This week, Weight Watchers CEO Mindy Grossman announced that the company was dropping weight — literally, they’re not Weight Watchers anymore. They’re WW. And they’re not a diet, you see. They’re about wellness. They even partnered with a mindfulness and medication app. Their new tagline is, “Wellness that works.”
Do they still offer weight loss through group meetings, Points-counting and public weigh-ins? Yes, of course they do. “We will always be the best at the science of eating as healthy as you can, period,” Grossman told Buzzfeed News. “If somebody needs and wants to, desires to lose weight, we have the best program in the world.”
I’ve tried a lot of diets. And I mean a lot. But the diet that I have tried more times than any other was Weight Watchers. I’ve joined Weight Watchers a total of five times. I lost (and regained) somewhere in the neighborhood of 70lbs on Weight Watchers (oh, excuse me, WW.) And I can say, without a doubt, that it is the diet that has wreaked the most havoc on my life.
The first time I tried Weight Watchers, a friend recommended I come with her.
My boyfriend had just dumped me, and I was in pain. The breakup had nothing to do with my weight, but in the nuclear winter of my first failed serious relationship, my focus turned to my body. I had been too much for my boyfriend. I was too needy, too demanding of his time, too attached, too emotional. I saw my body as a physical representation of my personal failings. I wanted to be smaller. I wanted to be less. I wanted to want less. A diet seemed like a great way to rid myself of the parts of me that were too much.
I also saw the breakup as an opportunity: my relationship had been long-distance. I spent my weeks working, and my weekend was spent traveling to visit my boyfriend. Released from that tether on my time and mental energy, I thought it was a perfect chance to devote myself to weight loss, like a monk devotes himself to prayer.
The ritual was soothing. I would wake up early on Saturday morning, shower, dress, and meet my friend for a weigh-in and Weight Watchers meeting. I’d shed my shoes, step on the scale, and a Weight Watchers employee would print out a little sticker with my weight. If the number was higher, the employee would look at me over the partition and silently hand me the booklet that tracked my progress. If the number was lower, I would be given a sticker, a smile and a friendly congratulations, and I’d proudly put the sticker in my booklet. Sometimes it was a star, like the ones teachers handed out in preschool. Sometimes it was a different sticker, that said “Good Job!” We’d then take our seats for the meeting.
The room was largely full of women, in their thirties and forties. Some were engaged in a lifetime battle with their weights; some had recently had given birth and were looking to lose their “baby weight.” In the meeting, the leader (who was a successful Weight Watchers member, not a registered dietician or doctor) would go over a topic — a game plan for the holidays, how to stay “on program” while eating at a restaurant, tips for “healthy swaps” for foods that are high in Points.
Then, the floor would be opened up to anything someone would want to share. Often, people would raise their hands and talk about victories. They fit into a smaller size pants, they went to a birthday party and successfully avoided cake and ice cream, they went out to eat with their husbands and asked the server not to bring a bread basket. Some would celebrate the weight they lost that week, some would lament having gained weight.
It was a supportive environment. It took up my time, which seemed endless after the breakup. I felt a sense of community, which I desired, because I had honestly never felt so desperate and alone in my life. And in losing the identity of Girlfriend, I found a new one: Weight Watcher.
Usually my friend’s husband would join us at Weight Watchers. We were friends, and I spent a lot of time with them after the breakup. After weighing in and sitting through the meeting, we’d all go out to lunch.
We always attended a Saturday morning meeting.
We called our lunch after the meeting “Faturday.”
We’d take turns choosing the restaurant. Sometimes it was Chinese, sometimes it was Mexican, sometimes it was pizza. These were good lunches — we’d talk, laugh, share things. But we were also bingeing.
We were the only people at our regular meetings who observed “Faturday,” but the practice was common. People weighed in, sat through the meeting, and then went apeshit at a restaurant or on whatever food they had been depriving themselves of all week.
I looked forward to Faturday every single week. On Sunday, I’d start imagining the meal we’d have, the possibilities. What would I have? Pasta? Pizza? Ice cream? Maybe a mocha Frappucino with lots of whipped cream? My weeks spent on Weight Watchers were spent fantasizing about the few hours, on the one day, when I could eat what I wanted.
Before my weekly weigh-in, I would fast. It started on Friday morning. I’d eat below my Points all day, and when the sun set on Friday, I’d stop eating. After 9pm, I wouldn’t even drink. This wasn’t uncommon. I don’t think anyone in the group ate before a weigh-in. A lot of them would bring bananas or granola bars to eat during the meeting, after they had weighed in.
I never even drank water before a weigh-in. I had been warned that a full bladder could cause me to weigh more. So, I woke up, stomach burbling, thirsty, and weighed in.
I’d take off my belt, wear light clothes, and a few times made the conscious decision not to wear socks because I was worried they would add weight to the scale.
It did not occur to me once that these tricks did not actually result in meaningful or significant weight loss, or even accurately measure how well I followed the program during the week. The scale was a numbers game. And when I finally reached my goal weight, I told myself, life could begin.
One week, I had spent all my extra cash on groceries. I went a little nuts at Wegmans, and bought a blender and a bunch of organic fresh fruit.
On Wednesday, I panicked. I realized I didn’t have enough money left over for my weekly membership fee, or for gas to get to work.
I called my mom and asked her to borrow money. I spent the money on my Weight Watchers membership fee.
My weight loss had plateaued. At first, on Weight Watchers, the weight basically fell off. I lost about 2 pounds per week, sometimes more. But then that stopped.
I was so lost and confused. I tracked every bite that went into my mouth. I never went over my daily allotted Points, not even once. Sometimes I even ate under my Points, and I hadn’t used my “weeklies,” the “extra” Points allotted for each week, to be used however I saw fit. I exercised, and earned Activity Points. But the scale wouldn’t budge.
I stayed after one meeting, dejected, and talked to the group leader. After awhile of going through my Points log, she noticed that I’d eaten under my Points. “Aha!” she said.
“Don’t eat under your Points, it’ll make your body think you’re starving. Eat your Points allowance each day, even if you’re not hungry.”
I bought a stalk of celery. I have never liked celery, but someone in a group meeting told me it was a great swap for when you wanted something crunchy, and it was zero Points. I had only ever eaten it with peanut butter, or cream cheese, but those were high-Point foods. I washed, cut up the celery, and forced myself to eat the entire thing.
Shortly after, I threw up.
I really, really hate celery.
I was secretly happy that I threw up, because it meant I could eat something else.
One morning, the last time I tried Weight Watchers, I was tired and struggling to wake up on a Saturday morning. I had a caffeine withdrawal headache. We were out of coffee so I grabbed one of the Red Bulls my husband (who was a patrol officer at the time, and worked graveyard shifts) kept in the fridge. I sat on the couch and drank it casually, thankful that my headache was slowly melting away as I sipped.
I didn’t think about the Points in the Red Bull, so after I was finished, I pulled out my Weight Watchers calculator.
It was 55 Points.
That was more than my daily Points allowance, and more than my daily Points allowance + my “weeklies.” I panicked. I started to cry. I hadn’t even eaten food yet. I imagined the Red Bull seeping into the cells in my thighs, my belly. I could almost feel it. Because I’d wasted so many Points on my careless energy-drink consumption, I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day.
And I didn’t. I drank water. My stomach rumbled and curdled. I felt dizzy and faint. But I didn’t eat.
Lesson learned, I thought.
One time, I got into an argument at a meeting with another member about Snap Pea Crisps.
She was insisting they counted as a vegetable.
I told her, no, they are basically potato chips. They look like peas, and they have some peas in them, but they are not vegetables. She’d been tracking them as “Point free.” I was aghast. She would not be swayed. They were vegetables.
I had gotten bored with the meetings at that point. They seemed to feel revelatory to people who had never considered nutrition before in their lives. People who had never thought about drinking water instead of soda. People who ate McDonald’s for dinner every night. I could tell them the Points in each can of soda, each snack, each vegetable. I knew the Points value of all my favorite foods without checking, I could tell them how many Points an orange was, how many Points a banana was, how many Points in a tablespoon of JIF peanut butter. And yet, I was still the fattest person at most of these meetings.
It seemed the more I knew the program inside and out, the more I understood “nutrition,” the less effective Weight Watchers was.
Once, in a meeting, the leader said, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.”
This was a paid, Weight Watchers-trained representative.
I avoided social gatherings and eating out while on Weight Watchers. I worked for a nonprofit that always threw a killer holiday party, catered by Whole Foods. It was always delicious. There was an abundance of amazing vegan food, vegan cakes, vegan pies, the works. I looked forward to it … but when I was on Weight Watchers, I didn’t go. I was worried about being “tempted.” I was worried about not being able to calculate the Points. I had stressed out about the holiday party for weeks and then decided just not to go. I knew I had no self-control, and faced with a buffet of mashed potatoes and gravy, I knew I would destroy myself. People asked about me, where I was, if I was sick. I wasn’t sick. I was just avoiding eating.
I also panicked before eating out with my boyfriend (who is now my husband). We could only eat at restaurants that posted their menus, along with nutritional information, online. I would do copious research before we went out to eat — choosing a restaurant felt as high-stakes as choosing a new car. I would pre-plan my meal, know exactly what I would order. No improvisation was allowed. No cutesy stuff like sharing a dessert. It was serious business.
Birthday parties and family gatherings were a minefield. Often, I would pre-eat, and refuse food while there.
Weight Watchers sucked the joy out of so many opportunities to enjoy myself and connect. But my life and connections to people came second to losing weight.
I had stopped going to Weight Watchers with my friends years ago, but continued the tradition of “Faturday” on my own. When I lost weight on a Saturday weigh-in, I’d treat myself to lunch: a sub from Wawa, a milkshake and package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, greasy Chinese food, a pizza.
Sometimes, the promise of being able to reward myself for weight loss with a binge on Saturday was all that kept me going during the week.
I hated my job, was living with family after moving out of an apartment with a terrible, emotionally abusive roommate, my boyfriend and I were struggling to move in together (he was in Connecticut and I was in Maryland; it seemed like we’d never close the distance), I was witnessing my grandmother’s health and mind deteriorate while living in her house. I had nothing in my life but Weight Watchers, and the hope that if I just followed the program, I would lose weight and everything would be better.
I had started doing Weight Watchers at home, using the app. They came a long way — I didn’t have to cart around my calculator, the giant Weight Watchers Point-bible, or my tracking booklet anymore.
One Saturday, after having spent the entire week patting myself on the back for being “good” and “working the program,” I stepped on the scale for my weekly weigh-in.
I was up 0.2lbs.
I sat in the bathroom and cried. I desperately went through my week’s meals in the app, looking for the reason. There was none, I followed the plan. And yet I gained weight. I chastised myself. You’re so fat, you’re so weak-willed, you can’t do anything right. I was frustrated with myself, with my body. No matter what I did, no matter how much I restricted, now matter how many tricks I tried to kick-start my weight loss, it never worked. I felt defective. The same pattern happened over and over again: I’d start Weight Watchers, lose as much as 7lbs in the first week, then my weight loss would slowly taper down until it stopped. And then I’d start gaining. It was maddening. It was devastating.
I decided that day to quit Weight Watchers, after scraping myself off the bathroom floor and taming the puffiness under my eyes from all the crying.
Less than a pound. I became unglued over 0.2lbs. That could have been a full bladder. That could have been a fart. That could have been a few extra almonds. It could have been the slightest bit of water retention. And I had flagellated myself over that small weight gain for an entire day. I cried. I questioned my own worth. Over 0.2lbs.
It hadn’t been the first time it had happened, the first time I cried over such a small amount of weight gain.
I decided I never wanted to do that to myself again. I decided I needed to be kinder to myself. And, most of all, I was tired of waging a war against my body. Neither of us ever seemed to win. We were both exhausted from the struggle. I just wanted to live my life. I just wanted to find peace. I had thought that Weight Watchers, and weight loss, was how I would find that peace. But instead, it left me crying on the bathroom floor of a 0.2lbs weight gain.
Today, I practice Intuitive Eating. But it’s been hard.
I didn’t know how to feed myself without rules to follow. I had a period of time after I stopped Weight Watchers where I spent lots of time online researching, in earnest, how other people eat. What do normal people have for breakfast? What do they cook? How do they decide, when they have so many options? I was in my thirties, and honestly had no idea how to feed myself without Weight Watchers telling me how to eat. I got a subscription to one of those meal-delivery kits and started learning how to cook, because the only things I knew how to make were Weight Watchers recipes, with low-fat substitutes, with weighed and measured ingredients.
For awhile, I ate whatever I wanted. It was a free-for-all. All the foods I had been craving for years, all the things I loved but hadn’t been allowed to eat, I ate. But it was still Weight Watchers controlling my diet. Instead of following the rules, I rebelled against them. I gained weight, and momentarily thought about rejoining Weight Watchers.
I had lost all sense of hunger and satiety as well. I legitimately could not tell that I was hungry until I was dizzy and wondering why I was so tired. And satiety or fullness — I didn’t know I was full until I was in pain. Weight Watchers was not about listening to your body, learning what was an appropriate amount of food, learning to eat when your body needed nourishment and stopping when it had been properly fed — it was about following the rules, gaming your body to lose weight. You ate your Points, even if you weren’t hungry, because failure to do so would mean gaining weight and losing the game. You refrained from eating even though you were hungry, because you had no more Points left, or needed to reserve your Points for something else. (So many days, I skipped breakfast and dinner because I knew I’d be eating out at night. Most days, I carefully calculated my meals so I could eat dessert, because that Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich was what kept me going all day.)
Life without Weight Watchers felt as bewildering as life without the boyfriend who had dumped me when I first started it. I didn’t know who I was, didn’t have an identity, didn’t know how to do basic things. I felt like I was starting over again. Weight Watcher had been a part of my adult life for, well, as long as I’d been an adult. I hardly knew how to function without it. And, like any bad boyfriend, sometimes I’d take a break. But I’d always go back to Weight Watchers, craving the rules, the “accountability,” the promise, the hope.
Sometimes I feel like I escaped a cult, and have been deprogramming myself for the last two years.
Make no mistake, I had issues with food and knowing how to eat before Weight Watchers. But Weight Watchers amplified them, and created new ones.
Today, I still know the Points value in a tablespoon of peanut butter, a peach, a granola bar, a container of yogurt. The math is innate in me. Weight Watchers made it second-nature.
I remember when Weight Watchers released their “Freestyle” program, which I have been around long enough to know that it is basically just a repackaged version of “Core,” which I tried 10 years ago. I followed unpaid Weight Watchers ambassadors on Instagram. Everyone was so happy that they no longer had to count things like corn and apples. Let’s let that sink in: People were happy because they could eat things like corn and apples without having to count them. People were ecstatic of guilt-free beans and lentils and sweet potatoes. It all felt so sad to me. These women’s diets were so restrictive that eating corn without having to track it was a reason for celebration.
I understand why Weight Watchers needed to rebrand — diets aren’t cool anymore, “lifestyle changes” and “ways of eating” and “wellness” are. They need to keep people coming to their meetings, buying their products, to survive. I get it. But Weight Watchers is not and has never been about “wellness.” I don’t care how many “self-care” tips they publish, or mindfulness apps they partner with, or photos of women running at sunset the use in their materials, or “non-scale victories” they celebrate, or foods they allow. It’s a diet, and it’s damaging.
How do I know? It damaged me. It caused me pain. I am still working to untangle the knot of food weirdness Weight Watchers tied into me, and it’s been years since I tracked a single Point.
Weight Watchers sold me a lie. The lie was that, by losing weight, I would become my true self, the thin woman within who was just waiting to come out. The lie was that I would finally be healthy and happy, if I just followed the program and kept going to meetings and kept tracking Points. It was a lie I wanted to hear — I wanted to believe that by just controlling what I ate, working a program, and putting my nose to the grindstone, I would find happiness. I would be thin, which was my lifelong dream. I’d feel comfortable in my skin, achieve my goals, and be successful. I wanted so badly to believe it was simple as just tracking Points and paying my membership fees and buying all the Laughing Cow cheese and rice cakes and Smart Ones in the grocery store. But self-actualization is much more complicated than that. Instead, the lie destroyed me, left me lost and weeping on the bathroom floor over an infinitesimal weight gain. Success in Weight Watchers requires submission. I choose myself over submission.
I also know now that diets don’t work. Weight Watchers does not work. It works for two people — out of a thousand. It is designed not to produce long-term, sustainable weight loss. How would they sustain their business if it actually worked? Like any business, they rely on repeat customers, like me. If it successfully made fat people thin, they would be out of business. I have spent thousands of dollars on Weight Watchers. I threw money trying to force my body to be at a weight that was less than it wanted to weigh; I starved it, dehydrated it, tried to manipulate and bully it, and it was resisting.
I have to work daily to repair my broken relationship with food, my weight, and my body. I am trying to begin seeing my body as a friend instead of a foe. I am choosing to take up space instead of shrink. I am learning not to apologize, not to make myself smaller, not to be ashamed of being loud and opinionated and fat and too much. I am working to recognize that “health” is a spectrum, not just a number on a scale, and mental health is part of it, so I must take care of mine, and work to be kind to myself. Weight Watchers was a key operative on my war against my body. And it has been for so many women, for so many generations. There is a trail of bodies, collateral damage in Weight Watchers’ war against women who are “too much.” Don’t let them lie to you — this is the exact same “calories in/calories out” diet that had your grandma eating fat-free cottage cheese and canned peaches for breakfast. It is not about wellness. It is about weight loss. Even if they go by “WW,” we all know what it stands for.
So, nice try, “WW,” but I see you. I know what you are. And I’m still working to undo the damage you did to me, and heal the pain you caused me. You’re not a “wellness” brand and never will be.