Saturday, June 07, 2008

Drinking the Weight Watchers Kool-Aid.

Now, I like Weight Watchers. Of the "diets" that are out there, WW is pretty clearly one of the best, and when I'm on it, I generally eat a lot more healthfully - lots of veggies and fruit and lean meats and dairy, and probably less of the non-nutritive stuff than I would normally eat. I like that it's not about deprivation, and I like that it lets you set your own goal weight and doesn't tell you that you're supposed to be able to squeeze into your jeans from high school. I also like that it encourages baby steps, so that everyone who tries it can find ways to succeed, whether that be eating a more balanced diet or increasing exercise or whatever.

But where I always run into trouble with Weight Watchers is here: when you are focused on losing weight, it is awfully hard not to fall back on destructive stereotypes about fat - and about fat people.

For example - at a recent meeting, our leader asked us why we thought it was that people ate so much on holidays. I raised my hand and said that I thought it was because so many of us deprive ourselves the rest of the year and see the holiday seasons as a time to indulge and treat ourselves. She looked at me somewhat incredulously and said, "who deprives themselves? Who are these people you're talking about? I don't see anyone depriving themselves." She said this with such scorn in her voice, scorn that betrayed her disgust at people who don't control their eating.

Readers, I was taken aback. First of all, when you think of the people you are close to, do you not, like me, think of many who refuse dessert, or who will only order it if someone will split it with them? People who leave perfectly delicious chocolate mousse cake on the plate rather than eat the last bite? (And we know there's a power and control thing going on there, too, right, with some folks? That eating two bites and leaving the rest for you?) People whose talk of food is peppered with value judgements: "I was so good this week," or "I'm going to behave and say no and have a glass of water instead."

Second of all, I was a little freaked out by her tone, which seemed to imply that it would be better for these fat folks to deprive themselves a little than to commit the sin of eating too much.

I have heard that in L.A., it's possible to take driver ed classes that focus around a theme - you can be in the environmental concerns driver ed, or the driver ed for 12-steppers, or what have you. I guess what I'd like to find is a feminist Weight Watchers, one that doesn't feel the need to find answers to obvious questions. Why do people eat so much over the holidays? Because it is the one time we feel we are not only permitted to eat all the foods we like, but we are also encouraged to do so. Because food is social. Because it feels good to eat and to share good food with people we like and love. It is not a complicated question, and while we may want to eat less or more healthfully, the answer does not need to put anyone down in order to be helpful.

There are certain comments and suggestions that I like to say come from drinking the WW Kool-Aid. You can tell if someone has drunk the Kool-Aid because they say things that just do not make any kind of logical sense. For example, I have heard WW leaders tell groups that exercise will make them less hungry. Well...yes, in the sense that right after an intense workout, the last thing I want to do right away is eat. I want to drink a bottle of water, and then I want to take a shower, and so I won't be hungry for a little while. But in general, exercise makes us hungrier because our bodies need more fuel for the work they are doing. Telling people that exercise will help to quiet their appetite is just setting them up for failure and self-blame.

Something else that I see as an outgrowth of WW Kool-Aid indulgence is pushing unhealthy foods on people in order to help them to stay on their "healthy" WW plan. For instance, I know a lot of WW members who make cake with a can of diet soda instead of oil. Um, that's great, in terms of keeping the points down on the cake. But diet soda isn't good for you. Sucralose and other sugar substitutes are, in fact, potentially dangerous (you don't even need me to link - just google this yourself and you'll find all kinds of horror stories). So recommending that we bake with Splenda so that we can lose weight always sounds, to me, like recommending that we dust our cheeks with lead (thanks, Zula!) so that they'll be nice and rosy, while we meanwhile slowly poison ourselves.

Finally, I would like to see WW stop repeating the same stupid "science" that is floating around out there, like the idea of this "obesity epidemic." Newsflash: when you change the guidelines of what constitutes "obesity" so that more people are now termed obese, this is not an epidemic. That is like annexing Canada and then stepping up the birth control advertisements in an attempt to slow the tremendous population growth (apologies to my Canadian readers).

I have a fantasy of leaving copies of "The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe" in Weight Watchers weighing-in rooms across the country - of becoming a Johnny Appleseed sowing self-content and self-love. There is a place for Weight Watchers, certainly, but there should be a place in Weight Watchers for feminists who aren't fatphobic. (And yes, I think you can be in Weight Watchers without being fatphobic. Sounds contradictory, I know, but I think it's possible.)


Zula said...

I know they used to put lead on their faces... dunno about arsenic, though. :)

Green said...

Interesting. I have never used WWs. My diet is simply of the "eat less, move more" variety.

I am looking forward to seeing your thoughts on the Kmart pants please?

Plain(s)feminist said...

Oh, my. Hmm. They are less tacky than they could be in the sense that they don't imply that one's derriere is "juicy." On the other hand, they remind me of my middle school unicorn-and-rainbow-themed outfits. I really don't get why it's necessary to broadcast one's sexual status, and it makes me really uncomfortable that we are expecting girls and young women to do so.

I'd like to see the guy version. Oh, wait...

Kristin said...

I don't think you're ever going to find a *feminist* company within the diet industry. I might do a bit more research on this if I were you. I have personally known people with eating disorders who were allowed to continue as members of Weight Watchers even though they were dangerously underweight (My mother was one--about twelve years ago, but I've heard similar stories since.).

I like this woman's take on WW:

Also, ever seen Joy Nash's Fat Rant? It's awesome:

You know... I think exercise and healthy eating are a good idea. I *do* think that what Weight Watchers promotes is excessively restrictive (Yep, I've tried it. I tried it at a time when I wasn't even overweight.). Not to mention the promotion of heavily processed Weight Watchers foods. And the focus on weight loss when doctors are now saying that, short of morbid obesity, a little extra weight isn't actually unhealthy?

Plain(s)feminist said...

Hey Kristin,
Yup, I love "Fat Rant," and I link to her blog! Thanks for the other link, which I've not yet had a chance to look at.

Yeah, WW is not just selling a way to lose weight, but an entire lifestyle. If the lifestyle were just about eating well and exercising, that'd be fine, but they want to encourage a lifestyle full of WW products, including the heavily-processed food, as you point out.

I have only once seen people who seemed underweight at WW meetings. I have seen thin people who are at goal weight, but once there was a woman who was quite thin and clearly wanting to lose more weight, and she and the leader were discussing this, and the leader was encouraging her. That is always disturbing.

I'm also not pleased with the way WW talks about hunger as "not a bad thing." I mean, they're trying to help people to listen to their bodies and to know what real hunger - as opposed to boredom or whatever - feels like, and that's all fine and good, but I don't like anything that suggests that it's good for me to be uncomfortable, which is what the WW mantra suggests. Hunger is not my friend. I don't think being healthy means being hungry.

(You know, and then, when I think of what it really means for people to be hungry, I feel self-indulgent for even talking about this at all.)

Interesting that you found WW to be overly restrictive. I always wonder how much difference a few extra points a day would really make...

Anita said...

Oh goodness! I am so glad that I bumped into your blog! I just started a blog last week and my first post was about the exact same question -- I go to weightwatchers regularly, but I can't help but think that the approach that they use really self-deprecating. When you stand on the scale, they say, "I see its been a good week!" when the subtext is "I am happy to see that you were miserable with yourself enough to not eat that bag of chips... "

Yikes: here's the more articulate version of my post: