I wrote this almost immediately after the Weight Watchers announcement, I delayed publishing to just let my heart settle. It seems today is an appropriate day to share. This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, never a better time to share my truth. If this post speaks to you by all means SHARE, SHARE, SHARE....xoxo PG
One of my favorite parenting moments is sitting in the sun in glorious Santa Barbara, watching Norah play tennis. I delight in watching my Irish Warrior, it’s my chance to see her grit, her tenacity, and her fearlessness on display. She leaves everything on the court. It continues to be the place where I know in my soul my daughter will make a full and lasting recovery from anorexia. Thursday marked only the third time, in over a year that Norah had been cleared to have an intense private session. Free for an hour to be 12, to be a kid, to laugh and be competitive in a safe environment. As she walked out on the court, I looked at her coach Peter and said, “I want to see her sweat and work hard.” As he closed the gate, his smile was enormous knowing what Norah battles daily. He turned looking at Norah saying, “You heard her… I get to make YOU work. Hit the baseline and let’s get started.”
Daily, along with Norah’s team of specialists we balance the mental, spiritual and physical aspects of Norah’s recovery. We are only 8 months into her recovery--still at the beginning of our family's journey. We wrestle with a long series of question daily-- Is her weight stable? Is the hydration adequate? Is today’s exercise important to Norah’s mental health? How is Norah’s anxiety? What risk is an hour on the court? And that’s just for a tennis lesson, magnify that times her busy 12 year old life and you get a sense of the delicate balance. NOTHING comes before her recovery. NOTHING.
Which is why we share, Norah’s anorexia still has a hold on her. She is still unable to eat independently. Either Jeff or I leave work every day to join her at school for lunch. If we don’t---she won’t eat. She will torture herself trying to eat her sandwich, or a few bites of a cookie, only to feel the bully, those eating disorder thoughts trying to convince her to toss the lunch in the trash. Norah is still fragile, the eating disorder so strong that even knowing that if she doesn’t eat lunch, she won’t play tennis, isn’t enough to silence the evil thoughts. Which is why we join her, as we navigate the path to her lasting recovery.
We all know that in time, be it a month or a year, Norah will eat independently. Tennis is also a part of recovery. Learning to balance the body’s need for movement, to get the aggression out, the competitive spirit flowing and to have the moments of being in the zone. The lack of thinking and the feeling of the body just doing.
As I sat drinking my coffee, I delighted as I watched Norah in the zone. Returning ball after ball. Smiling, my phone buzzed. The notification was a news alert. Weight Watchers had just announced they were rolling out a free healthy eating program for teens age 13 to 17. My reaction was visceral. My stomach dropping out of me like I was on a roller coaster. That sickening feeling of dread that comes over you that you can’t stop. I could hear Norah and Peter dueling over baseline shots, and she was laughing, and yet I couldn’t see her because my rage and tears nearly blinded me.
WHY?… Why would Oprah, who tells us, “When we know better, we do better…” A woman who publicly has discussed her years of struggling with weight. Why would she approve such a program?
I needed details. I went diving into the web to find more information. When you want to understand a company’s motivations, read the press release. Ultimately you will find all the truth you need.
“Weight Watchers intends to be a powerful partner for families in establishing healthy habits. During the summer of 2018, Weight Watchers will offer free memberships to teenagers aged 13 to 17, helping the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage.”
As soon as the press release went out, their stock soared. Weight Watchers contends that they are committed to helping young people make healthy life-long choices. I wish I could share their altruistic views, but also in their press release was this:
“Better define and grow the Weight Watchers impact: Help 10 million people adopt healthy habits, with 5 million people in the Weight Watchers program and an additional 5 million people engaging through other Weight Watchers experiences and content; and Expand the Weight Watchers business: Increase revenue to more than $2 billion, driven primarily by new member growth and improved retention, while increasing profit at a faster rate than revenue.”
And then the nausea came over me in a wave... It’s the Big Tobacco strategy. Get’em early and keep them.
I’ve been in Weight Watchers, I did the program before I had children. I was successful and I was also approached to become a leader for Weight Watchers. I loved Weight Watchers, it was a fantastic program for me. I was in my 30’s and needed the structure and accountability to help myself stay on track. There isn’t a nutritionist running the meetings, there isn’t a licensed therapist running the sessions. No, a person who succeeded in the program is running the meetings.
Here’s the difference. I was an adult with a fully functioning adult brain and fully developed body. I had all the bone density I was ever going to have. Do you know when you gain the most bone density?… It’s in your teen years. You know a good way to negatively affect your long term health?, inappropriate weight loss in childhood/teen years. You don’t get a do-over on bone density. It’s one of the major factors in osteoporosis. Women who suffer from eating disorders are at greater risk of osteoporosis.
That is why I feel compelled to break with my love for Oprah and with Weight Watchers. Let’s be honest, weight isn’t only about food choices, or even about getting enough exercise. Weight has a ton to do with societal pressures and our own feelings about body image. After watching my daughter struggle with anorexia, I’ve learned a few things in this arena.
I agree with Weight Watchers, we need to be offering our young people especially our young women the development of, “healthy habits at a critical life stage.” But Weight Watchers this program isn’t it. This program is about you adding to your bottom line.
The literature is clear. Ages 13-17 is the prime age range for eating disorders to develop and eating disorders are often missed by pediatricians for far too long until they become life threatening, as was the case with my daughter. Young women who suffer from eating disorders aren’t all emaciated. Patients can present with every size and shape. We also know that in many cases a “diet” or “get healthy plan” are key triggers for eating disorders.
I’m sure that Weight Watchers legal team will make sure that a doctor consultation is recommended for minors to participate. I would argue that especially in this age group, there should be some licensed folks who are caring for you. What I would have preferred was for Weight Watchers to partner with a medical clinic like the UCSD Eating Disorder Program, and begin a pilot program that encouraged a model that included therapy, nutrition and exercise as a three pronged approach to supporting our young people.
Oprah often asks her guests, “what do you know for sure?”
I know from first hand experience that eating disorders are a beast.
I know that they hide in front of us.
I know when you sit next to your daughter’s hospital bed, with her hooked up to monitors and a feeding tube in her nose, you know for sure that your relationship with food is forever changed. Cake is no longer a comfort when you watch your child’s hand shake because in some corner of her mind she believes it’s poison. As a family we speak the mantra that, NO FOOD IS BAD.
Which gets me back to Weight Watchers, you see I benefited from Weight Watchers as an adult 15 years ago. I had an adult brain that was fully functioning. But teens are not adults, and just like they can’t drink or smoke, they can’t have plastic surgery, we ask them to wait until their brains are more fully functioning. Our children should not be dieting. If a child has a weight issue—they should be under the care of experts; a nutritionist, a therapist and a doctor. Not a person who is just successful at losing weight.
We need to balance the long term danger of obesity, with the short term danger of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorder conditions.
Which gets me back to tennis. Norah was whacking the ball for only her third private tennis lesson in a year. Her medical team felt all the conditions were being met for her to pursue her passion in a healthy way. She had been compliant with her nutrition requirements, her hydration was appropriate, she was working hard in her therapy sessions and tennis was just as important to her mental health as it was to her physical health.
Norah beamed as she left the court. “Mom that felt great.” As we pulled out of parking lot I told Norah we were picking up dinner. Tentatively asking what we were having, I smiled and told her “Burgers and fries.” Her instant next move is always to negotiate. “How about a salad!” Looking into the eyes of my beautiful girl I reached across and touched her arm. “No honey, burgers and fries. You have to feed that body that just worked so beautifully.” Her head fell and a piece of my heart breaks each time for her. At barely 12, she is in the fight of her life--- and as her mother, I will never give up... and I will sit with her, hold her and love her through each and every bite of burgers, fries and a shake.
And while my seething over Weight Watchers’ plans has subsided a bit. I know that, although the journey will be difficult, we have a plan in place and together we will walk Norah through recovery to a place of wellness.
My hope is that together we can make sure other kids avoid the pitfalls. That’s why I speak out. I hope someone is listening.
Peace be with you,
Kathryn / PilgrimageGal
Photo Credit: PilgrimageGal