In 1963, patriarchal social structures in the United States seemed to be getting stirred up by female voices challenging the hegemonic imaginary woman, when Betty Friedan published her seminal book The Feminine Mystique. That same year, Jean Nidetch started a company helping women reduce their body weight: Weight Watchers, now called WW. By losing weight, as Marisa Meltzer argues in her book This is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me) (2020), Nidetch “basically earned the American dream” (8) and then sold it as a commodity. Meltzer explains that “Jean had a Cinderella story for the ages. She was a maven and mogul who lost weight, spectacularly found her calling, and helped to create a national pastime and obsession that endures today” (276). And indeed, in the 21st century, losing weight is still a popular American pastime. It is important enough that it inspired Meltzer to dedicate half of her book to her own experiences with dieting and Weight Watchers. For her book she even became a weight watcher, again. While calling Nidetch her role model, Meltzer also offers a critical view of Weight Watchers and its quantitative ideology of weight.
The American Dream, Fat Housewives, and Slim Entrepreneurs
Nidetch’s success story – a story of the American dream becoming a woman’s reality – would not be complete without a broader perspective. More than an individual’s development, her story can be read as a model, even a prophecy, for future weight watchers, since “[d]iet culture and weight loss are directly related to the Protestant work ethic in America” (Meltzer 62-63). Through hard work and discipline, everyone is supposed to be able to make it from ‘rags to riches.’ According to Sarah Riley, Adrienne Evans and Martine Robson, containment in consumption is linked to holiness in Puritan ideology, and especially women are expected to exercise renunciation and to redeem their sex from the original sin. Nidetch’s example of a “formerly fat housewife” and entrepreneur mirrors this Puritan ideal of female renunciation when it comes to food. Her biography suggests that body shape and economic success are codependent. After all, Nidetch proved a certain degree of discipline by losing the weight she was struggling with for decades, and by gaining control over her addiction to Mallomars, chocolate-covered marshmallow treats.
Working on one’s body has been conceived as a way for white middle-class women to gain control in a “society where an increasing emphasis is put on the individual, on the exception, the carve-out, the workaround, the personal triumph” (Meltzer 267). Working on oneself, and on one’s own body in particular, is one way of experiencing a “personal triumph.” It can mean subjecting oneself to structures of discipline and surveillance, as Barry Glassner argued in 1989. Measuring tools like the BMI, but also Weight Watchers’s food tracking techniques, and fitness tracking devices, make it possible to track one’s caloric intake and consumption, and compare it to normative and normalizing data. Women, therewith, put themselves under the surveillance of an ideal body image and Weight Watchers has been playing an important part in this system, has framed itself as “the authority.” As a commodity, fitness and dieting programs have become a lifestyle serving predominantly the white middle classes. At the same time, they have enabled women to produce their bodies according to normative standards. With all this said, Weight Watchers is an institution of discipline and surveillance. This is achieved through weekly weightings and strict nutrition plans. Weight Watchers focuses on numbers and quantity, rather than quality. This quantitative aspect of dieting serves Meltzer’s argument, that, today, as women, “we have so many internalized messages that we are not enough that we might spend our whole lives coming to terms with them” (284).
In 1963, Betty Friedan identified the dieting industry as “a lucrative business in that futile battle to take off the fat that cannot be turned into human energy [e.g. housework] by the American housewife” (358). Back then, one major reason for white middle-class women to start dieting was society’s expectation for them to become housewives and mothers, and the suggested correlation of thinness and successful marriages. Losing weight was supposed to result in gaining (and keeping) a husband (see also lifestyle guides from the 1960s, such as Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl from 1962). This ideal, however, was contested by Jean Nidetch’s own divorce resulting from her diet, since her husband liked her “better when [she] was fat” (Nidetch qtd. in Meltzer 166). Yet, she did not present her divorce as a defeat, nor did Weight Watchers or the media. Rather, it was staged as a challenge for this self-made woman who ‘transformed’ into an ideal woman with platinum blonde hair, living in Los Angeles and dating Fred Astaire. Being thin, Nidetch’s new lifestyle seemed to suggest, provides women with the looks, the means, and the men.
The side effects of women’s subjectivation to this ideal body image, however, have been manifold. Bulimia and excessive workouts, but also taking diet pills are not uncommon disorders that result from an unhealthy relationship between the subject and food. Meltzer, for instance, in her striving to become “enough,” took diet pills. She “wanted to be thin so bad that the potential dangers didn’t even occur” (61) to her. Nidetch’s and Meltzer’s examples show how much the American Dream, for Nidetch, and the feeling of being “enough,” for Meltzer, are related to size. Although, according to Meltzer, contemporary American society puts emphasis on the individual, when it comes to bodies, only the normative ones are acceptable. This leaves an impression of uniformity for successful women. Meltzer thus fantasizes her “body […] to be whatever size it is and for no one to see [her] as fat; for the social perception of fatness to cease to exist” (198). However, this only works so far as one can ignore society’s sanctions. “Maybe fat people,” she goes on, “are just made more aware [than thin people] of the negative ways that the world views them because fat shaming is very acceptable in our culture. And fat is visible” (113). Getting in shape or becoming thin, in the end, will not solve all problems, or make a woman feel as if she is “enough.” Meltzer raises the question if in Western society, with its emphasis on quantity, we are even capable of savoring quality.
Nidetch’s success as entrepreneur, in the end, only worked as long as she and her body were useful for the company’s image. By the end of the 70s she was “cut out [from her company], and there appeared to be a fair amount of sexism involved” (198), showing that it was merely her body that made her the face of Weight Watchers, and that otherwise she – who sold eggs in her neighborhood to earn extra money and proved her qualities as a saleswoman way before becoming a slim entrepreneur – was not “enough.” Meltzer’s book raises many questions about America’s contemporary relationship to food, health, and bodies. One of the most important questions is the question of when a woman is “enough.” The American Dream, for women, it seems, is merely the dream of being “enough.” Whatever that may be.