While the name change is progress, the revamping is not the wholesale change that would be needed to help more people live healthier at their current weight. In fact, it does not appear to represent a reduced emphasis on weight at all. WW is still primarily rooted in pursuing weight loss, albeit with more opt-outs. It will still allot points as a means of restricting calories and placing limits on foods — though members can decide not to set a weight-loss goal and use the point level WW establishes for their current nourishment needs. Scales will still be present at in-person meetings, but members can choose not to use them. The company will still be establishing external rules rather than internal controls for what people eat, though it will be promoting those rules more in terms of “wellness.”
Ivy Felicia, a Washington-based holistic wellness and body image coach, says people cannot discover true mind and body wellness if they depend on an external diet system such as Weight Watchers. “People become empowered when they recognize their inherent value, make peace with taking up space and build a trusting connection to their intuitive voice,” say Felicia. “Constantly relying on a system to rate how you’re doing doesn’t provide you with these things.”
WW’s new take on exercise motivation is problematic, too, because it places a hierarchy on the types of exercise members engage in. Though all forms of movement earn points, the system is setup so that the harder you push yourself, the more credit you get. Bianca Russo, founder of Washington-based Body Positive Bootcamp, sees this as a red flag. “A reward system based on fitness is triggering for many people just trying to care for their bodies. It puts people at a higher risk of injury, and it leads people to feel that what they are able to do isn’t good enough,” says Russo. Ironically, this valuation of movement could lead to exercise avoidance, as people are less likely to engage in activities if they don’t find them personally meaningful and beneficial. “The last thing I want my clients to feel is like a loser.”
I also doubt that the rebranding will promote inclusivity in a company that is ostensibly focused on community-building. If the vast majority of members are still pursuing weight loss, will members who want to focus on wellness still feel like they belong? Logging what they eat won’t be helpful if they are trying to focus on learning to respond to internal cues. Moving their body for inherent joy and health benefits will be difficult in a program that assigns varying FitPoints® to rate achievement. People who want to pursue well-being at any size and truly let go of attachments to weight loss need a different set of values than those the new WW promotes.
No matter what name you give it, WW is a diet company capitalizing on the deeply held belief system that larger bodies are unhealthy, that lasting weight loss results in better health and that if we just put more effort in, we’ll get the results we want. Sarai Walker, author of the novel “Dietland,” a feminist revenge-fantasy novel that skewers the weight-loss industrial complex and was recently a series on AMC, says there is a lot of money to be made helping people strive for their ideal body, which is usually thin. “Even in an era of ‘body positivity,’ most people don’t want to be fat. Dropping the word ‘weight’ in favor of wellness appears more politically correct, even though they are just rebranding the concept of dieting,” she says.
Unfortunately, the rebranding doesn’t do anything to disrupt the very real power differential between fat and thin people in our culture. Studies spanning more than a decade indicate that weight stigma, which increases with body mass index (BMI), affects a spectrum of issues including medical care and job prospects. Weight stigma is harmful to physical and mental health. A 2018 review of the literature by researchers Rebecca Pearl and Rebecca Puhl showed that when weight bias is internalized, it has strong, negative impact on depression, anxiety, self-esteem, body image, binge eating and disordered eating. Many of my clients were members of Weight Watchers in failed attempts to make their body thinner, and now they’re working hard at reversing the physical and emotional damage of dieting.
A campaign to make larger bodies smaller in the name of wellness hurts the people WW claims to serve, people who would benefit the most from a change in culture that no longer assigned moral value based on body size or health status. Rather than separating our ideas of health and merit from weight, connecting the concept of “wellness” to weight loss only reinforces it.
Instead of pointing blame at ourselves, we need to turn that sword toward the culture that created fat-phobia, that normalized weight loss as the way to make health improvements, and that keeps us investing and reinvesting in products and services that continuously reinvent themselves with new names and self-proclaimed better intentions.
Impact is more significant than intention, and so far the modern-day impact of dieting has not been health improvement. In fact, it’s quite the opposite for the millions of people who are concerned about their weight and appearance. Furthermore, a 2018 study by Jerica Berge and colleagues found that the practice of dieting can be transferred between generations, like a virus: Adolescents who were encouraged to diet and who fared no better in health or BMI as adults passed their dieting behaviors on to their children.
We need to stop the cycle, to make the world a better place for people of all weights to live both in health and in peace. Perhaps one day there will be a company willing to create a program that moves us toward that goal, but that day is not today.
This column has been updated.
Rebecca Scritchfield is a Washington-based dietitian, certified exercise physiologist and author of the book “Body Kindness.”