Weight Watchers takes the fad out of dieting

Kelly Dawson
December 4, 2017
10 min read
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At this point in pop culture, it’s almost impossible not to know the name “Weight Watchers.”

Even if you’ve never sat in on a local meeting or counted points throughout your daily meals, it goes without saying that you know the brand – even if it’s just in alliterative passing. Since Weight Watchers was founded in the 1960s, it has been the most successful company of its kind to help its members lose and keep off unwanted weight. Currently, it has more than one million active international members.

But the reason for its undeniable ubiquity isn’t solely based on longevity.

From the beginning, Weight Watchers has molded its identity around intimacy. Its guiding principles has been framed around a mission to understand the emotional weight that’s tied to its physical counterpart, thus enticing and retaining members on the basis of empathy. And because its strategies are bolstered by support — where a running theme of “I got you” seems to underscore its outreach — a community can be found amongst its surrounding difficulties.

Weight Watchers has been able to use its ongoing societal presence and cooperative voice to continually reinvent itself as a company that speaks directly to its followers. And while that conversation hasn’t always been easy to navigate, Weight Watchers shows that it’s still up to the task. Its willingness to provide guiding words and action toward its members’ better health also helps to sustain public awareness of what so often feels like a personal struggle.

Take a load off, Fanny

In 1961, Jean Nidetch was at a supermarket in Queens, NY when she ran into a neighbor. As the famous story goes, the neighbor said hello and asked her when she was due. Nidetch, however, wasn’t pregnant, and that awkward interaction was her tipping point — she resolved to lose weight once for all. She joined a 10-week program at a city clinic, but at night she would eat the cookies she hid in a bathroom hamper.

Nidetch decided that she needed to tell a friend about her late-night binges, and so she invited six confidants to her home. They all shared their mutual stories of weight gain and loss, and in that freeing space of shared experience, they all decided to go on diets and support each other through the process. The pledges were successful, and within two months, the original seven ladies recruited 40 more members into their fold. The following year, Nidetch had reached her goal weight of 142 pounds and took this group one step further. She founded Weight Watchers with her husband and Albert and Felice Lippert (a couple she had assisted) in a space above a movie theater in 1963.

It wasn’t long until the program — which used the city clinic’s regimen of fish, fruits, vegetables, lean meat, and skim milk (alongside a restrictive rule of no alcohol, treats, and other “fatty” foods) — took off. It asked each member to pay $3 to meet weekly (now it’s $5.96), where they would get the camaraderie of others as they “weighed in” and logged the progress of their goals in journals. Five years after Nidetch launched Weight Watchers, it had five million members. And with that growth came even more ways to incorporate the ideals of Weight Watchers into a daily routine: camps, cookbooks, motivational speakers, and TV programs were just a few.

As Weight Watchers grew, however, so did the conversation around the subject of weight itself. The tough-love-meets-support mentality around Weight Watchers’ beginning, which stressed self-control as the basis for a thin figure, was being met by a counter-argument that placed importance on the biological and environmental circumstances that contribute to overweight bodies.

This standpoint made clear that defining health and beauty solely within the confines of a stick-thin body could never be a universal goal — that there had to be a wider understanding of what “healthy” means for all. There also had to be a larger conversation around the words used to describe the stereotypical Weight Watchers member: Was it “fat?” “Overweight?” “Curvy?” In the decades since Nidetch made a vow with friends, groups just like hers were redefining the types of rules they wanted to follow. So, Weight Watchers responded by trading hard restrictions on some foods for points that encompassed all foods, bolstering regular exercise in tandem with eating well, and showcasing science’s involvement in how weight is gained and lost. The compassionate meetings were still there, but Weight Watchers also knew that the quest to impact its community had to evolve as much as they did.

Nevertheless, by the time Nidetch passed away in 2015, Weight Watchers was seeing a problem: its sales were down considerably. No one wanted to be told that they had to go on a diet because of a so-called undesirable body. Everyone had access to the same studies that questioned “skinny” and “fat” and what that even means, from a cultural perspective to a biological determination. And everyone was well acquainted with the fat-acceptance movement that introduced an unapologetic approach to larger builds and were working — however slowly — to have a more inclusive mentality toward all body types. People were using words like “wellness,” and “strength” instead of “diet” and “skinny,” to describe their desire to lead more “healthy lifestyles.” In this time when terms and mindsets were changing, Weight Watchers had seemed like the out-of-touch aunt at the party.

So what did it do? Simple: Weight Watchers called Oprah.

Run on, run on

As much as Weight Watchers is recognizable as a company, Oprah is perhaps as (or more) recognizable as a person. And when she hosted her eponymous talk show for 25 years, her struggle with weight was a reoccurring theme through the seasons. Watching her go through personal gains and losses was a public showcase, sure, but it always appeared to have the same intentions as Weight Watchers’ classic meetings: the shared struggle toward a hopeful victory. When she announced her partnership with the company in October 2015, taking a 10 percent stake in the company for $43 million, it seemed as though her familiar compassion and rollercoaster past could bring this company into a wider, modern conversation about individual health.

It worked: As Oprah lost weight, membership grew. By August 2017, sales were 12 percent higher than the previous year, at $342 million, and the stock climbed 51 percent over the previous three months. Oprah, on the other hand, lost 40 pounds.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, Weight Watchers is the leading weight-loss plan in the country that’s also easy to follow and dependable for fast results. And while that’s an important milestone for the company’s longstanding objective, the reason behind Weight Watchers’ effectiveness may be in its original attribute.

We may always have conversations around the correct terminology, the varying factors, and the fraught acceptance around weight, as the connection between our bodies and the many things that impact them, are explored with increasing studies and vulnerabilities. But what Jean Nidetch did all those years ago — and what Weight Watchers is doing now — is perhaps what every person will always need, regardless of what we continue to learn: a simple space for acknowledgment, acceptance, and support.

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