After 55 years as Weight Watchers, in April of 2018 the company unveiled a new name—“WW”—and new approach to commercialized dieting. CEO Mindy Grossman proclaimed that “healthy is the new skinny, and that’s very empowering for people.” Shifting from a focus on losing weight, she told Forbes Magazine that the company’s goal was “to help people be the healthiest version of themselves” and to “inspire health habits for […] communities.” WW’s swerve to “wellness” was critiqued by members of the Health At Every Size movement, including nutritionists who worry that this new veneer of wellness hides the same damaging attitudes about food and body size. Vincci Tsui, a HAES-focused registered dietician tweeted that “the diet industry is listening, but instead of recognizing the harm that they’re doing, they’re simply co-opting weight-inclusive language and disguising dieting as health and wellness.” Christy Harrison likewise criticizes the overall culture of wellness as dieting in disguise, and defines “The Wellness Diet” as “performative health” where the “moralization and demonization of food is front and center.” Harrison argues that, like dieting, WW’s brand of wellness demands a “life-stealing” surveillance and disciplining of bodies. This specious distinction between “healthy eating” and “dieting” has also been long critiqued by fat activists, including those that noted as early as the 1970s that “within the feminist community, dieting is sort of disguised under health food, [feminists] wouldn’t go to Weight Watchers […] but they will go on some kind of extreme health food diet.”
Weight Watchers has a long history of dominating the diet market through brand flexibility. That history shows, though, that both wellness and older WW models of dieting are based on the same commercialized and permanent self-surveillance, however the metrics and language of “success” change. WW’s shift to wellness continues rather than disrupts claims of scientific expertise used in the service of compulsory, life-long, and commercial dieting.
“The Authority”: Weight Watchers, Science, and Diet as a Lifestyle
Hoping to catch the growing market of people who won’t go to Weight Watchers, the company has framed this shift to wellness as a part of a longer history of pursuing a science-based program. But that history itself is suspect. In fact, WW developed a “scientific” model in the early 1970s as a market strategy to distance itself from earlier groups which were falling out of fashion, like the community-based model of Take Off Pounds Sensibly and Overeaters Anonymous. Part of what I call the “group diet movement,” these groups operated with a shared authority between members, who created diet plans and success metrics with and for each other. Weight Watchers monetized the group model and moved the locus of authority from dieter to the program itself. In all iterations, Weight Watchers framed itself as “the authority,” and rigid adherence to their program the only way to lose weight. Weight Watchers created an all-encompassing weight-loss lifestyle in which “success” was undergirded by a lifelong commitment to body surveillance and food restriction.
Weight Watchers’ first “fail-proof medical” program in the early 1960s was the unforgiving diet of the New York City Public Health Clinic for Obesity. Weight Watchers sold this plan as the only way to lose weight and insisted that deviating from any aspect of it would result in failure or worse, weight gain. Within the plan a dieter had no authority to establish a healthy meal plan or avoid foods she didn’t like, and regional Weight Watchers cookbooks tried to solve this problem with recipes like “Hide the Liver Soup.” The program also forbade foods that are now considered healthy: nuts, coconut, honey, and olive oil. Though counting was forbidden, the plan included only about nine-hundred calories for the day. This prescribed diet mystified food by telling members that only exact foods in exact combinations could produce weight loss. In letter after letter founder Jean Nidetch reminded doubtful dieters that The Program (a phrase that was always capitalized) must be followed exactly, for “everything on it is the result of careful research into the problems of weight gain and loss.”
In 1971, Weight Watchers unveiled a “New Plan” based on an exchange diet, one that grouped food into type and allowed dieters to make substitutions and eat to their own tastes. It also allowed Weight Watchers to grow as a brand with extensive cookbooks, recipe cards, and eventually their own line of convenience foods. Like the original plan, these cookbooks and recipes did not include calories or nutritional values. They did offer some gruesome food options, though, including popsicles that were just frozen black coffee and a “slender quencher” drink made from water, sherry, and beef bouillon. Weight Watchers-branded cookbooks marveled “who ever heard of a diet that lets you eat peanut butter, dried fruits, crispbreads, graham crackers, popcorn, sweet potatoes, liverwurst, and fruit-flavored gelatin?” Who, indeed. Though the new plan offered a virtual cornucopia of foods and increased flexibility, it was still distressingly high in liver and low in calories; an average day from a 365-Day meal plan cookbook contained just under one thousand calories, at least two-hundred calories less than the bare minimum recommended for a woman. Changing the plan from the inflexible original diet to an exchange plan pleased members, but it also played into Weight Watchers’ claim of nutritional expertise. Ads announced that the plan represented “the latest knowledge available about health, food, values, nutrition” and was the “most scientifically advanced” diet program available.
To further their position as authorities on nutritional science, Weight Watchers, Inc. began funding the Weight Watchers Foundation in 1971 to improve “methods of educating the obese individual on how to lose weight and maintain the loss.” Foundation reports show a variety of often-contradictory scientific findings, few of which were applicable to Weight Watcher’s commercial program. Even worse were foundation-sponsored projects like that of Dr. David Levitsky, who received a grant from the foundation to explore the linkage between brain and fat. Unfortunately for Weight Watchers, Levitsky’s research suggested that the body has an “ideal weight” and that the brain works to maintain that weight by tricking a person into eating more or less. What mattered more than the actual science, though, was the existence of a scientific foundation that bore Weight Watchers name.
“This isn’t Dieting, This is Living”
Weight Watchers was a pioneer in commodifying “wellness” as a middle-class marker of successful, happy living, and their messages created a paradox in which their program for dieting was aimed at busy women who didn’t have “time to diet” but also offered a consumer-based lifestyle in which one actually dieted 24/7. This whirlwind of surveillance activity was managed by accepting Weight Watchers as the expert, allowing the program to count your calories for you and replace them with point charts, “free” foods, and branded sugar-free soda to “simplify” weight loss. Weight Watchers’ first official celebrity endorser British Actress Lynn Redgrave portrayed the program as an all-encompassing “lifestyle” change in the 1980s. She ended each commercial for new “legal” branded foods by tearing off a shapeless red shift to reveal her slender figure as she declared “this isn’t dieting, this is living.”
This history of Weight Watchers shows that the company positioned itself as a brand capable of understanding the science of weight loss and communicating that knowledge through a proprietary point system which de-naturalized and mystified food. WW now positions itself as uniquely capable of promoting individual and community wellness by re-naturalizing and demystifying food choices. But the message is the same: WW’s customers, 90% of whom are women, need experts to achieve wellness. Like Weight Watchers of the 1970s, this new iteration is capitalizing on women’s fears of their own bodies—a GOOP-ing of women’s anxieties that does nothing to de-center diet culture. Commercialized wellness alienating women from their own bodies is not much better than commercial dieting alienating women from their own bodies, and is just the most recent flex for a company that has led market trends in the diet industry for 50 years. Weight Watchers has never published success rates, and why should they? After all, wellness is a “journey,” and WW will be there with you for every fitbit-tracked step, every logged lunch, every weekly check-in, every New Year’s resolution, forever.