I was in middle school when I attended my first Weight Watchers meeting. At the tender age of 11, I had already attended kids’ weight loss programs and fat day camps as well as kept food diaries and counted calories. I had honed my skill at eyeballing portions of food, readily spotting the difference between a one-third cup and a one-half cup of blueberries.
But despite my best efforts, my stubborn body clung to its fat. So I was at Weight Watchers.
I descended the steps of a neighborhood community center, entering a shadowy basement with low ceiling tiles and long fluorescent lights. I stood in line while a “Success Story” weighed each attendee individually, marking our weekly weight in a ledger before ushering us into the meeting room.
I was an outlier — a chubby, pink-cheeked preteen in a room full of fortysomething women. I paid close attention as they spoke, listening not only for their successes and failures but for how adult women talked about their lives. This was a coming-of-age moment. I was being ushered into womanhood through one of its most enduring aspects: the unending, thankless quest to lose weight.
I listened keenly as the world of womanhood unfolded in front of me, women sharing their near-uniform stories of failure or partial success (also experienced as failure). Some wept as they spoke of their lack of willpower and the ways they knew their lives would transform if and when they lost weight. Marriages would rekindle, careers would flourish, lives would blossom into glorious futures. These women, brimming with grief, spoke of the lives that lay ahead of them, gleaming and pristine. If they could just beat their bodies into submission, their lives would change and problems would melt away. This had been promised: The thinner, the winner. Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
As a fat kid, Weight Watchers was my only nutrition education, and it was by way of points calculation. I learned to search food labels for calories, fat, and fiber, foregoing vitamins, minerals, sugar content, and more. A dog-eared points slider lived in my Jansport backpack. I memorized a list of “free” foods, reminding myself in my deepest moments of body shame that I could eat as much celery and egg whites as I wanted.
Weight Watchers is a wolf donning sheep’s clothing, suddenly changing its tune after decades of public weigh-ins, endless shaming, and pulling many participants — largely women — into a lifelong cycle of dieting.
The company ushered in a new era in my life just in time for adolescence: one of endless yo-yo dieting, flirting with eating disorders, and a seemingly never-ending war with the body I had always had and the food I always needed. Little did I know, those endless diets would later be shown to cause permanent damage to my metabolism, ensuring a lifetime as a fat person whose efforts to lose weight would prove increasingly futile over time.
Weight Watchers was also my introduction to diet culture. It taught me that fat people were incomplete, that food was to be feared and mistrusted, that my body was a failure, and that a life in a body like mine was no life at all. At 11, I clung desperately to the idea that my body could and would change — that, somehow, I would become thin. Then and only then could my real life begin.
I stayed in Weight Watchers off and on through high school and college. My body never changed. And my life — real or otherwise — proceeded without me.