I think most can agree that we are hard-pressed to find negative words to speak about Oprah Winfrey – the high-potential motivator and empowerment provocateur. Her Golden Globes speech earlier this year exemplified the person and pillar of perseverance, strength and inspiration that many of us hold her to be. However, her affiliation with Weight Watchers this past week (a company for which she is a board member, spokesperson and part owner), and her support of a new initiative the company announced it would roll out in the summer of 2020, made many take pause. I myself found myself questioning how someone I admire as much as Oprah would let the floodgates open about a new initiative giving teens between the ages of 13 and 17 a no-cost, six-week Weight Watchers membership. Let me back up for a minute to provide some context as to why this announcement shook me, and why I think the company should have approached this pilot program (and the announcement of its kickoff) differently.
Weight Watchers has made publicly apparent its intent to transition its brand from one of weight loss and “dieting culture” to one of health and wellness. This new summertime initiative to expand the access and exposure of its offerings to teens is being touted by the company as both a tactic to captivate loyal customers from an earlier age and a means to broaden its community to a membership of 5 million. Eating disorder activists and wellness advocates alike are taking issue with this new initiative (and its potential harmful effects), particularly in light of the company’s recent brand repositioning.
While I can appreciate the efforts of Weight Watchers to broaden the access of its program from a wellness and community health standpoint, the fact of the matter is that this no-cost program for teens raises some red flags. The program may be well-intentioned, or at the very least grounded in business and revenue growth goals. However, I can’t help but wonder along with the National Eating Disorders Association (“NEDA”) and other wellness groups what the true outcome of this initiative will be. Free access to a program that is focused on weight loss as an avenue to health is categorically dangerous for impressionable teens, most of whom are part of the most susceptible demographic for developing behaviors driven by false media expectations and the eating disorder culture. To me, it seems as if this initiative will only serve to exacerbate the disordered eating pattern to which our adolescents and young adults are increasingly falling victim.
According to NEDA, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and severely impact quality of life. They inherently prevent a person from living his or her life well, and oftentimes initiate from a health kick, eating more healthfully or experimenting with dieting.
In light of the risks, Weight Watchers’ approach to announcing its six-week free pilot for teens appears bereft of forethought and consideration of the health and wellness of all. If the company is truly interested in growing its member base and expanding wellness and healthy lifestyle tips to a younger demographic, it could have approached the branding and advertisement of the program differently. Only after conducting some deeper research was I able to find that a doctor’s note with a goal weight is needed for teens to qualify for the Weight Watchers program. Rather than share this six-week pilot approach to an across-the-board readership, the company could have more thoughtfully targeted teens who fall under the overweight or obese designation by working through physician offices and other referral sources. Mind you, this may not have given the company as much kudos from a “look at us, we’re handing out free stuff” standpoint, but its message would have reached the right people at the right places (where they could get the sign of approval they need from a medical professional to qualify for the program). Just this week, alongside this announcement, Weight Watchers shared its plans to remove artificial ingredients from its products. I only wish that this second announcement (which I think holds value for people of all shapes, sizes, ages, genders and eating types) would have been what hit the press with a bang. This type of ingredient modification is in line with Weight Watchers’ impact manifesto as it is a maneuver that is beneficial for all, not just the few.
Expanding access to a program founded with dieting principles without thoughtful consideration of the potentially negative impact of broader exposure does not create a ripple effect of change for the good. Health and wellness companies should strive to be oriented toward self-improvement and community-improvement first and foremost. Reading back through Weight Watchers’ mission and goals for its membership, this initiative seems misguided at best. In the future, Weight Watchers should stick to its mission of growing a culture and community of wellness and health, and not detract from an initiative that appears to have some roots in good by sharing it with the public in a manner that neglects to appreciate the trigger-some effects such an announcement might have on impressionable teens.