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Where does Weight Watchers fit into a “wellness” world?

A new book chronicles the life of Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch.

Jean Nidetch, founder of Weight Watchers, poses with a food scale in 1988.
Susan Farley/Newsday RM/Getty Images
Meredith Haggerty is the senior editor for the Culture section at Vox. Before coming to Vox, she was a senior editor at Racked.

As journalist Marisa Meltzer tells me, Weight Watchers is not cool.

Generally speaking, dedicated and intentional weight loss isn’t considered cool, because it means two things: You refuse to radically accept your own body, and, quietly worse, you have weight to lose in the first place. American society has, over the last decade, reimagined dieting and working out as the much chiller “wellness,” but beauty standards haven’t shifted much since the mainstream adoption of the body positivity movement.

For many, failure to adhere to those strict standards has the same psychological, emotional, and social consequences it always has, now with a little extra stigma. Weight Watchers — or, as it’s been known since its 2018 rebrand, WW — with its group-therapy-style meetings full of members counting food “points” and openly striving to be smaller versions of themselves, is, by this measure, especially embarrassing.

Personally, I’ve been doing Weight Watchers on and off since 2011, paying $21.72 a month to mostly ignore the company’s advice. (I also refuse to call it WW.) Meltzer recently spent a year on the program, which she detailed in her new book, This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me), out April 14.

Meltzer writes movingly of her own struggles with having a body, but her experiment isn’t the exclusive focus of the book: It also chronicles the life of Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch, whose vaudevillian comic timing, retrograde ideas about fat and happiness, and unconcealed desire for fame and connection make her a fascinating subject.

I recently spoke to Meltzer about Nidetch, the pressure to feel happy about your body, and what we get out of sharing our stories. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You talk in the book about having tried all sorts of weight loss methods — camps, workout regimes, Kybella, all manner of diets — throughout your life. But you did Weight Watchers in elementary school and never again, until you started this project. What kept you away from the program for most of your adult life?

I think that I was like, “Well, I’m not a suburban housewife. I’m not a joiner. If I need to talk about my feelings, I have a therapist that I pay a lot of money to.”

And also, the idea of [not] paying a lot of money. I am a person with fancy taste, and I like to think that some kind of rarefied version of things is what’s best for me. I think it took a long time for me to just get over myself and this idea that there is gonna be some super-special answer.

Weight Watchers is not cool and it’s never been cool, and when it tries to be cool, it fails. Jean Nidetch was many, many things, but she also was not cool, and dieting is not cool, and so I think that it was hard for me to get over my inner eye-rolling teenage rebel enough to go to meetings and literally get with the program.

The meetings were really, it seems, Jean Nidetch’s big idea.

She had this bright idea that community was really important. I’m not going to pretend like it’s some feminist thing, but she had something in common with the feminist notions of talking about your problem, consciousness-raising groups.

Dieting had been this kind of private slog, just another thing women had to kind of suffer through silently. She had the idea that it could be something that you could talk about, and that you could find community and health and support and friendship.

Some of the lessons of this book were not necessarily around nutrition or dieting per se, but they were about my own snobbery and the barriers I put up between people who I kind of dismiss as having nothing in common with. The meetings were kind of a way for me to get out of my personal bubble.

Can we talk about how you discovered Jean? She’s fascinating.

I read her obituary about five years ago in the New York Times. I clicked on it right away, because I was sort of like, “Great. I’m going to have a face I can blame for my lifetime of diet failure and being tortured about it, and having been put on Weight Watchers as a child.” At the same time, I had no idea that anyone had ever invented Weight Watchers. I thought it was like, I don’t know, the equivalent to a Nestle Toll House cookie recipe or something.

Her life seemed to have such a fairy-tale quality: She was this 40-year-old Brooklyn working-class housewife who had lost a significant amount of weight, and then taught her friends a version of the diet and grew and grew and grew. She became a millionaire and had all these glamorous things, moving to LA and dating Fred Astaire. She had such an inimitable voice when they quoted her, just so no-nonsense.

We are also in this moment where culturally, we’re all very interested in reclaiming the sort of lost women of history. Hidden Figures is a perfect example. So it was surprising to me that a company that totally dominates an industry, like Weight Watchers, has this female-founder story from 50 years ago that was lost to time.

A Weight Watchers meeting in 2016, before the company rebranded to WW.
Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Weight Watchers

I just keep thinking that the most tragic thing about Jean is that she believed a person couldn’t be happy if they were fat — but the part of the book where I was the most jealous of her was when she and her first husband, Marty, were a fun, fat couple that everyone wanted to have dinner parties with.

They were living a really fun life. They were super in love, and they would go to this place in, I think, Omaha, where they could park their convertible and someone would bring them cold slices of watermelon. That’s fabulous. That’s the most ideal date I could ever think of.

But she was really down on herself. I think if you lose 70 pounds and your livelihood is tied to having lost that weight, it’s probably easy to think that there’s no way to be happy and fat. You kinda have to trick yourself into thinking that.

As you point out, she was an influencer type of figure. There was a cult of personality around her, and she loved an audience. In some of the meetings you attend, it seems that’s really true for some regular members, too. They want an audience.

Some people have that with social media, but a lot of people don’t have that, and especially if you are in a household where no one else is dieting, I think it’s probably a real relief to be able to go somewhere and talk about this thing and have people who listen.

Sometimes you just need someone to talk to about the food. My friends and I will send what we like to call Weight Watchers Chaos Meals back and forth to each other from Instagram. It will be, like, a cheese stick and apple sauce on a paper plate. It’s a huge bummer.

People get really deep into the “zero point” world. There’s a famous thing that they always have in Weight Watchers pamphlets and meetings: a zero-point soup. It’s always like, “Well, if you run out of your points for the day, here is, like, a filling and nutritious soup you can make that’s just zero points!” And it’s just water and vegetables. It’s like something that Hansel and Gretel would have made when they’re lost in the woods over a fire.

There are a lot of strange recipes right now using nonfat Greek yogurt; the idea that you can mix that with self-rising flour and that would be like a bagel if you baked it is just, like, “No, absolutely not.” I’m never a person that’s going to be happy with an imitation zero-point pancake.

Something you write about really beautifully in the book is this weird status of talking about diets over the years. When Jean started out in 1963, the idea was that women should be on a diet, but they shouldn’t talk about it. And now we’re in a place where talking about our bodies in any way that isn’t acceptance also feels really fraught. It feels really hard to talk about wanting to change your body.

At the meetings, it was interesting because it wasn’t, like, people just sitting around and denigrating the way that they looked or having unreasonable goals. For the most part, people at the meetings were fat and wanted to lose weight to be not overweight anymore.

There’s a lot of pressure to be strong and to be happy and to show how much you love yourself, and those are wonderful ideals, but they’re ideals. That doesn’t give room for our real emotions about ourselves.

I think it’s true that beauty standards are way too tight and ridiculous, and it’s true that diet culture really has a stranglehold on all of us, but it’s also true that we don’t live in vacuums, and that we might have real desires to lose weight that are complicated.

It’s so much easier to try to change yourself than it is to change society, and that might be sad, but I think we’re at this strange kind of point where people feel like they can’t really be honest about it. There needs to be more space to have a more nuanced conversation, and that’s really what I wanted to say in the book.

It’s like, you might feel like you’re not in control of your body or food or whatever, but you’re supposed to have total control over the way you feel about that stuff.

I would love to have control over my feelings or to be able to change them, but that’s simply impossible. I think you can change your feelings about things, but I think it takes a lot of time and you’re really not in control. And so there are other ways to sort of move beyond the binary concept of dieting versus acceptance.

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