Weight Watchers and the Anti-Dieting Age

I recently read a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner called Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age. The article covers a lot of ground dealing with weight loss in general with some specifics about Weight Watchers.  It is a mixture of general information about weight loss in the current age, along with information about the personal struggle of the author.  Under the title of the article is written, “The agonies of being overweight — or running a diet company — in a culture that likes to pretend it only cares about health, not size.”  The author is the primary example in the article of the overweight person and Weight Watchers is the diet company.

The article starts with an anecdote about Weight Watchers in January, 2015.  At that time, Weight Watchers had started doing some new and really honest ads about weight loss with a marketing campaign, called “Help With the Hard Part.”  I loved those commercials as I posted way back then.  However, as it turned out, most people didn’t love them.  In fact, Weight Watchers had a terrible January, which is normally when it has its best sign ups. It turned out that people didn’t like hearing, well, honesty about weight loss and how it is hard.

Weight Watchers started looking into why people didn’t like the new approach. The article details what happened when Weight Watchers head of consumer insights started talking to people:

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.’’

The article points out that while people didn’t necessarily want to talk about weight loss, they still wanted to be thinner.  It wasn’t that they didn’t want to engage in weight loss (or dieting)…they just didn’t want to call it that.  The article talks about how Weight Watchers (despite the name!) has changed to not emphasize dieting and weight loss, but would still have a program that delivered weight loss. And, of course, that ultimately lead to the name of the new program in December, 2015 which was called Beyond the Scale.  This reflected that Weight Watchers’ research had found 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.”

So, the bottom line as I see it is that people still want to lose weight, but calling it “dieting” or “hard” is sort of out of fashion.  So, the emphasis is more on eating healthy and becoming fit rather than losing weight.  The catch, though, is beneath it all those joining Weight Watchers do, in fact, want to lose weight.  To me, this seems like a bit of obfuscation.  Yes, I want to eat healthy and I want to be fit.  But, for me, I also wanted (and want) to lose weight.  If I ate healthy and exercised and didn’t lose any weight, I wouldn’t be happy.  It would be better than not eating healthy and better than not exercising, but not enough for me if I didn’t lose weight.  So, calling it Beyond the Scale for me didn’t really do much.  The scale isn’t everything, but it is the biggest part of why I am a Weight Watchers member.  I can eat healthy and exercise without the help of Weight Watchers.  Where I need Weight Watchers is help with weight loss.  Having said that, I am not opposed to the holistic approach.  It is fine.  I just liked those honest ads back in early 2015 that focused on the hard part of weight loss and how Weight Watchers could help.

But, it seems like I am not typical.  This new Weight Watchers approach has been successful for it.  Right after this New York Times article came out, Weight Watchers released its earning report of the second quarter of 2017.  I read the transcript of the earnings call.  Weight Watchers had good results and increased its revenue by 12% compared to the same period the year before and increased subscribers.  A few years ago, Weight Watchers had been losing earnings and subscribers.  Since Beyond the Scale came out, things have seemed to be going better.  And, to what does Weight Watchers attribute its recent progress?  Mindy Grossman, the new CEO of Weight Watchers stated:

By presenting a holistic approach towards a healthy lifestyle, we are shifting consumers’ perception of what it means to join Weight Watchers. Yes, it’s important that the program deliver weight loss results, but we are so much more than a number on a scale. More and more of our target audiences are beginning to view us as a lifestyle-oriented, more modern and relevant brand. And I believe our partnership with Oprah is also helping accelerate this positive shift.

This is exactly what is talked about in the article.  It acknowledges the importance of weight loss results, but this shows how the emphasis now goes beyond weight loss and uses that phrase, “holistic approach.”  So, while I may not feel that the holistic approach is all that necessary to what  I personally need from Weight Watchers, it is clear that for many people this is appealing.

Another interesting comment in the New York Times article was discussion of Weight Watchers’ social media program, Connect.  Connect is, to me, sort of a combination of Twitter and a Facebook group.  It is like Twitter in that you can follow people and can use and search hashtags.  It is sort of like Facebook in that posts aren’t limited to 140 characters.  I have not used Connect all that much.  What I realized from the article and from the earnings call is that many people do love Connect (Weight Watchers says that more than 1 million members visit Connect each month).  I think that for online member, in particular, Connect provides an opportunity to be a part of a community and get support when there aren’t meetings being attended.  And, even for meeting members, I can see how it can provided added support and community. (I need to go spend more time on Connect).

The other part of the article is not Weight Watchers specific but was also interesting.  This talked about whether you can accept yourself if you still want to lose weight.  Personally, I’ve never really understood the argument that wanting to lose weight means you don’t accept yourself.  I accept myself and care for myself.  I am not self hating and never have been.  But, I think certain things can be improved.  There was actually a quote from Oprah Winfrey in the article that I loved:

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 sort of felt that way when I was over 200 pounds.  I didn’t have high blood pressure, but I was worried about the health risks of being obese.  I didn’t want to accept those risks.  Yes, I could perhaps lessen them by eating healthy and exercising, but I would rather be a healthy eating, exercising, normal weight person than be a healthy eating, exercising, obese person.  And, to be honest, I also wanted to look better.  I think I look better at 146 pounds than 206 pounds.  That doesn’t mean I hated myself at 206 pounds or that I couldn’t wear pretty clothes at 206 pounds.  Yes, I could be overweight and dress well and wear makeup, etc.  But, I like my appearance more at 146 pounds.  And, I didn’t want to accept being overweight.

Anyway…fascinating lengthy article.  I’ve only barely gone into it.  Really worth reading.





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