Researchers in the U.K. and at the University of Otago in New Zealand say they are fighting the "obesity epidemic" with a new, disturbing device that locks people's jaws shut, forcing them to consume only a liquid diet. The DentalSlim Diet Control device, as they call it, uses magnetic locking bolts on the upper and lower back teeth that restrict the person wearing it from opening their jaw more than 2 millimetres. The device is fitted by a dental professional and comes with a key to unlock it, in case of emergency.
University of Otago Health Sciences Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Brunton, the lead researcher of the clinical study described the diet control device as "an effective, safe, and affordable tool for people battling obesity" in a press release. Brunton further claimed, "The main barrier for people for successful weight loss is compliance."
The device has been criticised online by people who describe it as a medieval torture device and see it as another tool of medical fatphobia. Further, medical and nutrition experts called the device dangerous for reducing "the process of weight loss to a question of compliance and willpower," while ignoring factors like eating disorders, as Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs for eating disorder charity Beat, told The Washington Post.
"The fact that the weight loss device looks very much like a torture device further contributes to the radical dehumanization of fat people within the healthcare system," Stephanie Yeboah, a body confidence advocate and author of Fattily Ever After told Refinery29. "Not only can we assume that the device may be painful to put on, but all this does is further the narrative of fat people being incredibly greedy, undisciplined, and food-obsessed, with clamping our jaws shut (effectively muzzling us) being the only solution to stop us from eating."
Seven women, described as "healthy obese participants," participated in the study by wearing the device for two weeks. They lost more than 14 pounds on average in that time, but gained back about 1.6 pounds in the two weeks that followed. The participants reported feeling "embarrassed, self-conscious and that life, in general, was less satisfying" throughout the duration of the study.
"This is literally saying that people would rather live a less satisfying life in a smaller body than have a full and satisfying life in a larger or fat body," Chelsea Kronengold, associate director of communications for the National Eating Disorders Association, told The Washington Post. "And that is weight stigma in a summary."
Yeboah further described the device as "degrading and humiliating," and said it "does not solve the main issues surrounding eating disorders/food obsession which is tackling it from a mental health standpoint. This device will do nothing but engulf fat people in a circle of shame and unworthiness, which in turn can lead to further mental health issues where overeating may become a side-effect."
After their initial tweet announcing what they described as a "world-first weight-loss device" faced backlash, the University of Otago wrote in a follow up tweet that the device is not intended as a quick or long-term weight-loss tool. Instead, they said it is "aimed to assist people who need to undergo surgery and who cannot have the surgery until they have lost weight."
But their own press release focused heavily on fighting a "global epidemic," not even mentioning weight-loss surgeries until 10 paragraphs in, and stating that such surgeries "cannot be relied upon."
The University of Otago also pointed out that similar practices of wiring people's jaws shut were popular in the 1980s, but came with risks, including choking on vomit, gum disease, and acute psychiatric conditions. Further, wiring jaws shut didn't actually work as a weight loss solution. Most people gained back the weight.
The study was also criticised for failing to account for any links between obesity and structural issues like poverty, working conditions, and living in isolation from community, along with multibillion-dollar diet and beauty industries that leave people with body-image issues and stigma around weight.
"It will only be a matter of time until an unregulated Instagram company starts creating their version of this weight loss device to be sold to the masses," said Yeboah. "It's incredibly irresponsible, and will do nothing but encourage more eating disorders in people, or trigger those who have a history of eating disorders."