This is a rather long article published in the NYT Magazine about dieting, and the new trends toward anti-dieting.
CREDIT: NYT Magazine Article in its Entirety
Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age
The agonies of being overweight — or running a diet company — in a culture that likes to pretend it only cares about health, not size.
BY TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER
AUG. 2, 2017
James Chambers was watching membership sign-ups on Jan. 4, 2015, like a stock ticker — it was that first Sunday of the year, the day we all decide that this is it, we’re not going to stay fat for one more day. At the time, he was Weight Watchers’ chief executive, and he sat watching, waiting for the line on the graph to begin its skyward trajectory. Chambers knew consumer sentiment had been changing — the company was in its fourth year of member-recruitment decline. But they also had a new marketing campaign to help reverse the generally dismal trend. But the weekend came and went, and the people never showed up. More than two-thirds of Americans were what public-health officials called overweight or obese, and this was the oldest and most trusted diet company in the world. Where were the people? Weight Watchers was at a loss.
Chambers called Deb Benovitz, the company’s senior vice president and global head of consumer insights. ‘‘We’re having one of the worst Januaries that anyone could have imagined,’’ she remembers him telling her. In the dieting business, January will tell you everything you need to know about the rest of the year. ‘‘Nothing like we had anticipated.’’ Chambers and Benovitz knew that people had developed a kind of diet fatigue. Weight Watchers had recently tried the new marketing campaign, called ‘‘Help With the Hard Part,’’ an attempt at radical honesty. No one wanted radical honesty. Chambers told Benovitz that they needed to figure out what was going on and how to fix it before the February board meeting.
Benovitz got to work. She traveled the country, interviewing members, former members and people they thought should be members about their attitudes toward dieting. She heard that they no longer wanted to talk about ‘‘dieting’’ and ‘‘weight loss.’’ They wanted to become ‘‘healthy’’ so they could be ‘‘fit.’’ They wanted to ‘‘eat clean’’ so they could be ‘‘strong.’’
If you had been watching closely, you could see that the change had come slowly. ‘‘Dieting’’ was now considered tacky. It was anti-feminist. It was arcane. In the new millennium, all bodies should be accepted, and any inclination to change a body was proof of a lack of acceptance of it. ‘‘Weight loss’’ was a pursuit that had, somehow, landed on the wrong side of political correctness. People wanted nothing to do with it. Except that many of them did: They wanted to be thinner. They wanted to be not quite so fat. Not that there was anything wrong with being fat! They just wanted to call dieting something else entirely.
A study out of Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in March, monitored attitudes toward losing weight over three periods between 1988 and 2014. In the first period, 1988-94, 56 percent of fat adults reported that they tried to lose weight. In the last period, 2009-14, only 49 percent said so.
The change had been spurred not just by dieting fatigue but also by real questions about dieting’s long-term efficacy. In Weight Watchers’ own research, the average weight loss in any behavior-modification program is about a 5 percent reduction of body weight after six months, with a return of a third of the weight lost at two years. There were studies that appeared to indicate that the cycle of weight loss and weight gain could cause long-term damage to the metabolism. Those studies led to more studies, which suggested that once your body reaches a certain weight, it is nearly impossible to exist at a much lower weight for an extended period of time. Even more studies began to question whether or not it’s so bad to be fat in the first place; one notably suggested that fatter people lived longer than thin ones.
These questions began to filter into the mainstream. Women’s magazines started shifting the verbal displays on their covers, from the aggressive hard-body stance of old to one with gentler language, acknowledging that perhaps a women’s magazine doesn’t know for sure what size your body should be, or what size it can be: Get fit! Be your healthiest! GET STRONG! replaced diet language like Get lean! Control your eating! Lose 10 pounds this month! In late 2015, Women’s Health, a holdout, announced in its own pages that it was doing away with the cover phrases ‘‘drop two sizes’’ and ‘‘bikini body.’’ The word ‘‘wellness’’ came to prominence. People were now fasting and eating clean and cleansing and making lifestyle changes, which, by all available evidence, is exactly like dieting.
Diet companies suffered for being associated with dieting. Lean Cuisine repositioned itself as a ‘‘modern eating’’ company, not a diet company. In fact, Lean Cuisine went so far in their pivot that in 2016 they introduced a Google Chrome extension that would filter mentions of the word ‘‘diet’’ and ‘‘dieting’’; it apparently did this to show that just because it was called Lean Cuisine, that didn’t mean it was a diet company. You can’t be held responsible for what your parents named you!
Weight Watchers saw all this happening and concluded that people didn’t have faith in diets. The company decided that what it offered was not a diet program but a lifestyle program. It was a behavior-modification program. (For the sake of expediency here, I will call its program a diet because it prescribes amounts of food.) When Deb Benovitz returned from her travels with news of dieting’s new language changes, the company realized that something had to change more than its marketing approach.
Weight Watchers’ chief science officer is Gary Foster, a psychologist — the first in that position, which previously had been held by dietitians. What he and his team realized from Benovitz’s research was that dieters wanted a holistic approach to eating, one that helped really change their bodies, yes, but in a way that was sustainable and positive. He got to work creating a new approach that would become known as Beyond the Scale: He used all available mind-body research to try to figure out a way for members to appreciate benefits of the program besides weight loss. This would help them stay on the program during setbacks and beyond their weight-loss period and allow the program to infiltrate their lives beyond mealtime and beyond plain old eating suggestions.
The company would move away from giving its members goal weights. It expanded its cognitive-behavioral strategies, which taught members to challenge unhelpful thinking and to respond to their emotions with reason, as opposed to with food or despair. It developed workshops that used meditation and qigong and didn’t once mention food or weight. It updated its apps and introduced a social-media program, Connect. It became as holistic-minded as the people told Benovitz they wanted a program to be.
But Weight Watchers was still a company called Weight Watchers, and it had to figure out a way to communicate all of this change to the public. People had too many associations with the brand. It needed someone other than the usual celebrity spokesdieter, a fat famous person who could be paid somewhere between $250,000 and $2 million to do the talk show circuit and People covers for a year. It needed someone who could fast-track the message that it was worth taking a new look at Weight Watchers.
When the company called Oprah Winfrey in July 2015, she was standing on the lawn of her home in Maui with a sprained ankle, an injury she sustained while hiking in the mountains. In the month since her convalescence began, she had gained 17 pounds. Her struggles with weight were, at this point, a cultural meme. How could you explain the failure of someone so goal-oriented and successful — someone so successful that her name was invoked as a symbol of success as often as it was ever used to summon her? Weight Watchers had reached out to her in the past, but she politely declined. This time she bought a 10 percent stake in the company for $43 million, and Weight Watchers stockholders rejoiced.
But the verbal changes around dieting had indicated something deeper than just a marketing issue; they pointed straight back to the fatigue that was hurting Weight Watchers in the first place. So, yes, many people celebrated the new partnership. But others — meaning, anyone who for a majority of their lives had been watching Oprah cycle up and down through different sizes — felt a little confused by the move. What was Oprah, a person whose very brand meant enlightenment and progress, doing on another diet? It was hard not to suspect that she was trapped, like so many of us are, in a culture that says one thing about fatness and means something very different.
Back in 1963, when Jean Nidetch held the first what-would-be-known-as-Weight-Watchers meetings above a movie theater in Queens, things seemed clearer: It was bad to be fat, and it was good to be thin, and fat people wanted to be thin, and thin people wanted to help them get there. Her memoirs, ‘‘The Story of Weight Watchers,’’ reads about as current as a cigarette ad featuring smoking babies. ‘‘If strawberry shortcake made you break out in purple spots, you wouldn’t eat it,’’ she wrote. ‘‘You’d be allergic to it. But, do you think fat is prettier than purple spots? It’s uglier and harder to get rid of.’’
Its frankness seems like an anachronism now, but you have to consider that at the time, this kind of straight talk was a glass of cold water in the desert for many fat people, who privately wondered why it was so hard for them to reduce the size of their bodies when it seemed so effortless for the people who walked around thin. Nidetch lost her weight in her late 30s, after a lifetime of self-loathing and embarrassment; the last indignity was the time someone asked when her baby was due when she was definitively not pregnant. She went to a city-run obesity clinic, and when she left the program, she kept the diet it gave her. She mimeographed it and handed it out to people whom she had gathered to spread the word about how weight loss could provide freedom and hope. (The diet would evolve from an eating plan to a more democratic system of balanced exchanges to an absolute laissez-faire system of points, as the company realized that the more autonomy and the less deprivation people experienced in their dieting — limitless choices, if not limitless amounts — the more likely they’d be to stay on the diet.) But Nidetch knew that it wasn’t just the food that was the problem; it was the problem that was the problem. What fat people needed was one another. They needed a space in which they could talk openly about the physical struggles and daily humiliations of walking around in a fat body, and just how much that sucked.
These same ideas were articulated more starkly a few years later, but with a different prescription. In 1967, a fat man named Lew Louderback unleashed an essay in The Saturday Evening Post arguing that the wisdom around thinness could be applied only to thin people — that fat people suffered physically and psychologically when trying to maintain thin-person weights, and that this maintenance seemed to be temporary at best and largely destructive emotionally.
He went on to write a book called ‘‘Fat Power,’’ which helped give birth to what would become known as the fat-acceptance movement. That movement has varying degrees of militancy, but generally asks the public to put aside its bias and learn something new — to not think of fat people as lazy; to not deny them medical care; to not exclude them from their basic rights. It suggests that we re-examine what we think we know about fatness, that we consider trying to love and care for our bodies at whatever size they are now.
There were more books and more essays and more challenges to the status quo in the decades to come. In 2008, Linda Bacon, a researcher who holds graduate degrees in physiology, psychology and exercise science with a specialty in nutrition, wrote a seminal fat-acceptance book, ‘‘Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight,’’ which used peer-reviewed research to bolster these ideas. She gave seminars to doctors on fat phobia and weight bias in an effort to help them understand how their views on obesity were hurting their patients and not allowing them to examine fatness neutrally. For example, there is evidence that stress and discrimination play a strong role in the insulin resistance and diabetes and heart disease for which weight typically takes the blame.
With the rise of social media, the movement began to infiltrate the culture in other ways, too. Fat-acceptance and body-positivity activists began posting pictures of themselves on Instagram — just regular pictures, defiant for their lack of apology. There were intuitive-eating workshops and body-positivity training camps. There were bloggers and authors asking exactly how much of your life you were willing to put off in pursuit of a diet, or until you got to a certain weight, even temporarily. Normal, nonmilitant, nonactivist people began asking themselves if it was that bad to be fat — if it was that unhealthy, or that ugly, to be fat. And yet the most telling thing about the way the fat-acceptance movement is received in our society may be that its Wikipedia entry contains two quotes from people criticizing it before it mentions even one person who espouses it. In this world, we are witness to a moment when the word “optimal” is used in conjunction with the word “body,” when people are trying to mold themselves into high-performance, precision machines. The idea of a fat machine makes no sense when you are easily fueled and refueled on Whole Foods and Soylent.
In other words, all this activism didn’t make the world more comfortable with fat people or dieting. Society doesn’t normally change the words for things unless we’re fundamentally uncomfortable with the concepts beneath them. Consider the verbal game of chicken we’ve played with the people all this affects: Fat people went from being called fat (which is mean) to being called overweight (a polite-seeming euphemism that either accidentally or not accidentally implies that there is a standard weight) to being called zaftig/chubby/pleasingly plump (just don’t) to curvy (which seems to imbue size with a sexuality and optimism where it should just be sexually and emotionally neutral) and back to fat (because it’s only your judgment of fat people that made it a bad word in the first place, and maybe being fat isn’t as bad as we’ve been made to believe). It bears mentioning that Weight Watchers doesn’t have a standardized word for its demographic, but Foster uses the term ‘‘people with overweight.’’
As the ideas that sprang from the fat-acceptance movement began to trickle into the mainstream, fat people began to wonder what it might be like to put all this aside and just live their lives. Some asked themselves if they thought they could figure out a way to not want to be thin; some began to ask themselves if they actually liked the way they looked. They began to wonder if there was even a proven and effective way to become and stay thin anyway. They began to ask themselves if they should be dieting at all.
Last fall, I was with Foster, Weight Watchers’ chief science officer, as he walked the halls of Obesity Week, the annual conference of the Obesity Society. The conference includes study presentations, each one a possible clue to the mystery of fatness. We attended a presentation on a new study of a weight-loss medication. People on the medication lost weight, but once they were off, the weight came back. If only we could get people’s weight down, the presenters said, they could have a fresh start. Out in the hall, Foster shook his head. ‘‘There’s a bias and a stigma: ‘We’ll give these people medication for a short period, but then they’ve got to fly straight and get will power.’ It’s nonsense. This tough love — I’m going to be hard on myself — you know, in some perverse way, if it were true, we might try to leverage it, but it’s not. The harder you are on yourself, the worse you do.’’ In his career before Weight Watchers, Foster was the founder and director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University. Neutralizing the morality talk and stigma that surround obesity, he says, would make it a lot easier to figure out how to deal with it.
By the time of the conference, the Oprah-Weight Watchers partnership had proved a clear success. Within a year, the company was up to 2.8 million members; by the first quarter of 2017 it would be 3.6 million. Oprah had brought an audience to Beyond the Scale, the holistic model Foster helped create. He says that initial weight loss on the program in 2016 was up 15 percent from what it was the year before. Of course people should want to manage their weight, he said, the same way they’d want to manage their diabetes. ‘‘It would seem preposterous if we would say to people with diabetes, ‘Don’t manage your diabetes.’ ’’ Or their asthma. All three are chronic conditions; why, he asks, would we assume we should give up on weight? When people lose weight, he points out, they see improvements in risk factors. Data is data. Modifying your eating is hard, he says, but it’s worth it. No one can tell you that lowering weight doesn’t also lower other health factors like hypertension and high cholesterol and joint pain.
Some fat people began to wonder if there was even a proven and effective way to become and stay thin anyway. They began to ask themselves if they should be dieting at all.
Maybe that’s true. Most mainstream sources agree on this, but there are definitely some researchers who don’t; there are some who think that people who end up fat have different physiologies, and that fatness is just one component of them. Consider the ‘‘uptick,’’ as Foster calls it, that comes after two years on a diet when, say, the person who lost 5 percent of her weight has gained a third of it back. Think about those numbers. If you weigh 300 pounds, you will lose 15 pounds in six months. You’ll keep it off for a year or two, maybe. Five pounds is likely to return. Of course, these are people who don’t stay on a diet-maintenance plan; but the average dieter certainly doesn’t, and it’s worth it to ask why a person wouldn’t stay on a program that offered such rewards. Is it because they couldn’t? It’s worth it to ask if the programs are right and all these humans trying very hard at them are wrong. And also, where are the 300-pound people who want to lose just 15 pounds in the first place? I haven’t met those people. But mainly, what it comes down to is this: Weight Watchers is designed to be successful only if you can stay on Weight Watchers forever.
And there were also questions about dieting’s long-term effects on the body. A study done by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The study followed contestants who had appeared on the eighth season of ‘‘The Biggest Loser,’’ all of whom had normal resting metabolisms for their size when the season began. As the contestants experienced radical, sweeps-week weight loss, their metabolisms slowed, and stayed slow afterward. To maintain his weight loss, one contestant’s resting metabolism now required 800 calories fewer per day than a man of his size. It might be that when you have been fat, your body doesn’t behave the way a thin body does, even when you become thinner.
Foster shook his head at that one. He hears about the ‘‘Biggest Loser’’ study a lot, but he doesn’t think it conveys accurate information. It uses a very small sample under extreme conditions. He cited his own and others’ studies examining the metabolic rate, fat distribution and psychological state of people before they lose weight, after they lose weight and after they regain the weight. ‘‘Nothing is changed,” he said. ‘‘I’m not saying that’s a good outcome or something we should celebrate — but this idea that the act of managing your weight and losing weight has somehow set you up to be in a worse spot just isn’t borne out by the science.’’
Here is the thing about this particular debate at this particular moment: Everyone has much the same data, but there are plenty of people who would interpret the data differently from the way Foster does. I’ve spoken to countless (I literally stopped keeping count) obesity researchers and dietitians and biologists and doctors. The answer becomes one of point of view: Is fat inherently bad, or can it be neutral?
We can’t answer that yet. There is still too much debate. So in the meantime, a fat person has to consider the data she has access to — meaning studies, yes, but also her own experience and the experience of her fat peers — and ask: Do you believe that you, a fat person, can ever be meaningfully thinner for a meaningful amount of time? Is a diet successful if it stops being successful once you’re done with it? I’ve interviewed Foster before. Back in 2011, when he was at Temple, he published a study about the efficacy of different kinds of diets. They all led to similar losses, and they all led to similar rates of recidivism. When I spoke with him back then, I asked him why we should continue dieting if the outcomes were so bad. He was concerned that I would suggest to my readers that dieting wasn’t worth it. He told me that people didn’t need that kind of discouragement. This attitude is what makes him so credible to me — his message was the same long before he worked for a corporation — but it’s also what makes this so depressing.
I do not recommend being a fat person at Obesity Week. Over the years, the event has become a week long, and it contains a robust trade show. After Foster left me to go to a meeting, I walked the trade-show floor and saw all the products being shown to the obesity specialists in attendance. I watched a video of a new kind of retractor that will more easily hold open belly skin while part of a stomach is cut out and sewn up, because you can’t eat as much if your stomach is made smaller. I watched a person showing a model of a balloon you’d insert into the stomach of a patient that would take up volume so that she wouldn’t be so hungry, to be removed later once her behavior had been modified. I drank a smoothie with a superfood ingredient I can’t pronounce or remember while someone told me that my readers would really be interested in their something-metrics plan for hydration and portion control. I narrowed my eyes thoughtfully because it felt rude to be drinking this guy’s smoothie without taking him seriously. ‘‘There’s no such thing as magic, Taffy,’’ the smoothie man was saying. I nodded in solemn agreement.
Before he left me, I told Foster that Obesity Week made me sad. First, it was the profusion of educated people in the room studying me and my people as if we were problems to solve. But second, it was because if you have this many hundreds of smart and educated people trying to figure this out, and nobody has anything for me but superfood and behavior modification and an insertable balloon and the removal of an organ, it must be that there is no way to solve fatness.
Foster doesn’t see it that way, he told me. ‘‘I look around this room,’’ he said, ‘‘and I see hope.’’
By the time Oprah announced that she was signing on with Weight Watchers, I was celebrating my 25th anniversary of my first diet, at age 15, which I found in an issue of Shape magazine. I was 5-foot-3 and weighed 110 pounds. In the intervening years, I did cleanses and had colonics and refilled the prescriptions on three rounds of those diet pills that made my teeth sweat and ate two shakes for lunch and just protein and just good carbs (carbs are divided into good and bad, like witches in Oz) and just liquid and just fruit until dinnertime and just food the size of my fist and two glasses of lukewarm lemon water. I had stood up in a room and said, ‘‘Hello, my name is Taffy, and I am a compulsive overeater.’’ I had stuck my finger down my throat, a shot in the dark that I hoped would be more sustainable than it was. I had South Beached, I had Atkinsed, I had Slim-Fasted. Put it this way: The Amazon algorithm recently recommended to me, based on my previous searches, a book-and-CD combination, ‘‘Hypnotic Gastric Band: The New Surgery-Free Weight-Loss System,’’ which offered a hypnotic equivalent to bariatric surgery. Put it this way: When I arrived at Weight Watchers, despite the fact that I was there as a journalist, I registered for the diet under the rationale that this was experiential journalism. When I gave my name at the counter, the person registering me furrowed her brow and said: ‘‘That’s strange. There are three other people named Taffy Akner.’’ I said, ‘‘No, those are all me.’’
‘‘Yes, when I was in high school.’’
‘‘In Los Angeles?’’
‘‘Yes, right before I was married.’’ I stopped her before she could go on. ‘‘They’re all me.’’
By then I was all in, as if I ever hadn’t been. When I arrived at the Union, N.J., meeting at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, it was a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is marketed as a fun, festive holiday of family gathering, but everyone at that meeting knew the truth: Thanksgiving is an existential threat. Thanksgiving is a killer.
The year leading up to Thanksgiving hadn’t been much better for this group. There had been family deaths and illness. There had been foreclosures and unemployments and high-school reunions, and someone’s daughter was always baking sticky buns; someone’s husband wanted to know where his steak was; someone’s son wanted to know why the meatloaf tasted different; someone’s co-worker was always leaving doughnuts and bagels on the communal table at the office. The people, mostly women, in the folding chairs had one rule, though: No matter what happened during the week, you showed up. ‘‘This is my church,’’ a woman named Donna told me. A few months before, she buried her mother on a Friday; on Saturday she came to the meeting.
Dayna, the group leader, stood at the head of the room. How could you not love Dayna? She took such care with her appearance — she wore tall boots and wrap dresses and makeup, even on Saturday mornings when everyone else wore sweatpants at best (or leggings; leggings weigh less). She gave them star-shaped stickers off a large roll when they lost weight or when they had acted in their best interests over the week. She remembered their names, even the ones who hadn’t shown up in months; she gave them hugs.
Today, Donna had gained weight. She had been holding steady at six pounds short of her goal. Since 2009 — 2009 — she had shown up every week and by now had lost 132 pounds, which is an entire other Donna. But these last six pounds, my God, what would it take? She’d been down last week by a pound, and now that pound was back. She’d been going to the gym ‘‘religiously’’ for two weeks, but thought maybe the not going to the gym three weeks ago had caught up with her. Sometimes being six pounds away from her goal was harder than being 321 pounds.
‘‘I’m so frickin’ aggravated,’’ she said. She asked me how I did. I shrugged and told her I had lost three pounds. ‘‘But I just started, so, . . . ’’ I said. I didn’t want her to feel bad. Another woman, Amy, whispered to me, ‘‘You never want to say ‘I only lost, . . . ’ because then everyone will go, ‘Oh, jeez.’ ’’
Weight isn’t neutral. A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own.
I asked the women there, most of whom were repeat joiners as well: Shouldn’t we be moving toward acceptance? Here we all were — smart, accomplished, successful women (and one man) — and we couldn’t maintain what was proved to be the most effective diet you could ever try. If we couldn’t stay on this, could we stay on anything? What if the flaw wasn’t in us but in the system?
They furrowed their brows and shook their heads and gave me funny looks. What was I talking about? How could a fat person not want to be thin? Donna’s sisters were all on diabetes medication, and she wasn’t. Her back had hurt until about 20 pounds ago, and now she could crawl on the floor with her grandson as if it were nothing.
I couldn’t counter very hard. Each time I came to a meeting, I was seduced by the possibility, by the clean, Calvinist logic, that if you ate less you would weigh less, that your body would feed on itself and its fat reserves until you became smaller and smaller and more pleasing to the world and its standards — until you practically disappeared (we are a culture that fetishizes something called Size 0). I looked forward to these meetings, feeling as if these people were the only ones who seemed to truly understand my predicament. But my optimism and motivation didn’t survive my walk out the door. By the time I got to my car, I had no idea what to do. I knew that if this could be done, I would have done it, and yet I didn’t know why I couldn’t do it. Just eat less, right? It’s so simple!
About two years ago, I decided to yield to what every statistic I knew was telling me and stop trying to lose weight at all. I decided to stop dieting, but when I did, I realized I couldn’t. I didn’t know what or how to eat. I couldn’t fathom planning my food without thinking first about its ability to help or hinder a weight-loss effort. I went to a nutritional therapist to help figure this out (dieting, I have found, is its own chronic condition), and I paid her every week so I could tell her that there still had to be a way for me to lose weight. When she reminded me that I was there because I had realized on my own that there was no way to achieve this goal, I reminded this wonderful, patient person that she couldn’t possibly understand my desperation because she was skinny. I had arthritis in my knees, I said. Morality and society aside, they hurt. I have a sister with arthritis in her knees, too, but she’s skinny and her knees don’t hurt.
I went to an intuitive-eating class — intuitive eating is where you learn to feed yourself based only on internal signals and not external ones like mealtimes or diet plans. Meaning it’s just eating what you want when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. There were six of us in there, educated, desperate fat women, doing mindful-eating exercises and discussing their pitfalls and challenges. We were given food. We would smell the food, put the food on our lips, think about the food, taste the food, roll the food around in our mouths, swallow the food. Are you still hungry? Are you sure? The first week it was a raisin. It progressed to cheese and crackers, then to cake, then to Easter candy. We sat there silently, as if we were aliens who had just arrived on Earth and were learning what this thing called food was and why and how you would eat it. Each time we did the eating exercise, I would cry. ‘‘What is going on for you?’’ the leader would ask. But it was the same answer every time: I am 41, I would say. I am 41 and accomplished and a beloved wife and a good mother and a hard worker and a contributor to society and I am learning how to eat a goddamned raisin. How did this all go so wrong for me?
They tried to soothe me. They told me that hatred of fat was a societal construct, but I never understood why that should comfort me. I live in society. I hurt my ankle playing tennis, activating an old injury, and an internist I was seeing for the first time, without taking any medical history or vital signs — my blood pressure is pristine, just so you know — told me he couldn’t do anything for me until I lost weight and gave me a rusty photocopy about food exchanges. (Another doctor prescribed three months of physical therapy, and now my ankle is fine.) I was in Iceland, for a story assignment, and the man who owned my hotel took me fishing and said, ‘‘I’m not going to insist you wear a life jacket, since I think you’d float, if you know what I mean.’’ I ignored him, and then afterward, back on land, after I fished cod like a Viking, he said, ‘‘I call that survival of the fattest.’’ A woman getting into a seat next to me on a plane said, ‘‘Looks like this will be a cozy ride,’’ and a Manhattan taxi driver told me he liked to watch my ‘‘jelly’’ shake, by which I can only presume he meant a part of my body. I have been asked if it was my first time taking Pilates at a studio where I’m on my fifth 10-pack. I have been told at a yoga class that I have ‘‘a really great spirit’’ and it’s important that I ‘‘just keep coming.’’ (I’ve been taking yoga for 12 years.) I was told by a seamstress that she had never seen a bride not lose weight for her wedding until she met me. A crazy man tried to give me candy outside the Met, and when I politely declined he screamed at me that of course I didn’t want it, I was fat enough, and my sister asked me why I was so upset, clearly that guy was crazy, and I said, ‘‘You don’t understand because you’re skinny,’’ and on and on forever. (By the way, I am writing this despite the myriad degradations that I know will appear in my inbox and in the comments section when it is published. I am someone who once wrote a body-image essay for a women’s magazine in which a comment in the margins from an editor read, ‘‘Why doesn’t she stop eating so much?’’)
Back in Union, Dayna stood at the front of the room. The conversation had shifted to Thanksgiving foods, how sons home from college depend on the stuffin’ muffins, how husbands will know if there’s no butter in the mashed potatoes. Donna makes an Easter pie with more kinds of pork than there are pigs roaming the Earth. Really, the group members were worried that despite their weight loss, they would forget that they were really fat people on the inside. Thanksgiving is a killer.
‘‘It’s just one day,’’ Dayna said. And all those around her heaved heavy sighs.
‘‘Please hold for Ms. Winfrey.’’
When Oprah called me, she was on the same mountain in Hawaii where she sprained her ankle two years ago. After a monthslong search, Weight Watchers had hired a new C.E.O., Mindy Grossman, formerly of the Home Shopping Network. In her office, Grossman had talked to me about personalizing the company’s mobile app and creating greater moments for connection. She is tan and very blond, with pink lipstick; she looks like the second coming of Jean Nidetch. Weight Watchers had found its business leader. She was joining the company after its fourth consecutive quarter of revenue growth because it had finally found its spiritual one.
On the release day of the commercial in which Oprah told the world she loved bread and was excited to be able to eat it every day and still lose weight, the graph line shot up tall and straight at Weight Watchers. But a lot of us wondered if maybe Oprah had finally fallen out of touch. She said in one commercial, ‘‘Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be,’’ saying she’d been buried in her weight to the point where she couldn’t recognize herself, and the internet did not love this sentiment, asking exactly why Oprah thought that women were worthless if they weren’t thin. They asked if she was ‘‘disempowering women.’’ They said her investment in Weight Watchers was ‘‘bad news for women everywhere.’’ One blogger wrote that she was ‘‘disappointed that she is choosing to participate in and endorse a company whose sole purpose is to tell women that they are not enough.’’ The journalist Melissa Harris-Perry gave a five-minute ‘‘Letter of the Week’’ on MSNBC saying: ‘‘But, O! You are already precisely the woman so many are striving to be,’’ and ‘‘there is not one thing that you have done that would have been more extraordinary if you’d done it with a 25-inch waist.’’ Oprah’s $43 million investment was now worth $110 million. Maybe that’s what this was all about in the first place.
They tried to soothe me. They told me that hatred of fat was a societal construct, but I never understood why that should comfort me. I live in society.
Oprah was used to criticism. Back in 1985, Joan Rivers brought Oprah on ‘‘The Tonight Show,’’ and without so much as a warning in the pre-interview, told her she shouldn’t have ‘‘let’’ her weight gain happen to her. ‘‘You’re a pretty girl, and you’re single,’’ Rivers said. Oprah explained that she had done everything so far — everything! By 1985! She had done the banana-hot-dog-egg diet (in which you just eat a banana and a hot dog and an egg). She had done the pickles-and-peanut-butter diet (in which all you eat are pickles and peanut butter).
In 1988, she pulled a wagon full of fat onto the stage of her show to show off her 67-pound weight loss. In 1991, she went on the cover of People and declared she was never dieting again. In 1996 she wrote a book with Bob Greene about having found the solution. In 2002, she wrote a story in her magazine, O, called ‘‘What I Know for Sure About Making Peace With My Body,’’ in which she announced that she had made peace with her body. In 2005, the cover of O, which usually features just one Oprah, featured two: a thin one with an exposed midriff leaning on the shoulder of another thin one in a fancy dress. In 2009, she published another two-Oprah cover. This one was the midriff-bearing one from the 2005 cover, leaning on a larger Oprah in a purple jogging suit. The cover line said, How did I let this happen again?
Oprah sounds like Oprah when you talk with her — she sings your name, ‘‘Taffy!’’ and her voice registers in you in a way that is as familiar to your body as your mother’s voice. She told me she doesn’t care if she’s never skinny again. She cares that she feels as if she has control. For her whole life, she said, her only goal has been to find a higher level of consciousness, to remain more in the moment than she has ever been in any other moment. She had never felt stress, even during all those years when she was doing three shows a day. She just ate instead. She had bags of potato chips, and people would say, ‘‘Don’t you get stressed?’’ and she’d think, What’s stress? She had seen the cultural changes for years. She knew that you were no longer supposed to say that you wanted to diet or be thinner. You had to want ‘‘fitness’’ and ‘‘strength’’ and just general health. But this thinking was a prison. So was the one where you just accept yourself and move on. “This whole P.C. about accepting yourself as you are — you should, 100 percent,” she said. But it was that thinking that made her say yes to Weight Watchers. ‘‘It’s a mechanism to keep myself on track that brings a level of consciousness and awareness to my eating. It actually is, for me, mindful eating, because the points are so ingrained now.’’ Meaning, Oprah wasn’t interested in ceding to a movement. She was wondering how to finally make this work.
‘‘In the particular moment in time that I got the call,’’ she told me, ‘‘I was desperate: What’s going to work? I’ve tried all of the green juices and protein shakes, and let’s do a cleanse, and all that stuff. That doesn’t work. It doesn’t last. What is going to be consistent, keep me conscious and mindful?’’
But this thing about acceptance? Why couldn’t accepting herself mean not accepting her weight? Why wasn’t it an act of love to use any available means to avoid her genetic predisposition to diabetes? Sure, she could have abandoned her efforts. She could have gone hard on acceptance. A million people would have bought ‘‘Oprah’s Guide to Body Acceptance.’’ But she couldn’t get there. ‘‘For your heart to pump, pump, pump, pump, it needs the least amount of weight possible to do that,’’ she said. “So all of the people who are saying, ‘Oh, I need to accept myself as I am’ — I can’t accept myself if I’m over 200 pounds, because it’s too much work on my heart. It causes high blood pressure for me. It puts me at risk for diabetes, because I have diabetes in my family.’’
I nodded into the phone because I didn’t want Oprah to hear me crying. I wanted to quit dieting, but had come to realize that dieting was all I had. I was completely perplexed by food — food! Stupid food! That’s what this was about! I dieted because I wanted to maintain hope that I could one day manage my food intake, because my bewilderment around the stuff was untenable. When I didn’t have that hope, I was left with too much worry about pain, about how much my knees hurt now and how much more they would in just a few years. I could be enlightened about my body. I could have acceptance. But nobody would tell that to the people who saw me as a target; nobody would tell that to my knees.
And yet, I told Oprah, in admitting this, I couldn’t stop feeling as if I were betraying everyone I knew who was out there trying to find peace with herself. I couldn’t stop thinking that nothing would change in the world until there was a kind of uprising.
‘‘Oh, my God, Taffy,’’ Oprah said. ‘‘I have to have a talk with you. I used to say this to my producers all the time. We are never going to win with this show looking back to see what other people are doing on their shows. The only way you win is to keep looking forward for yourself. What’s best for you?’’
The ‘‘you’’ threw me. I didn’t know if she meant ‘‘you’’ as in my body or ‘‘you’’ as in me, and it occurred to me that she could mean both, that some people think of those two things as the same thing. I treated my body with such contempt, but my body wasn’t different from me. There were no two of me to put on a magazine cover, just the one of me.
Weight isn’t neutral. A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own. Even in our attempts to free one another, we were still trying to tell one another what to want and what to do. It is terrible to tell people to try to be thinner; it is also terrible to tell them that wanting to lose weight is hopeless and wrong.
I don’t know if diets can work in the short term or the long term. For the first time, I began to think that this was something worth being made crazy over. Our bodies deserve our thoughts and our kindness, our acceptance and our striving. Our bodies are what carry our thoughts and our kindness and our acceptance and striving.
On Saturday, March 18, Donna, of the meeting in Union, made her goal weight. Six weeks later, having maintained the weight, she became a lifetime member. If she stayed within a few pounds of her goal, she could keep using the program free. There were other lifetime members in our meeting. There were also former lifetime members who were starting over.
Eileen, a lifetime member who sat next to Donna at every meeting, had bought her a plastic tiara. Donna wore leggings this time, not sweatpants as usual, with her traditional Uggs and a fleece, and someone pointed out that you could finally see her shape. She passed around some old pictures; she was unrecognizable in them, if you could find her behind all the other people in the picture.
‘‘I don’t think I’ll ever feel like a thin person,’’ Donna said. Her hope is that she’ll continue to at least look like one.
Dayna, near sobbing, gave her a bunch of star stickers off her roll. ‘‘My heart just feels so happy today,’’ she said.
We all cheered for Donna, and when I left, I walked around outside. A skinny woman was eating a cupcake and talking on her phone, tonguing the icing as if she were on ecstasy. Another skinny woman drank a regular Dr Pepper as if it were nothing, as if it were just a drink. I continued walking and stopped in front of a diner and watched through the window people eating cheeseburgers and French fries and talking gigantically. All these people, I looked at them as if they were speaking Mandarin or discussing string theory, with their ease around their food and their ease around their bodies and their ability to live their lives without the doubt and self-loathing that brings me to my arthritic knees still. There’s no such thing as magic, Taffy. I shook my head at the impossibility of it all, and sitting here writing this, I still do.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a contributing writer for the magazine. In September, she will become a features writer for The Times’s culture desk and a staff writer for the magazine.