‘There are slimming success stories everywhere but I won’t be one of them’

Tanya Sweeney: Yes, there are plenty of success stories but the uniquely joyless slimming club does not work for me

‘I started to understand what Margaret Cho meant when she said that being thin is like trying to hold a basketball underwater’

‘I started to understand what Margaret Cho meant when she said that being thin is like trying to hold a basketball underwater’

 

A damning rip in your skinny jeans.  An awful photo that someone else took and posted online. Going the next dress size up. All paper cuts that feel like nothing at the time, but then amount to a single moment. The right-this-is-business-no-more-nonsense moment. A friend and I had our moments at the same time. We were feeling overweight and sluggish, tired of the tiny moments of self-hatred in every day.

“Then let’s do something about it!” we enthused (over cake). “Let’s just stop talking about it and take action. And we can help each other.”

Which is how I found myself, a week later, at the city centre chapter of a very well known slimming club. Being weighed in public by a stranger, with other strangers looking on, is torture enough. But then, with a snazzy little folder with lots of exclamation marks on it, they tell you what you can (or rather can’t) eat.

“Well ladies,” trilled the lovely lady holding the meeting, herself a success story of the eating regime. “Did we manage to be good over the Bank Holiday weekend?”

A lot of women mumble guiltily. Some had a night out. Others went off the rails altogether with a takeaway. No matter, says the leader. Let’s all get back on track with being “good”. Those who had been successful in losing weight testified about how hard it is, how proud they are of themselves for not straying off the path of “goodness”. And that’s when I realised these clubs are less about adopting a healthy lifestyle and more like . . . well, being treated for addiction to cake. I started to understand what Margaret Cho meant when she said that being thin is like trying to hold a basketball underwater.

A moment of weakness and the entire process is derailed

Neither my friend nor I could stick with the programme – life, both good and bad, kept getting in the way. Having to abstain from the normal stuff while trying to acclimatise to a new regime is no fun, but there’s something uniquely joyless about the slimming club experience. And yet, the testimonies kept coming. People had lost stones and stones and could still have cake, we were told. So it’s something that we weren’t doing right.

Off we trooped to another slimming club: this time, a regime that allows its users to have big quantities of certain foods and minute portions of others. It will absolutely work if you stick to the formula to the letter, we are told. A moment of weakness and the entire process is derailed.

Six weeks in, both my spirits and resolve on the ropes, I’d gained and lost the same two pounds over and over. After a weight gain, it’s often the done thing as a member of this slimming club to open up to the group see where you’d gone “wrong”, and to see how such a slip up might be avoided again.

One evening at this meeting though, I decided on a different tack.

“I actually had a great time last weekend,” I shrugged. “I regret nothing. If I gained two pounds, it was totally worth it.” This did not go down well. You’re supposed to be remorseful, not flaunting your greed.

Don’t get me wrong: thousands, nay millions, have benefited from slimming clubs. Some simply needed to be more mindful of what they were eating, and respond well to the regime’s strict parameters. On paper, the basics make sense: be more mindful of your portion sizes, and be aware of calorie count. Instead of thoughtlessly shovelling in treats week week out, take a look at what you’re doing, ration the “bad” stuff, and be sure to include the “good”.

Yet the slimming club approach to shifting a few pounds, I’ve found, does not work for me, nor is it ever likely to.

Firstly, there’s not just the idea of constantly doing bargains with yourself, there’s also the idea of being “bad” or “good”. During my slimming club run, I’d go to dinner and be queasy with anxiety over being “bad”. It’s relatively easy to be “good” (in this instance, “good” means sticking to the specific plan being marketed) when you stay in every night and are cooking for yourself. But add in other factors – family, socialising, celebrating, a partner who doesn’t like 1-calorie cooking sprays and a whole host of psychological or behavioural factors – and it gets complicated.

Above all else, the relationship you foster with food when in these slimming clubs gets complicated

The irony about slimming clubs is that you hear an awful lot about the foods that keep you from being hungry, or ways to stay full. Staving off the feeling of hunger is an ongoing obsession for dieters, and this is not a healthy mindset to be in. While on a regime, I would fret constantly about going hungry. Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t think about food for hours at a time.  

The other issue I have it this – there are several ready-made meals and convenience foods involved in a slimming club regime. Shortcuts, no doubt, for those finding it hard to balance a full life and a healthy regime. Yet something relatively healthy like olive oil, or coconut oil, or nuts? Bad. An own-brand biscuit, with little nutritional value, but might just dupe you psychologically into thinking you’re getting a “treat”? Good.

Above all else, the relationship you foster with food when in these slimming clubs gets complicated, possibly dysfunctional. Many people are there precisely because of a weakness to food; a compulsion to have as much of it as possible. A few coloured stickers and a smattering of applause when you’ve managed to forego biscuits for a week isn’t enough. And it certainly won’t help anyone address the underlying psychological (or even physiological) variables that might have them eating cake until they’re dizzy.

There are notable slimming success stories every which way you look, but I won’t be one of them. For some, discipline, tenacity and having someone standing at the top of a room to be accountable to really does work. Me, I’ll need to find another way. Eat less and exercise more seems to be the most enduring and straightforward way to better health.

Others recommend ditching the Leap card for walking, cooking from scratch or simply adding more vegetables or fruit to a meal. But small, sustainable changes and doing activities you actually enjoy appears to be a better long-term strategy. Take the high-falutin’ science out of it, and it starts to look easier than first thought. Sooner or later though, I suppose I’ll need to be accountable to myself.

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