Weight loss device deeply dehumanising

The dental device which stops users eating solid food by locking their mouths almost shut. PHOTO:...
The dental device which stops users eating solid food by locking their mouths almost shut. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
I was scrolling through Twitter the other day, as I am wont to do when a thesis is due and I lack the energy or motivation to write said thesis, when I came upon a photo of an alarming medieval torture device on my timeline.

At least, that’s what I initially thought.

Turns out, I had discovered a weight loss device called "DentalSlim Diet Control", which uses magnetic devices fitted to the top and bottom rear teeth to prevent people from opening their mouth any wider than 2mm. Developed by medical professionals at the University of Otago and researchers from Leeds, this technology restricts the wearer to a liquid diet, but allegedly allows free speech and doesn’t restrict breathing.

I was unsurprised to see the backlash the horrendous invention occasioned on Twitter and other social media platforms.

I, along with thousands of people online, had thought we had left wiring people’s jaws shut behind, but apparently not. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Otago University comms team, especially when they had to backpedal with a series of ‘‘clarifying’’ tweets. Apparently, this Saw-esque device is not intended for quick or long-term weight loss. Rather, it is aimed at helping people who ‘‘need to undergo surgery and who cannot have the surgery until they have lost weight’’.

That’s all very well, but I can’t help being sceptical that the uses for such a device will stop there. The weight loss industry is an awful beast: the UK diet industry alone is worth an estimated £2billion ($NZ3.96billion) a year, while the US weight loss market was worth $US71billion ($NZ101billion) in 2020.

People are desperate, and unscrupulous companies and marketing agencies know this. It’s impossible to turn on the TV, scroll through social media, or walk through a city street without being bombarded by advertisements for fad diets, skinny teas, waist-trainers, gastric bypass surgery, bespoke meal plans, miracle superfoods, slim shakes, and whatever new atrocity the Kardashians are currently touting.

Surely there are better ways to help people with their weight loss journeys. I worry that this invention will only lead to further harmful ways of dehumanising fat people.

In the 1970s and 1980s, doctors would surgically wire people’s jaws shut for up to a year to facilitate weight loss. This practice was dangerous however; vomiting could lead to choking, and after 9 to 12 months, people developed gum disease. Many participants also reported continuing issues with restriction of jaw movement and some even developed acute psychiatric illnesses. Moreover, while people did lose weight initially, most of them regained the weight (and more) after the jaw wires were removed.

In a paper published in the British Dental Journal, Paul Brunton and his research team asserted that seven women each lost 6.36kg on average during a two-week trial with DentalSlim Diet Control. Notably, all the participants gained some weight in the two weeks following the device removal. I can’t help but wonder whether this weight gain continued in the following weeks. The study does not elaborate.

Having battled extensively with anorexia as a young person, I can attest personally that the human body is wired to rapidly regain weight after starvation/fasting periods. I am not surprised that all study participants began regaining the weight they had lost. Forcing one’s jaw shut via magnets does not enable one to learn healthy eating skills, afford nutritious food, or to reevaluate one’s relationship with food. Neither does it teach one how to cope when suddenly all solid foods are back on the menu.

‘‘There are no adverse consequences with this device,’’ Brunton confidently claims. But the journal article noted that most participants experienced occasional discomfort due to the device, and it was quite severe after 24 hours. The friction of the device against the cheeks was painful. Participants also found it difficult to talk for as prolonged a period as they were used to, and found the liquid diet monotonous.

I can’t help but wonder whether other side-effects are likely to occur with such a contraption.

How do wearers properly brush the inside-facing surfaces of their teeth? How do they yawn? How do their digestive systems fare on weeks of liquid food? And what about disabled or chronically ill people? How do they take their medications, or use their inhalers? A safety feature incorporated into the device enables it to be disengaged in the case of an emergency.

But the study doesn’t explain how long it takes for this disengagement. What if the wearer has a heart attack, or suddenly needs to vomit? It can take only between 30-180 seconds of oxygen deprivation for one to lose consciousness.

This invention deeply dehumanises fat people. As my friend and fellow writer Cameron Taylor says, ‘‘Facing fatphobia and discrimination for my size regularly is bad enough. But a literal torture device? It breaks my heart. I feel dehumanised and humiliated as a fat person.’’

For people existing on lower incomes, most accessible and affordable food is unhealthy, calorie-dense, and processed almost beyond existence.

Thinness is associated with wealth and classism; those with ample time and funds have the luxury to thoroughly consider what they eat, can afford personal trainers and gym memberships, and can purchase as much fresh and non-processed food as they like.

Obesity is often the product of myriad complex factors, from genetics to one’s socioeconomic background. It is not something that can be resolved by forcing one’s mouth shut for weeks on end.

Pardon the pun, but I can’t help but feel as if these researchers were somewhat unhinged when thinking up this idea.

Perhaps Brunton and his team ought to chew over other issues such as fatphobia, fat-shaming in medical professions, and if they must, they might consider less-dehumanising methods for helping people lose weight.

As a graduate of the University of Otago, I’m usually proud of the research and brilliant ideas issuing from my alma mater. But I am not proud now. It seems as if trends from the ’70s and ’80s are constantly resurging: bell-bottom jeans, mullets, tie-dyed shirts, acid wash denim, and waterbeds, to name a few.

But let’s leave clamping people’s jaws shut, be it via wire or magnets, firmly behind.

• Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.


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I'm surprised Kiwis haven't rallied behind this? It saves people from themselves, it saves precious natural resources, it's good for the environment and saves money in health related costs. Why does common sense prevail on this issue but not others that are equally stupid? Kiwis constantly drone on about saving the environment and reducing medical cost - but are reluctant to embrace ridiculous solutions equally. 90% of the solutions Kiwis embrace don't actually do anything. Efforts by a group of 4 million people are symbolic. Kiwis like to do costly symbolic gestures that hurt the people struggling throughout the country. There is no racial, unified efforts to make a difference. Just a fragmented group of radicals who want to brag about how miserable they can make the poor in the name of environmentalism. This idea is as dumb as most of the others that liberals and greens are already pursuing.

I agree this device probably is a "dumb* idea, but probably not as dumb as your "liberals and greens” rant. The Climate Emergency is not about political parties, ideologies, race or nationality, it's about finding solutions to mitigate and adapt in the best possible way for the sake of all future life on this planet. Yes the NZ Government is doing a poor job so far and many of their policies need questioning, but my efforts and the efforts of many hundreds of millions if not billions around the world both rich and poor trying to make a better future is not symbolic. And neither was it symbolic or fragmented when NZ and nearly all the other countries in the world committed to signing the Paris Accord. So instead of just calling everything dumb, ridiculous and stupid, try contributing something meaningful.

I rest my case with you fantasy screed.

"And neither was it symbolic or fragmented when NZ and nearly all the other countries in the world committed to signing the Paris Accord." You obviously haven't read that much about the Paris Accord! The biggest complaint about the agreement is that it is largely symbolic because it's almost impossible to enforce. There are no enforcement mechanisms in place...zero...zip...nada! In fact, most countries resisted international enforcement mechanisms. Why? Fears over the loss of sovereignty! Climate change mandates are unenforceable. Countries do self-assessment for compliance? Another powerless global environmental agreement. More "Green propaganda". That aside, New Zealand is NOT on track to meet its obligation under the Paris accord. Not even close! MBIE is concerned about the larger financial risk it faces should the government be forced to purchase international units. You have no idea what you're talking about concerning the Paris Accord! I find the assessment of the original author concerning Liberals and Greens to be more accurate than the fairy tale painted above. Totally agree, try contributing something meaningful. Unless its ridiculous and stupid like these comments!

What's dehumanising about a way to help people lose weight when THEY want to or need to?
It would be wrong if plump people were dragged off the street and forced to have this device fitted to their teeth. But that's not what is suggested except, apparently, by (a) people who manage to lose weight with unaided willpower (b) people who don't want themselves or anyone else to lose weight because this implied "fat-shame" and (c) those who accessed surgery - expensive for the individual & health budget.
It's no more "creepy" than metal braces. It's not compulsory, not even for people whose type 2 diabetes could be cured or helped greatly by weight loss, not even for people who face surgery which is high risk at their present weight.
There's no need for hysteria. Nobody's forcing YOU to get this fitted to your teeth. It can even be disabled by the person who's get it fitted, and removed when they don't need it or don't like it.
Stop the whinging. If it's not for you just chill, for goodness sake.

For a Rhodes Scholar this is a pretty poor article. Balchin has clearly not done her homework and grasped the purpose of the device. It is no more dehumanising than stomach stapling.

She is just another wowser having a cry whilst only having half the understanding and no real world expertise. I switched off at the point it read 'being thin is the luxury of the wealthy'...

K of the South and David - couldn't agree more.

I would expect a lot more from a Rhodes Scholar.

I hate to say this but, this device will never be used in New Zealand. New Zealanders have disgusting dental hygiene. There won't be any teeth available in most Kiwis' mouths to hook it up to. Those that do have teeth probably couldn't wear it because of decay. Great idea, until you factor in poor Kiwi dental hygiene. Total waste of time!

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