Opinions

Weight Watchers' new Kurbo app gamifies diet culture—and it’s dangerous

When I was a kid, I dreamt of being a musical theatre star. Once (I was so young I can’t remember this in detail) my mom calmed me down before a surgery by playing “Think of Me” from Phantom of the Opera on our Playschool tape player while we waited for the nurses.

I vividly remember sitting in my aunt’s kitchen while she cooked with my mom, reading the lyrics of Les Miserables in the cd booklet and singing along before I understood what the words meant.

Then one day, my tiny heart set aside its ache for Broadway and set its sights on a newer, better dream: losing weight. I didn’t want to be famous or great, to make art or follow my passion. I wanted, more than anything, just to look like everyone else.

I didn’t want to be famous or great, to make art or follow my passion. I wanted, more than anything, just to look like everyone else.

All my other career ambitions starved to death too. My wishes to a marine biologist, horticulturalist, archaeologist, horseback-riding champion, figure skater, private detective, writer—couldn’t survive against the dazzling glare of thinness.

I was a fat kid. I wasn’t constantly picked on, but I had endured enough scattershot cruelty from children at school, read enough books, and had seen enough Disney movies to know that people who had their dreams come true didn’t look like me. So I traded my big dreams for shrinking ones. Straight up, diet culture taught me that the greatest thing I could hope to achieve was the physical status quo—and only then would I matter.

• Imagine an eight-year-old girl swapping out Harry Potter to vigorously study low fat cookbooks.

• Imagine an eight-year-old girl sneaking bites of the Atkins bars in the cupboard because they were coded as diet food and held the answer.

• Imagine an eight-year-old girl asking their older sister to help build an exercise routine and doing bicep curls with Pringles cans full of pennies because there were no dumbells in the house. 

• Imagine an eight-year-old girl fantasizing about fat camp instead of summer camp. Opening her mind up, not to the possibilities of the future and all she could be, but to dreams of a flat stomach. Now picture her wishing for it on her birthday candles.

I’m almost 30, and I feel like I’m only just beginning to understand just how deep these issues run in me, and how much of who I am was shaped by the weight loss industrial complex. That’s about two full decades of trying to be bulimic, a binge eating disorder, and multiple fad diets (including Weight Watchers) in the name of “health and wellness.”

The kicker is that, when I was a child, my parents never tried to put me on diets or tried to make me lose weight. I learned all of these desires from what I observed out in the world.

I also didn’t need an app to get all of my issues started—but I’m deeply furious when I think about how quickly and efficiently Kurbo will do the job.

I also didn’t need an app to get all of my issues started—but I’m deeply furious when I think about how quickly and efficiently Kurbo will do the job.

Children don’t understand that 95% of diets fail, or that BMI is garbage, or that thinness is not an indicator of health. They don’t know that dieting is a leading prerequisite for eating disorders. They don’t know that you can be happy, be loved, or be successful at any size and shape. They don’t know that they are enough from the time they are born.

But they will come to understand whatever this app tells them, reinforced by the “concerns” of the adults around them and the world we live in. They will be taught not that they are special, but that they could be something if they just shaved a few digits off their body fat percentage.

The app is targeting ages 8-17. Are you fucking kidding me WW?

You’re locking on to our most innocent and vulnerable and having the audacity to call it building healthy habits instead of what it is: a way to create a new generation of dieters with eating disorders.

That’s what this app is. It’s the insidious primary-coloured packaging and gamification of body shaming practices, moralizing food, and a fixation and obsession with size and shape. They’re selling a solution to a problem they’re creating.

It’s the insidious primary-coloured packaging and gamification of body shaming practices, moralizing food, and a fixation and obsession with size and shape.

Little minds should be dreaming about living on Mars and new ice cream flavours, not pounds or inches. They should be thinking of play, not workouts.

I can tell you from my own first-hand experience that children on diets (whether THEY choose them or they’re coaxed into it by grown ups) don’t become healthy, well-adjusted adults.

It leads to deep trauma that carves you up repeatedly and affects your mental health and all your relationships. It leads to furiously writing opinion pieces at 1:24 a.m. while you marvel at how many pages of a novel or screenplay you could have written by now if you hadn’t been so busy filling notebooks with detailed notes counting and re-counting every calorie every day, several times a day for months.

It leads to wasted time, energy, and life.

I’ll never know the suffering I could have been spared if I hadn’t been taught for years and years that I deserved nothing more than to hate myself unless I changed. It seemed so innocent and shining at the time. It seemed harmless. It all seems harmless if it’s painted with the wash of concern for health.

This is app is going to poison thousands of children the same way I was. The same way so many of us are.

And now it’s our job to keep this from happening again. We are supposed to protect them. We are supposed to keep things that will hurt them away from their little hands. That includes preventing them from running with scissors, touching the stove or using mobile phones pre-loaded with a lifetime’s worth of ambition-crushing, body-shaming applications designed to hook ‘em young.

It breaks my heart and infuriates me to think of children who are about have their wildest dreams traded for yesterday’s trauma just because diet culture has gone mobile.  

Not a week goes by where I don't meet a child believing wt loss is good and doesn't see their eating disorder as a problem 💔 #Repost @mysignaturenutrition with @get_repost ・・・ Repeat after me. Children should not diet. An app created to help kids diet is exploitation. It's harmful and outright DANGEROUS. . @ww does not care about kids. they don't care about health. they care about their bottom line. That's it. They say that innovation (aka changes) bring customers back to weight watchers. and they rely on repeat customers. Hence Kurbo. Their "free" dieting app for kids. . The average weight watchers member has signed up five times. Their model relies on repeat customers and even boasts that they are aware of this pattern of repeat enrollment. . Offering "free" services to kids isn't out of generosity, care, or concern of teens health or wellness. It's about creating a repeat customer for life. . Not the kind of repeat customer that goes back because they feel good, satisfied and love the product. The kind of customer that goes back because they feel ashamed, like a failure and don't know what to do. . Weight watchers is aware of this and the statistics on dieting. They are intentionally exploiting the diet failure rate to further their bottom line and masking it as "care." . They are aware that the truth is: -95-98% of all diets fail. -60% of people will gain back more weight -35% of people will progress to pathological dieting of those 20-25% progress to an eating disorder -dieting predicts weight gain in adolescents. -dieting is correlated with increased guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, low self esteem and eating disorders. All of which are correlated with worse health outcomes. -adolescents (and really anyone) who diets are more likely to binge eat. . This ploy by weight watchers isn't about health or wellness at all. It's not about healthy living or anything else. . It's all about increasing their bottom line by preying on innocent youth and manipulating them to believe that health, happiness and self worth come from changing your body at all costs. This is Diet Culture. . #wakeupweightwatchers #dietculture #dietculturedropout #dietculturedefense

Mad as hell 🔥 . . @ww back at it again predating on children via @kurbohealth. . . Things we know about intentional weight loss programs below 👇 (and dont give me the "this isnt about weight loss BS Weight Watchers.... your website is littered with weight loss "success" stories... from children as young as eight!) . . Programs like this create opportunity for intense preoccupation with food, body size and weight. . . 50% of folks using nutrition and fitness apps report feelings of guilt/shame, obsession and social isolation. We don't know what this might look like in a paediatric population.... WW KURBO is going to be unprecidented. . . Programs like KURBO designed to target childhood ob*sity through the promotion of energy expenditure or intake further reinforce the harmful and incorrect narrative that the size, shape and weigh of our body is a good and accurate representation of health status and wellbeing - and that deliberate effort and control of intake and expenditure will attain a body symbolic of health. . . This program is fat phobic AF. . . This style of "behaviour change" program HAS NOT been shown to change health behaviours (NOR WEIGHT) in the long term. . . Bottom line? Parents put your credit cards away and as @tastingabundance so eloquently put today "give a child space for them to be who they are." . . #haes #healthateverysize #sizediversity #healthcare #healthnotdiets #riotsnotdiets #antidiet #weightneutral #weightinclusive #fatpositive #nondietapproaches #bodyrespect #bodykindess #bodyposi #medicine #medical #weightstigma #mindful #intuitiveeating #nondiet #nutrition #nutritionist #dietitian #rd2b #haes_studentdoctor #medstudent #medschool #edrecovery

Brittany Runs A Marathon Trailer: Fat Suits N' Mixed Messages

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The trailer for Brittany Runs A Marathon took less than 24 hours from release to hit my news feed—performing a targeted tactical strike on my attention because it combines two huge passions of mine: running and the movies.

Here’s the trailer for context.

I love that Jillian Bell—who is beautiful by conventional standards, but often gets cast as the chubby comedic friend—is the lead, Brittany. I love that Utkarsh Ambudkar is the romantic leading man. I love that Brittany starts with one block—just one block—and builds from there, as so many runners do.

I like the ending wide shot of our heroine Brittany and her running buddy being passed by a tethered train of pre-schoolers in Central Park (it really does feel like that sometimes).

HOWEVER (Ain’t There Always A However)?

The first thing I noticed? At the beginning of this trailer, Jillian Bell is wearing a Fat Suit Lite(tm) and what looks like some facial prosthesis—red flag. It was the first indicator that this might not be a movie about a young woman who learns to love herself as-is.

The fat suit says: “this is going to be a story about a woman who becomes empowered because she loses weight.”

Okay, I thought, kinda problematic. But maybe this will be okay! Maybe it’s going to be a critique of the way people in larger bodies are treated by society? Brittany says jobs don’t find her to be a good “fit.” She says people thought she was lazy because of how she looked.

The first thing out of the doctor’s mouth when he says he wants to get her “healthy”? “I want you to lose 55 pounds.” It’s a classic weight loss prescription plus-sized people are served day in and day out while actual health issues go ignored. Maybe this movie is taking aim at that… right? RIGHT?

Except… she drops the weight (suit), and it’s painted as the key to her turning her whole life around—while they also try to tell us that that’s totally not what the story is trying to say.

”You changing your life was never about your weight,” Brittany’s friend Demetrius, played by Get Out’s scene-stealing Lil Rel Howry, tells her.

Except, at least from the trailer, that’s the story the film is telling—she loses weight and everything changes, and it might never take a critical shot at the bigger reasons “why” shrinking yourself helps you fit in better with society or why that might improve your life.

Yes she presumably makes positive changes that genuinely lead to a healthier life. Less drinking—good! More movement—also good! Still, it’s on the doctor’s orders to get healthy by dropping pounds. One has to wonder if they’ll ever take a breath to examine that equivalency.

Especially because the weight does come off which, to be fair, does happen sometimes—but sometimes in real life it doesn’t. It shouldn’t have to in order to tell a great narrative about self love and growth. Would Brittany be allowed to gain self worth if her body DIDN’T change?

But It’s Based On A True Story!

Yes, this is based on a true story, in fact—it could be based on many true stories. In some ways, this story mirrors the start of my own relationship with running.

Maybe you’re saying, “well if that’s where you started, couldn’t this movie be a good starting point for other people?”

Yes and no. It could be, but it shouldn’t have to be. First: I’m not magically cured of the desire to be thinner or prettier just because I’m not actively trying to lose weight with running—diet culture is more implanted an insidious than that. It’s everywhere, every day—on social media, and in the movies. Stories like this keep that narrative churning—> weight loss = worth.

This is an old narrative—yes, it’s new to the screen, but if you’ve read almost any women’s magazine, we know the transformation arc—we know before and after pictures. We know stories about new quality of life. We need new heroes—ones who just love themselves and move without expectation of change to fit in to “acceptable” body types.

And that’s why this trailer has me on edge. It cuts very close to home and seems to ignore the very lesson it seems it’s trying to teach by adding an asterisk: “you have always been enough, *which you only realized after you got out of the fat suit and people started to treat you better".

I’m not saying this story shouldn’t be told. I’m going to watch this movie when it comes out and probably cry, no matter what.

BUT, if you want to tell a story about a woman who begins running and loses weight and therefore finds new purpose in life, maybe leave it there. Don’t say one thing (worthy) and then show me another by illustrating that shrinking is actually the way to become more.

I’m wary that this may be a commercial for The Biggest Loser wrapped in the oh-so co-opted “body positivity” that smuggles diet culture and weight loss mentality into our everyday lives.

Still, I’m hopeful. I’m holding off judgment until I can actually see the movie for myself and have my questions answered:

  • Will this movie ACTUALLY align weight loss as a key indicator for health and wellness?

  • Will it use Brittany’s weight for any punchlines? (Looking at you, I Feel Pretty.)

  • Will this movie acknowledge the fact that there are people in more diverse bodies in the running world and they also do some truly amazing stuff without changing themselves?

I also have a few other narrative questions I’d like to pose as the devil’s loud n’ proud advocate:

  • What would this movie look like if Brittany was in an even larger, more marginalized body? (And not wearing a fat suit.)

  • What would this movie look like if she gained the weight back but still has strong health indicators, improved quality of life and RUNS THE MARATHON ANYWAY?

  • What would this movie look like if she doesn’t actually drop the weight at all but still finds love, happiness, respect, purpose and reaches her goals?

I can’t answer any of these—because I don’t know how this movie ends. I’m hoping to be surprised, but I’ll have to wait until August to find out. Until then, I’ll be keeping busy with my running schedule—one block at a time.

If you want to share your thoughts on the trailer, jump into the conversation Facebook and Instagram, or leave some thoughts in the comments!

Fast Runners: Back Of The Back Runners Need Your Actions, Not Your Words

Recently on our Facebook page I shared a link to an article from 2014 by a front of the pack runner about the runners at the back of the pack. Here’s a very short summary:  

• This author is a hella fast near-elite runner.

• The author says if he had to run a marathon and it took him 5 or 6 hours, he probably wouldn’t bother running those races.

• Good for the people who train that hard and run that slow, they’re “endurance heroes.”

Favourite quote: “It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to cross that finish line … you train like the rest of us train.”  

(I would argue many back of the packers train harder than some people who sign up for marathons. I know a guy who didn’t train for a marathon at all, but decided to run one for a whim or a bet or something equally stupid. I think he got a better time than me… I also know he couldn’t walk the next day.)

My boyfriend brought the article up while we were on a short trail run last week, and said he thought it had a bit of a condescending tint to it. Why did this guy feel the need to list his PR times? Didn’t it kind of sound like he was pity-praising a three-legged golden retriever? (Note: my words, not his.)

Why am I writing an article about someone’s opinion from five years ago? Because as far as we’ve come, back of the pack runners are still second class citizens in Run City.

A Couple Less “A’s”

It’s refreshing to read someone actually acknowledge that yes, running is hard and some people have to put more into it to make it work for them—more time, more patience, more emotional risk. At the end of the day, they’re still every inch runners as much as those at the front of the pack.

It’s validating… but then, some parts of the article hit this message with at a slightly wrong angle.

The author writes that he probably wouldn’t bother running a marathon if it took him so long: “if you told me that I needed to go on a 20-mile run … and it was going to take me 4-6 hours, I would probably say nope, that’s just waaaaay too long!”

Maybe a couple less “a’s” in there, bud.

The Good, The Bad, and The Running Elitists

The fact is, running calls to a lot of people; we’re not all elites or gazelles but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong to us too. Personally, I feel I was meant to run, even if I’m not built to scrub any distance as fast as other people can.

Saying a speed like mine, or that of someone in an even more marginalized body, would discourage your from running doesn’t come off as a praise of strength and determination. It reads as, “good job buddy, you inspire me, but boy am I glad I’m not you!”

The writer had good intentions, which is more than I can say about some other people and their opinions.

For example, a female runner in a 2009 New York Times article who said it’s “a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours.”

She was also kind enough to add her opinion that “it used to be that running a marathon was worth something — there used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it’s, ‘How low is the bar?’”

Progress is Progress No Matter How Small

Sure, the running world has come a long way since then, with athletes like Mirna Valerio, John Young, Martinus Evans and others trailblazing the way for more people who want to get into running for the love of it and don’t fit the mould.

These cultural shifts are beginning to create actual change too. Some marathons are offering longer cut off times. Many running groups are available for a wide variety of paces. The world is beginning to open up—however—the struggles are far from over.

Even today, when back of the packers push for basics like the course staying clear and for water, gels, or sports drink to be available for the duration of the race within the cut off, they’re often shut down. 

I’ve read stories from many runners who have been told to lose weight and get faster, or just stop running races entirely by front of the pack runners when they tried to advocate for these basic amenities which they paid for in their race fee like everyone else.  

So, yeah. I’ll give some points to a fast runner because he doesn’t question the right of slower runners to be out there on the course and respects our process. I’ll take or leave being “inspiring” to someone who could lap me in pretty much every distance any day of the week.

Using Your Influence To Achieve Running Equality

Faster runners, if you want to really want to advocate for the people in the back of the pack, there are a few ways to do it.

If you run a race and you hear people at the back had issues with course operations, write to the race directors and express concern—even if it doesn’t affect you, your voice can help the issue be taken seriously. 

Make a running buddy with someone slower than you. If you’re a fast runner and your friend is a slow runner occasionally, offer to go running with them. They’ll probably deny the offer because they don’t want to “slow you down.” Tell them it’s cool. Meet them at their pace. It might be a good relaxing run for you and some companionship for them.

Bonus points if you drag your back of the pack friend out to a local running group that they’ve been dying to try, but have avoided for fear of being left in the dust. Leave your ego at the door and run with them if there’s no one else their speed. Make them feel a part of something.

There’s a reason we like to call it the running community, after all.

Every action you take in solidarity with back of the pack runners doesn’t mean YOU have to slow down on your way to the finish line. It just means more people get the race finish they truly deserve, and that they feel welcome there.

Opinion: We Need to Ditch the Idea of Arts Vs. Athletics

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Athletes are artists.

The thought re-occurred to me watching Adidas’ latest “Here to Create” ad during March Madness. (Shoutouts Villanova!)

If you haven’t seen it, the ad features an array of athletes looking into the camera, and telling the audience: “see my creativity.” It’s a quick 30-second watch, check it out:

The whole thing got my gears turning about something I’ve been wrestling with for more than a decade. Athletes are creatives—even if society likes to play up those who play sports athletics and those who create art as opposites. 

Sure, there's crossover between the two worlds when it comes to activities like dance, or even yoga… But chiefly, the image of athletes being pure sweat and grit is often a foil against the sensitive and soulful artist. 

For a long time, I believed I had to choose. 

In high school, I thought of myself as artsy and misunderstood. Sweating was for JOCKS. I probably unfairly wrote off some of my athletic classmates as shallow… But then, it wasn’t like I had constructed this notion from nowhere—the media was there to back me up.

Movies and television reinforce the identity story of athleticism vs. pretty much every other interest—think: The Breakfast Club, think Mean Girls. You can’t be a great poet and kill it at lacrosse. You can’t have a photographic eye and a killer right hook.

Every once in awhile, Zac Efron wins the big basketball game AND nails the singing audition—but on the whole, the media keeps resubscribing us to the idea of these two things are enemies (#fakenews). The problem is we believe it, and now the next generation is growing up believing it. Finally though, our stories have begun to change. Finally, we're catching up. 

Now that I’m older, I'm a writer and a runner. I know that the call to an athletic vocation can pull at the soul as much as any artistic endeavour. Just like an artist has to discover where their talent and passion lies, so does an athlete—painting or poetry? Sprinting or ski jumping?

There are stories in my sweat.

When they find what speaks to them, both put in the hours to hone their craft. There is deep digging. There is soul searching. There are failures, improvements, and masterpieces. (Think game-winning slapshots in OT or Best Original Screenplay.) There are experiments—new paints, new shoes. There are competitive meets and opening nights. There is struggle—and there is always art in struggle. 

Studies have shown that athletes can make better students. Without the stranglehold notion of arts and sports as war enemies, I'd bet they can make great artists too—and vice versa.

In my personal experience, practicing my sport amplifies my creativity. There are stories in my sweat. I’ve been been struck by the opening line of a poem mid-run, and spent the last miles writing it in my head. I connect with music the most deeply when I’m moving to it. When I got a tattoo after my half marathon last year, I felt both like art and artist. Watching people cry on the Olympic podium or celebrate at marathon finish line move me as much as any Oscar-winning performance. 

Sports shake off the sleep of everyday existence. We are awake, so we create. 

In the future, athletics could be the place where the pumping heart meets the artistic soul—we just have to start talking about it. Stop making people—especially young people—choose. Spread the word: you can have it all. You can do both. You're not the only one out there smashing the standard—in fact, you're in pretty good company.

Serena Williams paints. Terry Crews is an amazing artist and actor. Britney Spears was a point guard in high school (and honey if you think busting moves and singing on stage at the same time isn’t athletic as hell, get on board). 

So what’s your sport? What’s your art? How do they work together? It's time to be proud of your intersections. It’s time to smash the myth and create a whole new generation of Zac Efrons. (...Err...)

Maybe it starts with a TV ad. Maybe it starts with us.

Personally, I’ll be brainstorming the next time I put on my running shoes.