Weight Watch­ers founder a cher­ished role model for los­ing weight

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - MARISA MELTZER

The day af­ter what I thought was a promis­ing first date with a man I had met on­line, I re­ceived a long text mes­sage ex­plain­ing why ex­actly he was left with a neg­a­tive im­pres­sion of me. The rea­son was that my on­line photos were too flat­ter­ing and didn’t fairly show off what my body looked like in per­son. He used the word “de­ceit.” I was, in short, too fat for a sec­ond date.

“Will this be my Jean Nidetch mo­ment?” I won­dered as I sat on the couch, block­ing his num­ber from my phone.

Nidetch, a mar­ried mother of two who once worked for the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice, was a founder and the pub­lic face of Weight Watch­ers. In fall 1961, af­ter be­ing mis­taken for preg­nant when she ran into an ac­quain­tance at a Queens su­per­mar­ket, she went on a diet over­seen by the New York City Board of Health Obe­sity Clinic. It was strict and in­cluded liver. But it worked. Within a year, she reached her 142-pound goal weight and never gained more than 8 pounds in the en­su­ing decades be­fore she died in 2015.

My fan­tasy was that I, too, would one day be so hu­mil­i­ated that I would rec­og­nize I had hit rock bot­tom and had no al­ter­na­tive but to lose weight. Be­ing mis­taken for preg­nant (at least half a dozen times) didn’t do it. And af­ter that text re­jec­tion, I took a bath, cried and or­dered In­dian food.

“It’s choice, not chance, that de­ter­mines your des­tiny,” Nidetch was of­ten cred­ited as say­ing, a kind of sum­mary of Aris­totelian ethics. Every mod­ern era has had weight-loss gu­rus — Jean An­thelme Bril­lat-Savarin, Sylvester Gra­ham, Frank Kel­logg, Dr. Robert Atkins and Nathan Pri­tikin, for ex­am­ple — and they all play the role of both philoso­pher and sur­vivor. To­day, Oprah Win­frey owns a con­trol­ling stake in Weight Watch­ers and as­sures us in her com­mer­cials that we can eat bread and still lose weight.

In the old days, Weight Watch­ers was not so per­mis­sive. Av­o­ca­dos, peanut but­ter, ketchup and yo­gurt were all ver­boten. You could have one ba­nana, once a week. Recipes tended to­ward the wacky: A sug­gested al­ter­na­tive to nuts was to roast mush­rooms in an oven un­til they dried to a crisp.

“Not eat­ing the hot fudge sun­dae has to be more im­por­tant than eat­ing the largest, rich­est hot fudge sun­dae in the world,” Nidetch wrote. And she’s right: To main­tain a weight loss like hers or even one of just a few pounds, con­stant vig­i­lance is nec­es­sary and self-de­nial has to be­come its own sort of manic de­light. Of course, stay­ing thin was her liveli­hood, so she had am­ple mo­ti­va­tion to fol­low her own sug­ges­tion of eat­ing half a can­taloupe on one’s birth­day af­ter serv­ing cake to party guests.

This was not about the fizzy highs of starv­ing one­self, but rather prag­ma­tism, sub­sti­tu­tion, por­tion con­trol. A very Amer­i­can, al­most Pu­ri­tan­i­cal kind of de­ter­mi­na­tion. Di­et­ing was work, a slog. To make up for that, the Weight Watch­ers tone was, cru­cially, up­beat and lik­able. Nidetch wasn’t there to be a mean mother fig­ure, dis­ci­plin­ing her di­eters like mis­be­hav­ing chil­dren, but in­stead a fel­low trav­eller who had made it.

She lived the part of some­one whose life had changed greatly. She would al­ways come to the meet­ings in high heels, a flaw­less man­i­cure, her hair shel­lacked just so. Af­ter class she would take some of the group lead­ers out to eat, and the boys at the deli knew to rinse the coleslaw free of may­on­naise for her so she could eat it with her turkey with one slice of bread.

Weight Watch­ers didn’t just turn her into a mil­lion­aire; it en­abled her to be­come the woman she must have al­ways wanted to be. She bleached her hair plat­inum blond, di­vorced her hus­band, moved to Los An­ge­les and started dat­ing Fred As­taire. She took the role of an as­tro­naut’s wife in a TV pi­lot in the early ’70s that was, sadly, never picked up. She was the kind of per­son who went on a cruise and came home mar­ried to the Ital­ian bass player in the ship’s band. (It only lasted a few months.)

She seemed to charm ev­ery­one in her path. Maya An­gelou was one of her best friends — “It was as if we were twin sis­ters sep­a­rated at birth,” An­gelou once wrote. Jes­sica Mit­ford tried to write a damn­ing ex­pose of Weight Watch­ers and ended up writ­ing about how in­spir­ing the com­pany was.

Nidetch cel­e­brated Weight Watch­ers’ 10th an­niver­sary at Madison Square Gar­den, wear­ing an or­chid-pink or­ganza gown and sur­rounded by suc­cess sto­ries in the flesh.

I see my­self in Jean Nidetch, lit­er­ally. In photographs of her and the zaftig women of her fam­ily in the 1930s, I could be her sis­ter, and I weigh more than she did at her heav­i­est. We’re both blond, both five-foot-seven, both the kind of women de­scribed as brassy. I’m the same age she was when she fi­nally lost the weight for good. But my diet his­tory, un­like her de­scend­ing line, looks like the stock mar­ket dur­ing a vo­latile pe­riod. I have gained and lost 50 pounds mul­ti­ple times.

At age 8 or 9, I was al­ready a diet vet­eran. My mother and I joined Weight Watch­ers to­gether — par­ent-and-child di­et­ing was more ac­cept­able in the mid-1980s — get­ting weighed in once a week in a strip mall in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. I re­mem­ber the night be­fore the diet was to be­gin, I went to the re­frig­er­a­tor for some New­man’s Own lemon­ade and my mother told me that would be my last glass. Now, 30 years later, the idea of not wast­ing calo­ries on bev­er­ages still haunts me every time I drink grape­fruit juice or or­der a mar­garita.

I can’t re­mem­ber how much weight I lost be­fore I gave up that time, but I al­ways man­aged to cheat or quit. My par­ents wanted me to lose weight so I could avoid fu­ture pain, but I in­ter­preted it as pun­ish­ment. I know well the small plea­sures of los­ing weight: the pounds lost recorded in a notebook, the old jeans but­ton­ing around my waist. But my ver­sion of re­bel­lion was to stray, whether from a liq­uid diet or Lean Cui­sine or the dry lit­tle meals at fat camp and spas.

These days the word “diet” it­self is frowned upon; in­stead, we cleanse, we eat clean, we tell friends we’re try­ing to fo­cus on healthy liv­ing, we try to love our body as it is.

We know how Nidetch suc­ceeded, but why did she man­age to lose all that weight and keep it off when I — and most oth­ers, I should add — fail? I think it has some­thing to do with am­bi­tion. That Queens house­wife found an out­let, a per­sona, a fun­nel for an un­re­al­ized self in her weight loss.

Af­ter tak­ing a metabolic test and find­ing out I have the car­dio fit­ness of a 90-year-old, I’m di­et­ing again.

In homage to Jean Nidetch, I joined Weight Watch­ers. Dur­ing the first week, I ate a lot of leafy greens and tried to give up my af­ter­noon pas­try habit. I lost 3 pounds. I re­main op­ti­mistic, like her — though I’m not count­ing on find­ing any Fred As­taires on­line.


Jean Nidetch holds up a photo of her­self in 2011. Nidetch, a New York house­wife who tack­led her own obe­sity prob­lem, then shared her guid­ing prin­ci­ples with oth­ers in meet­ings that be­came known as Weight Watch­ers.

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