I remember my second time on Weight Watchers better than my first. My first happened on my own, and it was pretty surreal for me, the solitary 12-year-old in a room full of middle-aged housewives and business ladies trying to take control of their expanding bottoms and fighting against the slow quicksand of an aging metabolism. This was the late 1980s, and most of these women seemed to be there for a self-esteem boost, or to reinterest their husbands.
I was there trying to fix the thing that was making my tiny 12-year-old social life so very difficult (at least, in my head).
A few years later I went again, this time with a friend whose full name I still remember, but for the purposes of this story we’ll call her Dee. Lacking any clear concept of my actual size at the time, I could not tell you which of us was fatter. Dee was far taller -- FAR taller, nearing five foot nine even at 14 years old, which combined with her awkwardness meant she didn’t catch boys’ eyes any more than I did, even if she was less fat than me (a fact of which I can’t be sure).
Dee and I attended Weight Watchers together with another friend of hers, and we tried to make it a fun social thing, huddled together in the back row of every meeting, though that was mostly impossible in a room full of mom-aged chaperones. I hadn’t thought about it in years until I watched Mad Men this week and saw Betty Draper Francis attending her own late-1960s Weight Watchers meeting and was sort of amazed at how little the process had changed.
Weight Watchers began in 1961 as an improvised support group at the home of longtime fad dieter and cookie fiend Jean Nidetch, who realized she seemed to be more successful in her weight-loss efforts when she had similarly dieting friends around with whom to share her experiences. She began these meetings in her home in Queens, NY, until she literally ran out of space to contain the dieting multitudes. At this point one of her regular attendees suggested she turn her idea into a business, and in 1963 Weight Watchers became one of the first (and best known and most financially successful) commercial diet companies.
In "Mad Men"’s era, public weigh-ins were still the norm, although many participants would later report terribly demoralizing experiences with them, leading to Weight Watchers eventually mandating private weigh-ins prior to meetings. Betty’s group leader kindly asks each weighed woman if she is comfortable with having her result spoken to the group, but this wasn’t always the case -- and depending on the group leader, this could make for some uncomfortable moments when a Watcher did not lose, or worse, actually gained weight.
The storefront Weight Watchers clinic I visited with Dee had a small back room, almost a closet, where the weigh-ins took place. It was dimly lit inside -- to keep us calm? -- and occasionally on bad weeks you’d be sitting waiting in the meeting area and would hear a muffled wail of anguish from the tiny room of shame. I remember the weigh-in room well, and I remember my longing on every weigh-in to just get under 200 pounds, please please please, just under 200 pounds. Once I reached 199.5 and stayed there for a whole week before reentering the 200s, and I have never again crossed that threshold since.
This was before Weight Watchers had points, and instead we had little Weight-Watchers-branded scales on which EVERYTHING had to be weighed, plus an extensive listing of menus and portions and total calorie counts. It was at Weight Watchers that I learned what “free” foods were, dietarily speaking, and after my carefully measured dinner most nights I would then create a massive “salad” of “free” items, namely romaine lettuce, red wine vinegar, and Mrs. Dash.
I ate this so often I risked pickling myself. But knowing there were SOME foods I could eat as I wished was absolutely necessary to my psychology of the time; my lifelong control freakism responded to the diet in the opposite direction, manifesting as a fear that the diet would come to control me, a prospect I found unbearable.
The business of Weight Watchers kept growing through the 60s and 70s, which saw the development of a wider variety of food plans, and special recipe cards that portray a very special kind of diet-food horror unseen before or since (Wendy McClure has kindly assembled some of them online for your enjoyment and/or disgust -- does mackerel pudding sound delicious to you?).
1978 was a big year for Weight Watchers, as it was the year they began to incorporate psychological approaches to behavior modification, and it was also the year they sold to Heinz, a food company that extends far beyond its ketchup empire, and which has subsequently developed the Weight Watchers brand into a ubiquitous icon, from supermarket frozen dinners to Internet-only memberships for the meeting-averse.
Betty Draper Francis’ meetings seem to be kind of soft-spoken and self-help-y -- her leader asserts that success is not all about “the pounds” and encourages the ladies to share their good and bad experiences of the week -- which may have been the norm for the pre-Heinz era.
However, the meetings I attended were a little different. For one thing, the women who were most successful -- whose losses were trumpeted as model triumphs at the start of each event -- were both admired and despised. We received little buttons to mark certain points in our loss. Ten pounds down, 20 pounds down, 50 pounds down. I craved them like medals of honor.
There was a definite atmosphere of competition in my Weight Watchers group, far more than the subtle hints in Betty’s, though I can’t speak for all groups everywhere. When Dee lost more than me, I was devastated; when I lost more than she, I fairly swam in my satisfied feelings of superiority. My group leader -- a woman who was extraordinarily cold, in stark contrast to Betty’s reflective body-and-mind guru -- actively encourged us to push ourselves and one another to be the lady on top, and if we weren’t her, to fight to topple her.
This aspirational motivation continues today in Weight Watchers’ Lifetime Membership reward, given to those who reach their goal weight on the program and keep within two pounds of it for a whopping six consecutive weeks. Lifetime Members can return to any meeting, anytime, for free, for the rest of their lives -- so long as they have remained within two pounds of their original goal weight (which sort of begs the question: Why would they need to go?). Essentially this benefit is about role modeling to current members and demonstrating that true finish-line goal-weight success is possible, if not necessarily universal.
I came to hate the meetings. I mean, I was about to turn 15. This was not a particularly fun way to spend an afternoon, in a room full of women who could have been my parents, listening to them talk about portion control and family meal planning, likewise with the worries over wearing a certain size for a family member’s wedding, or enjoying the renewed attentions of one’s husband. I also did not understand the naked emotion of it all, the women who sobbed dramatically over their failures, who snarked on members behind their backs, many of them a little too much this side of menacing instead of supportive.
I saw enough of all that in school every day, and it was a little distressing to realize that being an adult didn’t automatically mean acting like one.
Dee quit the week before I did; her other friend had quit some time before that. I waited that one week because even given my distaste for the competitive atmosphere, I wanted to win -- and if I couldn’t win by losing, I would win by waiting to longest to walk away.
I never saw the backside of 200 pounds again, and I never went back to Weight Watchers, as the counting and the measuring and the eating not because I was hungry or because I wanted the food but because it was time to do so and the diet had mandated it -- it was all very boring, and the likelihood of ever reaching my laughable goal weight of 118 pounds seemed remote even if I could bring myself to soldier on.
Weight Watchers does good for many people, I’m sure, but it is not a path always easily or happily trod, especially if you are a person who enjoys food, or one who hates following other people’s rules. Or if you are me. In my case, my desire to lose weight just couldn’t win when pitted against my much stronger desire to be happy.
From a certain perspective, Jean Nidetch’s diet support groups have not only influenced today’s Weight Watchers empire, but also made it socially normal for people to benefit from having spaces in which they can talk honestly about their experiences with others who understand, or who are at least willing to try -- Niedetch did it specifically with weight loss, but it’s a model that we see everywhere today, whether we’re talking body image or social awkwardness or abortion. Or whether we’re Betty Draper Francis facing her crappy feelings of self-loathing upon being faced with her ex-husband’s young, svelte, beautiful wife.
If for no other reason, I am grateful to Jean Nidetch for helping to create a culture in which talking about our social struggles and our relationships with our bodies is an acceptable thing to do (for women, at least, although hopefully that is changing to include men as well).
It’s possible that if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have a thing to talk about here. I guess I owe more to Weight Watchers than I realize. How about that.