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An Open Letter to Oprah about Weight Watchers

Reclamation © 2011 Joslyn P. Smith

Dear Oprah,

You were 14. I was 15. You carried a son. I carried a son. You lost a son. I lost one, too. That experience helps explain my relationship to my own body in ways few people can grasp. I trust you are one of the people who can.

The twenty-six years between your rape and mine did nothing to change our experiences of shame or silence or self-blame. Twenty-four years later, I am beginning to believe none of what happened to me was my fault. The rape was not my fault. The pregnancy was not my fault. The miscarriage was not my fault.

On January 7, I heard you say at the Golden Globe Awards that “for too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak the truth to the power of… men.” I felt renewed hope and trust when you said a new day is on the horizon. Maybe change can come for us — assaulted, shamed, and silenced by people with power over our bodies.

It’s true. Women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to men. But the bigger truth is that women have not been heard or believed if they dare to speak their truth to those in power, including corporations.

One month after your moving speech, Weight Watchers announced that this summer it will make membership free to teens. I trust you are aware of great concern being expressed about this initiative as you are a member of the board of directors and owner of a 10% stake in the company. As someone who continues to live in a large but starved body, and as a policy professional in the eating disorders field, I echo the concerns that have been raised by those in the eating disorder and Health At Every Size® communities. For a number of reasons, most notably your significant support for both the #MeToo and #NeverAgain movements and your decades-long global leadership on a multitude of fronts to better the lives of women and girls, I write to ask you to reconsider your investment in and involvement with Weight Watchers.

Any corporation marketing a program to support healthy habits or healthy lifestyles, while suggesting those programs will result in long-term weight loss, is not interested in health; it is interested in money. It is invested in the failure of its clients to maintain weight loss, and the return of those clients to the program, thus increasing corporate profits. The weight loss industry perpetuates a predatory cycle that relies on the shame, silence, and self-blame of its participants.

Research repeatedly has shown a 95% failure rate to sustain weight loss. By targeting teens, Weight Watchers clearly intends to create a new generation of lifelong clients who are ashamed of their bodies and blame themselves when the weight comes back on. But weight almost always returns, not because of a lack of effort or commitment or even compliance with a weight loss program, but because bodies fight to store fat when they are threatened. And any body that is faced with caloric restriction is threatened. By regaining weight, bodies are doing exactly what they are meant to do.

Weight Watchers, since its inception in 1963, has promised a new day — a slimmer body, a toned physique, control. As someone personally invested in the company’s success, you are perpetuating the lies being sold.

Like you, repeated sexual assaults on my body at a young age and societal messages about women and weight intersected. I desperately needed to be in charge of my body and what happened to it. Dieting was the solution presented to me. Among many different weight loss attempts, I joined Weight Watchers at twelve or thirteen. For almost thirty years, I have tried to control the size and shape of my body. For almost twenty years I have struggled with a life-threatening eating disorder. For over ten years, I have worked to debunk the myths conflating weight and health, and to fight the stigma of living in a higher weight body. Every bit of that work is informed by my experience as a survivor of sexual assault.

Truth be told, there are still days I tiptoe through life telling myself I am too much. My body is too much. My emotions are too big. My reactions are too strong. I care too much. I need too much. I dwell on my past too much. I hold on too tight to things I can’t control. I feel too much in my body. I feel nothing in my body too often. My body is too much. Too much flesh. Too many stretch marks. Too much jiggling. Too much fat. Too much space taken up. Too much. These lies are about my size and my eating disorder, but they’re at least as much about my traumas — my shame, my silencing, and my self-blame.

You speak of ushering in a new day, and I see you commit to bringing light to issues such as sexual assault and the need for gun control. I see you repeatedly encourage women and girls to speak their truth. As a young girl, I watched you speak your own truth. And, to this day, I take in your words and actions as a call to me, personally, to keep speaking mine. At the same time, though, through your association with Weight Watchers, you are ushering in a different kind of day, one where the perpetrator is not your cousin or my neighbor, but a corporation telling girls and women their bodies are unacceptable and must be controlled. And when they inevitably fail, they feel shame and self-blame. They are silenced. And the patriarchal status quo — which I truly believe you fight against daily — continues.

I now have a four year old daughter. I am vigilant about protecting her and empowering her to know that her body is hers and hers alone. She has the right to set boundaries and to trust her instincts. Her body is strong and wise and perceptive. Of course, my hope as a mother is that my vigilance is enough to protect her against assault — by people with seeming power over her, and, as importantly, by corporations and industries that are more invested in their bottom line than her well-being, which ultimately breaks down of our collective daughters’ ability to trust themselves. Of course, my vigilance may never be enough. It certainly won’t be until those of us in a position to do so now commit to do everything in our power to usher in that new day about which you spoke. A new day where the status quo is no more. Where silence is transformed into women’s truths being shared. Where shame is transformed into youth claiming their power and changing laws. Where the inherent wisdom of bodies is valued above profit.

Please, for you at 14 and me at 15, for my daughter now, and for the youth who are pushing so strongly to create a different reality for us all, please consider withdrawing your personal and professional connections with Weight Watchers.