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Weight Watchers Led To My Eating Disorder — Here's How

Photographed by Fernanda Silva.
I could not have foreseen a time when Weight Watchers — a leader in the $64 billion diet industry — would be praised for its “body positivity.” But the day has come, folks, and it’s aggravating, to say the least. Yep: In its upcoming September issue, the U.K. edition of Weight Watchers Magazine is sporting a “Naked Issue” theme — promoting so-called “body positivity” through nude photographs of 11 people who have lost weight on the program, Today reported last week.

Showcasing bodies of all sizes is a fantastic thing; we can always use more representation of fat and plus-sized individuals in magazines and media. However, there are more than few reasons this feels hollow to me.

I was 14 when my mom suggested I join Weight Watchers. Like many parents who unknowingly push their kids into the diet trap, she had good intentions — after all, she was the same mother who cautioned me against playing with Barbies due to unrealistic body types, the same woman who supported, nurtured, and raised me to have confidence and a shockingly strong sense of self. But I was a squishy child, a chubby preteen, and then a fat 14-year-old — and even my feminist mom fell victim to societal messages telling her my not-skinny figure meant she was raising an unhealthy kid.

One of her close friends had mentioned successfully losing weight on Weight Watchers, specifying to her that the points-counting program wasn’t really a "diet."

So my mom and I signed up together (“I could always benefit from losing five pounds or so!”), and attended weekly weigh-in meetings at the strip mall on the other side of our crunchy, hippie-dominated town. In the meetings, I learned all about counting points through an app on my phone, “free” zero-point foods I could consume when I ran out at the end of the day, and how much better my life would be when I finally reached my weight-loss goal.

Here, it’s important to note that some people do want to lose weight, and there are people who’ve felt like the Weight Watchers approach has worked for them. If that’s the case for you, cool; weight loss isn’t inherently body-negative, and I’m certainly not here to tell you what to do with your body. But this is my experience, and it's the reason I feel so uncomfortable with Weight Watchers jumping on the body-positivity train.

Weight Watchers “worked” for me, too — at least for a while.

By “worked,” I mean that I was good at it. There was something about assigning numbers to food that fed into my perfectionist tendencies, and, after signing up for that initial meeting, it took me less than a year to get to my goal weight — a shiny number that represented a happier, healthier, more in-control and successful Sophie. I even point-counted my way through a 500-mile trek across Spain, coming home unrecognizably thin and welcoming dozens of daily compliments saying, "I want to try that Spanish diet!" and "Wow, you look radiant!" (Translation: "OMG, you look so skinny.")

My social life got easier, romantic interests noticed me for the first time ever, and I could now shop for jeans without praying they had my size at the bottom of the folded pile. And, yeah, you could say my body confidence was through the roof. So, why should I stop now? I decided to set a new — lower — weight goal.

But, as fall arrived and I got back into the rhythm of high school, stress, and not hiking 15 or more miles every day, it became harder and harder to see the numbers on the scale drop. Eventually, with help from a bad case of mononucleosis and an order from my doctor to stop exercising and stay in bed until I healed, the weight I’d lost began to come back.

This was the worst possible thing that could happen — at least according to my mindset at the time. The thought of gaining weight was worse than imagining that I would fail out of school, or that I would find out all my friends hated me.

I felt like trash; I felt like a failure, and there were moments when I even felt like I didn’t deserve to live. Now that I had blown my only shot at skinny success, my eating habits fluctuated from Perfect Weight Watchers Angel to shove-everything-I-possibly-can-down-my-throat-before-Mom-sees, depending on the hour. None of my clothes fit, as I had given away all my pre-Weight Watchers clothing months before. I frequently woke up feeling gassy and bloated from last night’s binge, promising to “start fresh” with each new day.

The night I finally typed “binge eating disorder help” into Google was the same night I found myself in the bathroom, door locked, scarfing down two bowls filled to the brim with Weight Watchers’ “3-2-1” microwave mug cake (a recipe that, when made in the intended serving size, consists of putting three tablespoons of cake mix and two tablespoons of water in the microwave for a “treat” that only costs two Weight Watchers points) — and promptly shoving the brown, crusted evidence under the sink.

Since that night, after a few years of therapy and a journey into intuitive eating, I've learned that my experience with dieting and disordered eating isn’t unique at all. In fact, gaining weight back (and then some) after dieting and falling into disordered eating patterns is exactly how diets — even “flexible” ones like Weight Watchers — set us up to fail.

“It’s common for people to develop disordered eating patterns after dieting, because dieting makes your body think you are starving,” Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, explained to me in an email.

“Each of us has a genetically determined weight ‘set point’ (or really set range), and if you drop below that range through diet-induced weight loss, a healthy body responds by doing everything in its power to make you eat," she added. "It sends out hormones that make you hungry, turns down the ones that make you feel full, and drives you preferentially toward high-carbohydrate and high-sugar foods, because those foods provide the most readily available energy for your starving cells."

“Those types of foods are also, coincidentally, the ones that are ‘off-limits’ on most diets, so this starts a vicious cycle where many dieters end up restricting and then bingeing or ‘emotionally eating’ those off-limits foods," Harrison concludes. "They then start restricting again to compensate, and the cycle continues.”

Even if I hadn't come down with a bad case of mono, gaining the weight back would probably have been my fate regardless — it's just how most bodies respond to being put in starvation mode. As for the idea that Weight Watchers is “not really a diet” (because of its flexible "points" system and lack of a list of foods that are officially off-limits)? “Don’t be fooled by the marketing: Weight Watchers is absolutely a diet,” Harrison writes. “It’s right in the name! It’s about watching your weight, NOT ‘learning to feel happy in your own skin’ or having a ‘mindful, non-obsessive relationship with food.’"

What's more, she says, is that counting 'points' can "lead you to view food as numbers to be tallied rather than experiences to be enjoyed, and to put your faith in the WW system rather than in your own body.”

So, when Weight Watchers features black-and-white photos of naked women in its magazine, I don’t see body positivity, well-rounded nutrition, or self-acceptance. I see a brilliant marketing move. The company is using a powerful social movement to change its image from "diet" (what it really is) to "wholesome healthy-eating plan," knowing that our current societal preference is shifting towards the latter idea.

Weight Watchers didn't "celebrate" my body when I paid money every Saturday morning to step on a scale. It didn't make me "kinder to [my]self by making healthier choices" or appreciate my "glowing inner beauty." If it now wants to join in on my hard-earned body confidence, it has more than a few kinks to work out first.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.