Over the past couple months, I’ve been in the interesting position of being faced with the news that a couple different friends are embarking on paths in pursuit of intentional weight loss. One joined Weight Watchers and one had bariatric surgery.
These different news flashes presented me with a momentary conundrum: considering everything I have read and learned in the last decade about how intentional weight loss doesn’t work
, and my own desire to be a size acceptance advocate*, what, I asked myself, should I say in response to these friends making choices I didn’t especially agree with?
Let me be entirely clear: the reason why this conundrum was only momentary is because my basic sense of human ethics kicked in and I remembered that people have the full right to live their own damn lives however they please, whether or not their choices echo my own preferences or not. As with so many things, this boils down to Regan Chastain’s Underpants Rule
: “everyone is the boss of their own underpants so you get to choose for you and other people get to choose from them and it’s not your job to tell other people what to do.”
However, my feelings about how problematic Weight Watchers is, as a corporate entity, are strong enough that I decided to spend some time writing it out.
Here’s the thing. Healthy behaviors matter–undeniably so. Healthy exercise choices, healthy food choices matter. In some people, healthy behaviors are correlated with weight loss. In some people, healthy behaviors are not
correlated with weight loss. And in very few
people are healthy behaviors correlated with weight loss in proportion to what the medical and weight loss industry tell us our bodies “should” do (i.e., in proportion to that piece of bullshittery called the BMI
But here’s the amazing thing: those healthy behaviors have positive health effects even if you don’t lose an ounce of weight.
Unfortunately, society’s emphasis on weight loss, the incredible evil of fat shaming and fat stigma, and the workings of human psychology mean that if you focus on weight loss, you are highly likely to feel like you’ve failed if you don’t match up to that mythically, magically proportionate equation of healthy effort to pounds lost. Which means you’re more likely to give up
those healthy behaviors and take on more and more un
-healthy behaviors (smoking, starvation diet, stomach amputation), all in the service of thin-ness.
As long as society focuses on weight rather than on actual scientifically valid health markers, we feed into this cycle of misinformation and prejudice.
So how does this tie back to my hatred of Weight Watchers? After all, isn’t WW all about learning to make healthy choices for yourself?
Nope. Weight Watchers is, first and foremost, about losing weight. It’s right there in the name, as well as in one of the ads Oprah made right after buying a 10% share in the company:
Ponder her words for a moment: yeah yeah, we sort of care about being healthy, but what we REALLY care about is being thinner. She says it about as plainly as you possibly could.
As long as WW maintains a brand identity founded on weight loss rather than other scientifically valid health markers, they are playing into that vicious cycle of perceived failure leading to the give-up of healthy behaviors, which often leads to metabolic damage and more weight gain… rinse and repeat ad naseum. More than playing into that cycle: it’s something WW is counting on a key part of its profit model. As Traci Mann reports
Winfrey’s venture is, in fact, a brilliant investment, although not necessarily for the reason she thinks. It’s brilliant not because Weight Watchers works but because it doesn’t. It’s the perfect business model. People give Weight Watchers the credit when they lose weight. Then they regain the weight and blame themselves. This sets them up to join Weight Watchers all over again, and they do.
The company brags about this to its shareholders. According to Weight Watchers’ business plan from 2001 (which I viewed in hard-copy form at a library), its members have “demonstrated a consistent pattern of repeat enrollment over a number of years,” signing up for an average of four separate program cycles. And in an interview for the documentary The Men Who Made Us Thin, former CFO Richard Samber explained that the reason the business was successful was because the majority of customers regained the weight they lost, or as he put it: “That’s where your business comes from.”
At the heart of it, WW actively perpetuates the societal mechanisms of fat phobia and psychological mechanisms of self-hatred in order to make money off of weight cyclers. And, given the health risks of weight cycling, and the LACK of health risks from being “overweight,” WW is actively causing harm while it makes its money.
That’s why I hate them.