Chewing the fat: a year of Weight Watchers, a lifetime of dieting

Understanding the complicated history of dieting, and the woman who sold weight loss to the world

Marisa Meltzer: ‘Am I a fool for still, after all these yo-yo years, wanting to lose and keep off weight?’

Marisa Meltzer: ‘Am I a fool for still, after all these yo-yo years, wanting to lose and keep off weight?’

 

Jean Nidetch was in the supermarket one day in September 1961 when she ran into an old friend. “Oh, Jean, you look so wonderful!” the friend said, before asking, “When are you due?” Nidetch was not pregnant. Horrified by her friend’s remark, she walked home asking herself over and over, ‘What do I do now?’.

What she did was go on to found Weight Watchers International in her living room. 

Nidetch’s 2015 New York Times obituary opens with the above anecdote, describing Nidetch at that time as a “a 214-pound [97kg] Queens housewife with a 44-inch [112cm] waist and an addiction to cookies by the box”.

Few women would want this incident, or any particular set of measurements, to define them, but Nidetch had told this story of her “rock-bottom moment” a thousand times. “Most fat people need to be hurt in some way in order to be jolted into taking action,” she would later write.

Founder of Weight Watchers Jean Nidetch poses for a before and after portrait circa 1965 in New York. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Founder of Weight Watchers Jean Nidetch poses for a before and after portrait circa 1965 in New York. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Weight Watchers is ubiquitous in modern culture, with everyone from Mad Men’s Betty Draper to Oprah to our own Aisling (the young Irish everywoman created by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen) dutifully following the plan. Who hasn’t sat through an office lunch without being told how many points was in their sandwich? But, increasingly, the idea of women in a room together (it is still mainly women) at a Weight Watchers meeting talking about a physical ideal seems anti-feminist. We are conscious now of body shaming and fat acceptance; all bodies are beach bodies.

But while diet may be a four-letter word, many of us still want to lose weight.

I have been to Weight Watchers meetings the length and breadth of Dublin – so many pastel-painted community halls with so many fold-out chairs; often a security man at reception who points the way to the meeting without having to be asked. Inside is a leader with the air of a kindly teacher and walls plastered with charts of good and bad foods alongside encouraging slogans.

Then there is the shedding of coats, boots and even jewellery for the weekly weigh-in; the handing out of gold and silver stickers to the success stories – others left annoyed, they don’t understand, they did everything right. So many people reduced to the loss or gain of 200g. Then afterwards, the group discussion: “Where did it all go wrong this week, Mary?”

Sometimes at the meetings sadder stories emerge: the woman so ashamed of her body that she shopped at a 24-hour supermarket in the middle of the night to avoid judgment, or the woman who went to her weekly weigh-in even though her mother had just died because she promised her she would keep going.

Stick with it girls, show up and stick with it!

And, always, the strange embarrassment at being corralled into a room and told what is good and bad for you, even though you’ve known for 30 years. Admittedly, you’re a bit confused too, because along the way you’ve also done Atkins, keto, paleo, 5:2, and intermittent fasting. You had a fling with Slimming World because you heard you can eat more pasta there. An avocado is an angel or a demon depending on the diet.

Ultimately, however, the same fact unravels you each works – every single diet works but only if you stick with it forever until the end of time, amen.

I have been dieting since I was about eight. Growing up, my house was full of Vogues and slimming magazines, all the women in one set of glossy pages wanting to look like all the women in the other. I went on Slimfast for a month before I went to the Gaeltacht when I was 13. Being a fat teenager was no joke. I still can’t walk past a gang of teenage boys without steeling myself for commentary.

Last year, I had to be weighed before emergency surgery. In the midst of all the trauma, shame was still there in the room. I stood on the scales and said to the nurse, “I can’t look, is it okay if you don’t tell me?” She jotted the number down quietly, said “you’re lovely”, and left. It felt like absolution.

The times when I was thinnest, I was grieving or depressed, but I still loved the compliment. When I was not dieting, and the compliment did not come, the absence of it was stark.

Late last year, in a packed Olympia theatre in Dublin, I cried when the singer Lizzo came out on stage like a goddess. It is all very hard to reconcile, those women striving and hopeful in a community hall trying to sort this bloody thing out once and for all, and then seeing Lizzo, big, resplendent and celebrated in a gold corset. You leave thinking; maybe I’m okay as I am?

Diet industry

In her new book, This is Big, lifelong yo-yo dieter Marisa Meltzer explores her own weight-loss history alongside Nidetch’s rise to the top of the diet industry. Meltzer was first signed up to Weight Watchers at the age of nine. At 38, reading Nidetch’s obituary, she was surprised to find similarities in their weight loss struggle, with one difference: Nidetch had lost 32kg, kept it off and became a mogul in the process.

Meltzer is a New York journalist who writes about celebrities and “wellness” for high-end glossy magazines. Her appearance, she believes, helps her interview subjects open up to her. “I think that you can take one look at me and there’s no risk that I’m gonna steal your husband.” She writes about Busy Phillips cutting up a slice of banana bread into tiny cubes for them to share, and a Vogue photo shoot with Emily Blunt where Meltzer gorged on brownies from catering before sneaking a look at the size tag of Blunt’s jeans.

Meltzer had deliberately assembled an enviable life that existed in contrast to how she felt about her emotional eating, which consisted of “the kind of delivery order where the restaurant packs four sets of plastic utensils”.

She is on lockdown when we speak on Skype. She explains her motivation for writing this book: “I was about to turn 40 and had a sense with a lot of things in my life of, ‘I’m turning 40, I’m too old for this shit’. Mostly, I kept thinking about my relationship to my body and food. And I was just like, I can’t believe it’s still this hard for me.”

Meltzer has spent most of her life either striving to change her body, or striving to accept it. “No matter how unattainable perfection may be, working toward it – as opposed to working toward self-acceptance – is satisfying in its own way. At least you’re aiming for something tangible,” she writes. “But at the same time, am I a fool for still, after all these yo-yo years, wanting to lose and keep off weight?”

Nidetch would tell Meltzer that it’s worth the battle. She looms large in the book, all blonde bouffant and brutal quips. “Fat is anything but beautiful,” she wrote in her 1960s magazine column.

Meltzer wanted to know more about Nidetch, who she felt had become a footnote in the history of the company she started, which now has 4.6 million members worldwide. Having regularly written about Goop-style health camps, Meltzer was going back to basics. She committed to one year of Weight Watchers – sampling her way around New York meetings until she found one that was just right.

“Weight Watchers felt like the lowest common denominator. It felt like something for gossipy housewives. And it didn’t seem applicable to someone like me, or the way that I think about myself. A lot of it was just getting over my own ego and being like, you’re fat, these people are fat, you’ve a lot in common.” She laughs. “I had to humble myself a bit and there were things that I learned, but there are also moments where I’m just like, Oh my God, if I have to hear you talking about the amount of cereal that you’re letting yourself eat. . .”

The idea of a weekly meeting as the basis for her Weight Watchers business came to Nidetch when, after a tragic stillbirth, she found comfort in talking with other bereaved mothers.

“I think her genius was in this idea of community,” Meltzer says. “Dieting had been just yet another thing that women were supposed to slog through on their own; another private hardship of being a woman. They were all supposed to be good ’60s housewives and get their shit together. I think Jean saw that there was strength in sharing the reality of your experience.”

Meltzer recalls dieting from the age of four. Her parents split up when she was young, but together they focused on her weight loss. In the 1980s, Meltzer was sent to that American wonder: a fat camp. Her parents paid for meal delivery schemes and health coaches into her 30s, all three of them holding firm to the idea that Meltzer might “lose the weight and be done with it”.

“They’re not monsters. I think it’s hard for them to understand how their good intentions were so painful for me.”

Double shame

Writing about dieting these days can feel as current as penning an article on 101 ways to please your man. Self-acceptance is the more modern goal, which means there is often now a double shame at play – shame about the body itself, and shame about wanting to change it.

“It’s hard to criticise something that’s trying to do good,” says Meltzer of the body acceptance movement. “But I think that if you’ve ever had a complicated relationship with your body, you should understand that what it’s suggesting is just as unreasonable in some ways as someone coming up to me and being like, oh what you need to do is to eat less calories than you burn and then you’ll lose weight.

“It’s not a lack of knowledge that keeps me from being where I want to be. And I think the same thing is true of body positivity. In some ways it’s easier to change your body, or at least try to, than to change your feelings. I think that there’s this false idea that you can be woken up one day to this liberating notion, and then you’re forever changed.”

What Meltzer really wants is to have more control over how she is viewed by the world.

“A lot of this book was figuring out like, what do I actually want to happen? And in some ways, my fantasy is to be thin enough that no one could ever think that I’m fat. Part of it is this idea of wanting to hide in plain sight. Weight is so complicated because there’s no hiding from it. I wish that I could lie about the ending of this book, but it would be impossible because it’s written all over my body. There’s no hiding about weight, which makes it really embarrassing and touchy and vulnerable.”

Meltzer jokes how she wouldn’t have minded an Eat Pray Love-style conclusion, “and now I’m engaged to someone I met at Weight Watchers, and he also lost 50 pounds! I had to settle into that idea that this book was going to be more complicated than some easy triumph at the end.”

Reading the book, many of Meltzer’s friends were surprised to learn how she felt.

“Secrecy is really behind so much of fat and food. There’s a secrecy to eating, a furtiveness, and there’s a secrecy in not talking about it. Some of that is a sort of corrective that we try to impose because the weight is speaking for us. There’s this sense of, I don’t get to have my weight be a private thing, or to be something that only I struggle with. The world can see that I struggle.”

An “unenthusiastic and inconsistent” dater, Meltzer is particularly vulnerable when writing about her relationships. A New York psychologist, who she met online, texted her the morning after their date to say that he was “attracted to the girl in the photos and not the one who had shown up at his door”. His honesty was “for her own good”. She thought this might be her Nidetch “rock bottom” moment, but she just took a bath, ordered Indian food and cried.

One part of the body positivity movement that Meltzer resents is “its adherents’ repeated assurances of how hot their spouses find them”.

“I hate it. I get it, it is supposed to give us all hope but it’s just another way for us to feel we’re failing.”

After attending Weight Watchers meetings faithfully for a year, Meltzer formed friendships but realised she was “never going to reach a point where I’m really happy with my body or with my relationship to food, and I also don’t have to.

“I no longer feel so tortured by it or in the dichotomy of, do I hate myself, do I love myself, am I a good feminist who accepts herself, am I someone who hates themselves and is trying to change? I am all of those things all of the time. And that has given me a lot of peace.”

Perhaps Meltzer writing so openly about her body is the natural progression of Nidetch’s idea of story-sharing, stripped of any element of shame.

“I have the same body that I did before, but [with this book] I’m outing myself as fat. And that feels liberating because I’m acknowledging to the world that this is a complicated relationship and that it will continue to be complicated.”

She believes that for the most part, the conversation around dieting has changed only superficially. “There’s a lot of intense orthorexia that seems to be going on where people are obsessed with the health of every little thing they put in their mouth now. A lot of that is a contemporary spin on diet culture.”

Even Weight Watchers is uncomfortable with the word “weight” in its name, rebranding as WW, with Oprah at the helm. “It’s very touchy-feely, speaking in the patois of wellness that we all speak in these days,” Meltzer says, a far cry from Nidetch’s more proscriptive approach.

There is nothing truly new in dieting; the variable is us.

“We’re psychologically complex beings and we’re not dieting in a vacuum; we have all kinds of commitments and cravings and hormones and emotions to be dealt with. We all want some area where we can have some comfort and slip up and slide into some sort of oblivion now and then, and fortunately for me, it’s not drugs, it’s not alcohol. And I wouldn’t even say food is the only place, but we all have our areas we go to for comfort.”

Meltzer has reached a sort of truce with her body, but she’s also “very tired of being lectured by every doctor I see for reasons that are totally unrelated to weight, you know? And yet I also understand that there are things going on in my body that would be better if I lost weight. It’s still hard. No doctor is going to tell me that I should try losing some weight for my heart and give me a low calorie diet sheet and it’s all gonna click into place.”

She says the fact that dieting memes and baking pictures overtook the internet at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic “really shows how much food is a comfort for all of us. And some people are fortunate in that they can eat a lot and other people like me cannot without gaining weight”.

We are being told to practise self-compassion, to eat the cake. But despite the scale of this crisis, in the aftermath many will turn again to the redemptive narrative of dieting – as if a fat body is merely a chrysalis from which the real you will eventually emerge.

“Let’s see what happens when we are out and about buying bathing suits, dating, seeing our friends, gyms are open, you know?” Meltzer says. “I think there’s gonna be also a big push to get your post-pandemic body sorted out.”

This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me), by Marisa Meltzer, is published by Chatto & Windus

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