I Spent Fifteen Years in an Abusive Relationship with Weight Watchers
Weight Watchers — or WW as it has now fashioned itself — and I first met when I was 21 years old and our liaison lasted until I was 34. It is still, to this day, my longest relationship, outlasting every job and every boyfriend I’ve ever had. Even my husband still has another eight years until he can claim the top title of longevity.
At the time I was young and hopeful, looking for someone to take me under their wing and point me in the right direction. Here stood a well-respected and long-standing known entity. A mature individual, older and wiser than all of those fad diets who breezed in and out without lasting results. I mean, hello, Weight Watchers was BFFs with celebrities!
In the beginning, we saw each other face-to-face on a regular basis. It started with weekly dates held in the basement of a local church, me clutching my little notebook with what I ate for the week. Notations made for my daily two teaspoons of oil and five servings of veggies and two servings of dairy. The math for points consumed against points earned through activity. Me, clutching to the hope that Weight Watchers would show me how to fix my body. I clung to those meetings like a north star.
When I started my senior year of college, the meetings continued, this time now in a community center near campus. Soon, though, I stopped. The pressure of maintaining the weekly meeting was too much against the pressure of coursework. But after graduating, I got a job and found a location near my new office. That lasted for several months until it also became too much to balance everything.
Every time I quit or gained it felt like a failure. I felt like a failure. I had yet again disappointed Weight Watchers by not losing the weight.
Jean Nidetch was a 40 year old Brooklyn homemaker in 1961, when she ran into a neighbor at the grocery store who thought she was pregnant. She’d always struggled with her weight, but that moment in the grocery store was her limit.
Determined to lose the weight, Nidetch soon joined one of the city’s health clinics hoping it would give her the tools to shed some pounds. Still, she had a hard time and turned to her friends for assistance and motivation. Weight Watchers was born out of that in-home support group.
The company was incorporated in 1963 and by 1968, the plan that had started with a handful of friends meeting weekly to chat about their diet struggles had grown to 5 million people.
Back in 2010 I recommitted to Weight Watchers for real, opting this time to go for the online version. No excuses this time: I had the app on my phone, both the one for tracking and the companion app for scanning barcodes in the grocery store. Behind the scenes, the algorithm would do its work and let me know which variety of low-calorie bread would cost me fewer points. When out with friends, I’d remove myself from the conversation for five or ten minutes. “I just need to track what I ate,” I would tell them apologetically. I couldn’t escape for a single evening, always needing to check in with my boyfriend WW.
That time, the tightrope act of our connection lasted for almost a year and a half. Still, then, as always I eventually quit. Still, then, as always, I saw myself as the failure for the inevitable weight gain that followed.
What I didn’t know was that I was caught in a binge / restrict cycle: the more I dieted and restricted certain foods, the more likely I was to eventually hit a wall and binge. That, in turn, would cause me to feel guilty which would cause me to turn back to dieting again.
It’s like the boyfriend who talks down to you and treats you terribly and doesn’t call and just as you are about to break it off for good this time, he shows up on your doorstep with a dozen long-stemmed red roses.
In the 1960s, the Weight Watchers plan was restrictive with foods like avocados, bananas, ketchup and even coconut off-limits. Even with permitted foods, such as lean poultry and cheese, participants were only allowed to eat a certain amount of each per week.
Over the next fifty years, the plan would reinvent itself multiple times, but it wasn’t until 1997 with the original points plan that the company really took off. Their reach and market share had no limit. Food production companies, like Progresso soup and Healthy Choice, began printing Points on their packaging. Eating out? No need to guess: Applebees has the Points right on the menu.
It was a bit like balancing a checkbook. Every member had a set amount of daily points — determined by things like gender, height, and weight— and an additional 35 “weekly” points to be used at your discretion throughout the week. So if you ran out of your daily points or wanted to splurge on a piece of cake at a birthday party, you had a bank of points available.
In turn, food was given a points value as well. The formula was complex, based on the carbs, fat, and fiber of each food. Foods high in fiber were weighted lower than foods high in fat.
Like everything else when it comes to Weight Watchers and diet culture, fat is viewed as the enemy.
When it came to Weight Watchers I was not monogamous. I, on more than one occasion, cheated on Weight Watchers with a variety of other diets: Keto, Intermittent Fasting, Slim Fast, just to name a few. Still, without fail I would inevitably circle back to the familiar: Weight Watchers.
The familiar was controlling and demeaning and demanding. The familiar made me doubt myself and beat myself up for the tiniest mistake. The familiar gave me low self-esteem and taught me to hate my body. The familiar made me account for every single thing that I ate, no matter how small or insignificant. The familiar made me believe that if I gained a single ounce, it was entirely my fault and I was to blame for all failures.
Still, the familiar was, well, familiar. It was constant and comfortable. I knew what to expect — even those feelings of self-doubt and failure were expected. Not just expected but accepted, because I had internalized everything Weight Watchers had told me about my fat body. I had been bullied into believing that my body was broken and Weight Watchers was the only one who could fix it.
It was like being in an emotionally abusive relationship for fifteen years.
I don’t use that term lightly and it is not my intention to belittle domestic abuse victims and survivors. Instead, the comparison is made to stress the toxic and destructive nature of dieting. Not just Weight Watchers, either, but all dieting.
Abusers don’t have a look. You can’t spot one from the street or from across a crowded bar. If anything, abusers are the ones you’d be least likely to pick out from the crowd as the one to watch out for. By design they lure you in under false pretenses. In the beginning they are charming and polite, showering you with love and affection. The promise you a lifetime of happiness and safety and security.
Diet culture does the same thing. Diet culture promises you a lifetime of Size 2 dresses and keeping the weight off for good. It promises you’ll live longer — as if counting out individual blueberries will stop a car from hitting you tomorrow — and by losing weight, all of your problems will disappear. Unemployed? Lose weight and the job offer will come. Single? Lose weight and you’ll have to beat them off with a stick. Broke? Lose weight and you’ll win the lottery.
And like a moth to the flame we go.
Weight Watchers revamped their points system in 2010, this time to PointsPlus. Now, protein was added into the mix of carbs, fat, and fiber. To account for the change in food points values, participants were equally given more daily and weekly points.
Then, in 2017, Weight Watchers revamped their points system again to something called Freestyle. Suddenly, 200 foods were now 0 points, which included fruits and veggies.
Participants were divided and some struggled, often turning to the cottage-industry of knockoff smartphone apps that allows them to follow old Weight Watchers plans.
Turns out, if you spend years telling someone what they should and shouldn’t eat and, more importantly, how much of it they should eat, down to the individual point, they have no idea how to do it without you.
Neither diet culture nor abusers deliver on their promises, instead turning around and making your life hell. Diet culture doesn’t trust you to make the right choices so you constantly have to check in, by tracking your food and stepping on a scale. They are controlling and limit what you are allowed to eat, forcing you to cut out carbs or sugar or fat (or all of the above). They gaslight you, convincing you that you can’t trust your own hunger signals. They make you believe that food is either “good” or “bad” and if you eat bad food you are a bad person. And bad people must be punished, so you restrict even more or over exercise or resort to behaviors of disordered eating.
When the diet doesn’t work, when you regain weight, you are made to believe it’s all your fault. Scale went up, well you had that one coming didn’t you? You didn’t try hard enough or you clearly don’t want this bad enough. You’re lazy and unmotivated and full of excuses.
Both abusers and diet culture isolate you from friends and family. You can’t participate in family dinners or visits to restaurants or meet-ups at the local bar or birthday celebrations unless you can fit the food into your “plan.”
Both abusers and diet culture rely on your becoming dependent on them. They beat your own self-trust out of you, so even if you do start to dip your toes into a life without them you are left petrified. How can you decide what to eat unless someone else tells you what is okay? How can you know when to stop eating unless someone else tells you when you are done? They drill into you the belief that if left to your own devices you will eat yourself out of house and home and balloon up in size.
Because, as always, fat is the enemy.
There is no magic pill for weight loss. The fact that Weight Watchers continues to revamp its system after few years is proof of that. The fact that Weight Watchers has a plethora of competitors, vying for both your money and your loyalty, is proof of that. I know people who have tried for years to lose weight and keep it off without success, only to turn to weight loss surgery because they saw no other way.
And while, yes, I also know people who have maintained their weight loss that number is much, much, much smaller.
The U.S. weight loss market is a $66 billion industry and Weight Watchers net worth alone is $1.34 billion. The industry would implode if a magic pill was discovered and people were able to legitimately keep the weight off for good. Or if people just stopped dieting altogether. Instead, you are set up to fail. They need you to fail. Diet culture needs you to distrust yourself so you will always turn to them. It needs you to struggle. It needs you to rely on them and see them as the only way out. Diet culture needs you to see yourself as drowning and they are the only one with a life preserver.
In September 2018, Weight Watchers rebranded itself as WW, now with the goal of encouraging “wellness.” Whatever that means. More often than not, wellness culture is still diet culture in more glamorous clothes.
In 2016 I said goodbye to diet culture for good, including Weight Watchers. It was scary and I had to relearn how to trust my body. But it can be done.
That said, as much as I believe everyone should also quit dieting, I am fully in support of body autonomy and know that you need to do what you need to do.
Just ask yourself if what you’re putting into the relationship is really and truly worth what you get out of it. Ask yourself what you are sacrificing an in effort to win approval from diet culture. As Caroline Dooner says, “You are not alive just to pay bills and lose weight.”