I loved PE now that I was thin, how happy I was now that I’d lost X pounds. Nor did I complain when my parents successfully submitted a photograph of me for the cover of the new ShapeDown booklet. ShapeDown was a workbook and counseling program (unaffiliated with Weight Watchers) designed to help children lose weight in the 1990s. That TV show and the ShapeDown cover (which can still be found on Amazon) were dark moments in my young life ― moments in which I wrestled silently and alone with shame about my supposedly flawed body, the difficulty of fixing it, and the crushing, terrifying sense that my family’s love and pride was contingent on drastically altering my very self: my body I existed inside of. But despite the trauma I was experiencing in those moments, I smiled and posed my way through it all.
We should all encourage children to be healthy. It’s just that diets don’t do this, and they don’t allow for the realities that bodies are diverse and body size alone does not determine metabolic health. Whether a child is thin or fat at any given moment of their lives, “health” is a multifaceted, dynamic state that exists on a spectrum. “Health” ― and a child’s well-being ― involves emotional and mental health, both of which diets harm. It includes whether they perceive themselves as fundamentally OK or fundamentally flawed. It includes room for their bodies to change and grow. It includes access to unconditional love. It includes being protected from the world’s biases, not indoctrinated into them.
My sanity, family and finding true joy in my life are more important than trying to free some mythical thin woman inside me. This can be hard work in a fatphobic culture. It is also infinitely better than living in the prison of dieting.
Weight Watchers is a business. It cares about money and shareholders. Maybe I shouldn’t expect it to care about the kids it hopes to turn into lifelong customers, but I care about them. And I know their parents do, too.
I’m fat, female and multiracial. After almost 40 years and at least as many diets ― each one connected to that very first one ― I have stopped dieting and discovered what is on the other side of that fool’s errand: holistic health, liberation and contentment in my body. I practice weight-neutral self-care such as intuitive eating and weight-neutral exercise and movement. I celebrate body diversity and my genetic blueprint. My sanity, family and finding true joy in my life are more important than trying to free some mythical thin woman inside me. This can be hard work in a fatphobic culture. It is also infinitely better than living in the prison of dieting.
Sometimes I try to determine whether racism, sexism or being forced to diet at a young age has had the most troubling impact on my life. They are, of course, intertwined, but the fact that this is a tough call should speak volumes. Here is one difference I hope every parent absorbs: racism and sexism are unavoidable, if damaging, facts of life, even for children; fatphobia and dieting do not have to be.
Savala Trepczynski is a writer and lawyer who has appeared in/on NPR, Forbes, Bust, and more. Her book about race, gender, and the body will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2021. You can follow her on Instagram and on her blog.