Hello, welcome to Maintenance Phase, the show where we sit in a circle and make you feel bad about yourself.
I really thought you were going to be like, "The show that you don't need, like, a food scale for," or, "The show that's points-free," or...
These are all better than mine. Do we want to do this again?
No, yours is much more to the point. That is the function of this. We will talk about it.
I am Michael Hobbes. I am a reporter for the Huffington Post.
I'm Aubrey Gordon. I'm an author and columnist and fat-lady-about-town.
And for the last three episodes, we have been awkwardly piping in canned audio of Aubrey talking about our Patreon, which we recorded separately from the episode and it is like extremely evident from listening to those episodes. But this time we're going to do it organically.
We're doing it live. Yeah, so we're on patreon.com/maintenancephase. We also have t-shirts on TeePublic. You can find both of those links much more easily if you go to our website, which is maintenancephase.com.
Or continue just listening for free, that's also chill.
Yeah, totally. Do what you want.
And today we are talking about Weight Watchers.
Yeah, we're going to talk about formerly Weight Watchers, now WW.
So, Mike, talk to me about like, what do you know about Weight Watchers?
OK, so my understanding is that it's sort of like a support group for people trying to lose weight. So you go there on, you know, every Wednesday or something and you get weighed in and you have, I guess, like weight loss goals or whatever. And then you talk about weight and weight loss, and your efforts and what's going well and what's not going well. And it's sort of like bringing other people along on this emotional roller coaster that everybody goes through when they lose weight, where it always works at first and you project this gleaming future for yourself, and then inevitably it doesn't work because most people can't maintain the restriction, and then you start to gain the weight back and you feel terrible about yourself. And it seems like Weight Watchers would amplify both aspects of that, the sort of the false future that you project for yourself at the beginning of a weight loss effort and also the sense of shame at the end of a weight loss effort when it inevitably doesn't work.
Yeah, I would say that's about right. I was a Weight Watchers member off and on for some time. My first Weight Watchers meeting was when I was eleven.
Which is already just like very problematic to have 11-year-olds being told that their bodies aren't cool and that they should lose weight. That's already bad.
Weight Watchers is -- like, as a person who later developed an eating disorder, Weight Watchers is where I learned a lot of the building blocks.
This is true of a lot of diets, right. That, like, folks will sort of have the entry point of a diet and then it will sort of morph into, uh--
--an eating disorder because, there's just -- in most dieting spaces, there is not an awareness of eating disorders. There is not concern about eating disorders. The goal is lose weight at whatever costs, right. And a bunch of the things that they, like, actively recommend to you, like, I was keeping a food journal, which is what you're supposed to do when you're in Weight Watchers. You write down what you eat, you write down how many points it's worth.
For me, anyway, it sort of led me down the garden path a little bit to something that turned into something much, much worse.
This reminds me that when I was a teenager, my parents sent my brother to an anger management, like, a city-funded anger management course.
And it turned out when he went there that all the other kids were like super hard-core juvenile delinquents. And so, instead of learning any anger management skills, he would just hang out with these kids, and they taught him, like, how to buy weed and, like, how to steal cars and stuff. Like, it ended up being like this escalation of everything that was going on because of all the group dynamics that were forming. I feel like that's kind of a metaphor.
Yeah, I would say that's about right.
Can you talk more about your experience in Weight Watchers? Like what was the, sort of, the narrative arc of you going through this whole process?
Weight Watchers is where I got really good at distinguishing between a half cup of something and a cup of something.
There was definitely this very big normalization of, like, binge eating and Weight Watchers and this sort of constant vigilance was seen as the natural solution.
Earlier versions of Weight Watchers also had-- like, in our house, we had a food scale, like a Weight Watchers branded food scale.
Oh, they sold Weight Watchers branded food scales?
Uh-huh, so people would, like, weigh their food before they eat it. This was pre-, like, the point system.
I mean, I will also say I grew up around a ton of, like, boomer ladies who were Weight Watchers devotees, right? The sort of thinking was diets come and go, but Weight Watchers is the one that's really stood the test of time. It's like Pond's Cold Cream, right? Like, "you go get your fancy skin care, whatever. Pond's has been here--"
"--it's not flashy, but it gets the job done," is sort of the vibe at Weight Watchers.
And what I learned in this research is that that lore is really categorically incorrect in some big ways.
First time that's ever happened!
A widespread societal understanding of a phenomenon is based on incorrect information.
It's as if one of the people on this podcast has built a career out of debunking.
If only there was some sort of pithy phrase that we could use for this kind of revelation.
Your perceptions of Weight Watchers may be incorrect. So here's what I would say for folks who are unfamiliar with Weight Watchers -- Weight Watchers, at its core, it is a low fat, low calorie diet. You go to weekly meetings, you pay a weekly membership fee that ranges depending on, sort of, how you engage. At this point, I think the low end is like three dollars a week, the high end is thirteen dollars a week. Group leaders are people who have hit their target goal weight and have maintained it for at least six weeks. So the belief is that your group leader has done it. So, so can you, right? There's sort of, like, a success story, quote unquote, in every room.
So, I kind of want to just start us at the start of Weight Watchers. Are you ready for just, like the story of Weight Watchers?
Do it. Take me down the WW path.
Delightful. Part of the lore of Weight Watchers was that it was started by this lower-middle-class lady. Jean Nidetch was from New York. She was from Queens. She weighed about two hundred and ten pounds when a friend of hers mistook her for pregnant.
That was when she decided to go on a sort of, drastic kind of once-and-for-all diet.
I feel like that's one of the things if somebody has an interesting thing about them, like they seem pregnant, you probably should just be like, "hey, any news," or something, like, don't -- maybe don't go straight for the "you must be pregnant" thing.
And also like, "do you need to know?" You can just skip it.
So, Jean Nidetch is fatter than she wants to be, she decides to go on a diet. When she talks about how she was eating before going on this diet, what she describes is binge eating disorder.
She talks about eating multiple boxes of Mallomars in one sitting.
What are Mallomars?
Uh, they're like cookies, cookie candy, sort of hybrid.
Except they're, like, not trying to be good for you.
She is getting boxes of cookies and hiding them from her family and eating them in secret and feeling these big waves of shame after she eats them. I mean, it's like, she's truly just, like, ticking down the list of diagnostic criteria for binge eating disorder. Because that's not a framework we had at the time, she thinks, "well, I'm fat and I need to lose weight," not, "Uh oh, something's going on in my brain."
And maybe the solution here is a brain thing and not a body thing, right?
That's also an interesting thing of how we talk about on the show a lot, the sort of, the difference between behavior and weight.
Like, you can be alarmed by your binge eating behavior and try to work on that behavior in a way that is not necessarily about weight loss or about seeing yourself as a fundamentally failed person.
Losing twenty pounds is not her primary problem right now. Like that shouldn't necessarily be the goal.
Totally and absolutely, right. So interestingly, she famously lost like seventy pounds.
She lost her weight, interestingly, through the New York City Board of Health 's Clinic.
Which developed like a weight loss program and a diet called the Prudent Diet.
Wait, so this was, like, a municipal program? This is, like, socialist weight loss?
It sure was, yeah.
So it was developed by the Board of Health. It included a support group element.
The diet itself is, like, extremely early '60s. That's when all of this is happening, right.
Ooh, so just like breakfast: aspic, lunch: aspic, and dinner, it's, like, crab cocktail.
It is fish five times a week.
And two glasses of skim milk a day, and, like, whole wheat bread. Basically, like, she went through this whole program, she lost seventy pounds using this program, but she didn't like how their group leader ran the group.
So she started running it out of her living room with other, like, people -- predominantly women -- trying to lose weight, and she started charging people.
Wait, so is this a story of private sector, quote unquote, innovation that's actually just a person stealing an idea from the public sector?
Like how tech people in Silicon Valley keep accidentally inventing buses. What if Uber, but it was like lots of people at once?
Yeah, that's exactly right. So basically, she lifts the Prudent Diet whole cloth and, like, copies a bunch of their materials and, like, runs these support groups out of her house just using the exact diet that she got for free from the New York City Board of Health Clinic.
But she's like a better camp counselor, whatever.
Totally, yeah. So, the business takes off like wildfire.
By 1967, so just four years in, she has over 100 franchises in the U.S., in Canada, in Puerto Rico, in Israel, in the UK.
And that same year, their franchises reached forty three of the 50 states.
This is what we're always saying, fat people are like a massively under-served market. People are just leaving money on the table, not thinking of fat people as like, an actual consumer demographic.
Totally. So, around the same time they publish the first Weight Watchers cookbook; there have been many since then. It sold one point five million copies in 1966, which is humongo, right?
So like half of the sales of What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Fat. One third -- half to one third.
How dare you?
One quarter, yes.
The 60s also saw the launch of Weight Watchers branded foods, spas, scales, and fat camps.
Oh, that's dark. The scales are dark, but then it got even darker.
Yeah, so Weight Watchers fully operated fat camps for kids. And, uh, in my notes it says "fuck all the way off!"
So, interestingly, the 70s roll around and Weight Watchers starts to shift its approach. It talks less about dieting and more about, like, eating skills.
They also branch out, they no longer stick just to the Prudent Diet. They start coming up with different eating plans for different members. So they now have these sort of, like, tailored eating plans is the way that they talk about it. And this is, like, the beginning of a trend that will continue with Weight Watchers, where they sort of start, like, they keep trying to sort of adapt to popular thinking about food and eating and dieting.
And that means that they change their formula quite a bit.
Which also gets us to the, sort of, eventual dropping of weight from the name too, right? That it's like, they're basically surfing on whatever the diet trend is at the time. They're just incorporating it into what they're already doing.
Pretty much. So, during the same time, the 60s and 70s, Jean becomes more and more of a celebrity.
She is, like, gorgeous, she's glamorous, she's like, now thin. She is famously, like very good friends with Maya Angelou.
Not the cameo I was expecting in this episode.
Fuckin' me neither, man, it's so weird.
Jean has since -- I'm not spoiling anything to say that Jean has since passed away. So I'm going to read you a little quote from the New York Times obituary for Jean. "In 1973, 16,000 Weight Watchers jammed Madison Square Garden for the group's 10th anniversary."
"It was like a revival. Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey, and Roberta Peters were there, but the star in a drift of white chiffon was Mrs. Nidetch, a combination Cinderella and Aimee Semple McPherson with her own evangelical message. Overeating is an emotional problem with an emotional solution. She looked as if she had never eaten a cookie in her life."
Hm. So she kept the weight off the rest of her life.
She sure did, so famously, she actually died at her goal weight.
And so her explanation for that was her getting the emotional eating under control.
Yep. Through this sort of support group set up, right, but not through treatment of an eating disorder.
Like, wah-wah. So, Jean stays involved in the company until, sort of like, the 80s-ish. In 1979, she sells the company to Heinz Ketchup.
So Heinz Ketchup, fully owned Weight Watchers for, like, twenty years.
From 1979 to 1999, until they sell it to a group of investors who had just made all of their money off of -- no joke -- a sugar factory.
I can just see your face when you found this out, Aubrey.
I was so delighted, that Heinz ketchup -- one, ketchup: nowhere on any diet.
Right, ketchup is basically a red milkshake.
It's just high fructose corn syrup, as far as I can tell. Yeah, it's just, yes. Which is fine. Have ketchup, if you want ketchup, have ketchup.
But then I also think there's something in here about capitalism, too, that in these sort of, I don't know, big conglomerates that buy up a bunch of companies and spin them off and sell them and merge them, whatever, they're kind of content neutral, right? Like they don't actually care whether they own a sugar factory or a weight loss company, like its just profit and loss margins.
That's exactly right. So, the company that now owns Weight Watchers is called Invus, which is short for, like, "invest in the U.S.," it's a Belgian -- a family of, quote, Belgian sugar barons, according to Forbes. This is what they say about Invus, quote, Private equity firm Invus is essentially the family office of Eric Whitacre, a descendant of Belgian sugar barons who now lives in Monaco and spends most of his time exploring the world in his hundred-and-sixty-four-foot luxury yacht, the Exuma, which includes an amphibious car. Whitacre, who is 72, is worth an estimated seven point six billion dollars.
So he's just straightforwardly a James Bond villain.
That's what we're dealing with here.
His, sort of, investment manager apparently saw value in Weight Watchers because of the ways in which it had so many repeat users, right? Because people would lose weight, they would drop out, they would come back, they would lose weight again, they'd stall out, right?
Part of the appeal of Weight Watchers, it is this sort of constant state of being. And that's how Weight Watchers sells it --
-- Is they're just, like "it's forever. Like, this is how you manage how you eat."
Which is the same as, sort of, every consumer product, like, people buy Pringles because they like Pringles and they eat Pringles habitually, which is fine. But then, Pringles isn't promising to get you to never eat chips again, right? Like this, this represents the complete failure of the reason that Weight Watchers exists.
That indicates that, like, maybe they don't have the secret to weight loss figured out.
So, we're going to backtrack a little tiny bit, and start talking about, like, a thing that I wasn't fully tracking before doing this research -- is that Weight Watchers has been in pretty severe financial trouble for, like, a while. They'll lose, like, a million subscribers in a couple of quarters, or that kind of, like, really significant hits, right?
Is this why they dropped the full name? Because they couldn't afford all those letters anymore? Like, we're trimming the fat, we're down to WW.
That challenge -- the financial troubles that they're in -- starts in earnest in the 1990s when the field starts to become more crowded.
Like, there are other diets, there are other, sort of fads. But in terms of like enduring corporate, you know, faces of weight loss, Weight Watchers is like, the main deal. In the 90s, Jenny Craig joins the fray.
Future episode, future episode, future episode.
Yeah. So, according to Forbes, in 2012, Weight Watchers stock was eighty dollars per share; by 2015, it was less than four dollars per share.
They lose about seven percent of their subscribers in 2014. They generally don't have men participating in Weight Watchers at the same level.
Oh yeah. I forgot about men. What do you think actually explains it though? Like, why do you think it just stopped being successful in the 90s.
I mean, I do think, like, they were not very good at running a fuckin' business.
Like, it genuinely sounds like, "oh, what, we're surprised that there might be competition," right. They were sort of resting on their laurels is what it's -- that's the impression that I have gotten from the research. They also get caught off guard in the early 2010s when people start getting smartphones. So suddenly, there's this new flood of competitors. That's when we get MyFitnessPal. That's when we start getting all of, like Chronometer, that's when we start getting all of these, like, diet apps.
Right. Countin' steps, goin' to Chipotle, countin' calories.
Makin' copies, that's right.
I went on a single date with a guy who's a data scientist who specifically studies fitness apps. And he said one of the central problems with these apps is that it's much harder to calculate the calories for foods that you make at home. So like, if you're making a salad at home, it's like, nobody wants to weigh out ounce-by-ounce, all the sort of, the three walnuts that you put in. Like, it's a massive pain. Whereas, if you go to Panera Bread, the calories are right there on the menu. So, a lot of people that have these fitness apps, or these sort of point system -- like, any sort of quantification of their diet and exercise, it actually pushes them toward eating more fast food, and eating more packaged foods, and eating out more.
And any time you eat out, it's generally going to be less healthy than when you eat at home.
Yeah, totally. So, Weight Watchers is continuing to take these big hits. In one quarter alone, they lose 600,000 subscribers.
And that's when they start making big moves to try and get more -- again, like, lifelong members, right, like that is their language. That is how they talk about their, sort of, approach. And as their stock continues to tank, they start making really big, bold and -- I would argue -- extremely shitty choices.
Yeah, when companies get desperate, this is when they get extra unethical.
Right. So their first big, weird play for new members happens in 2018. Weight Watchers announced that it was going to start offering free six-week memberships to teens as young as 13.
So, like, I don't know, do you know any 13-year-olds currently?
It would be so weird if I was like, yes, I know Jenny, and I know Tom, and I know Steve, like, no!
No, I just mean, like, I have a niece, that's what I'm thinking of, like I have a niece who is 13.
Just hanging out at playgrounds, sayin' "hi" to the kids.
Gay man, hangin' out, alone, near some teens.
Just an effeminate man in his thirties, introducing myself to the neighborhood children. No, I do have a niece, but she is seven.
Oh, God. We'll get to your niece's age group in a minute, sorry bud.
Oh, Jesus Christ.
The, the reason that I ask about, like, whether or not, you know a 13-year-old is like, I know fuckin' 13-year-olds and I would be so fucking heartbroken if they started on Weight Watchers, not just because of my politics, but just because of like -- you know, that this is the long death march toward, like, a lifelong path of just, like, hating your body and wishing you looked different, right. And I'm just like, "if we can just delay the onset of that, that would be great."
Weight Watchers, meanwhile, is like, aggressively marketing specifically to those kids. And there is this really strong response. The National Eating Disorders Association issues a statement, like a big public statement. They say, quote, In a large study of 14- and 15-year-olds, dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder. They also say, in that same statement, that teens who diet are twice as likely to become fat regardless of the size that they start at. Trying to lose weight generally leads folks to gain weight.
What they're saying is, like, "you're also saying you're trying to get kids thin, but this is going to make them fat--"
"Can you not?"
It's also really pouring gasoline on like, hormonal fires at that age, too, where kids are really -- if you're 13, 14, 15, you're, like, just going through puberty. You're in adolescence. You're like, just becoming aware of yourself as, like, having looks and being judged on your looks. So much of, sort of, the experience of puberty is like, discovering self-consciousness. I remember, when I was like 13, my parents told me I couldn't wear sweatpants to school anymore and I was like, devastated. I was like, "What do you mean?" Cuz, literally, I had like, not thought about the fact that other people would be assessing my appearance. Like that was not something that occurred to me.
And like I'm being way too universalistic here. But like, in general, self-consciousness is something that is a big part of puberty. And so when kids are in this, like, they're literally discovering how to feel self-conscious, like throwing in, "your looks aren't good enough" at that age, you're just unleashing Godzilla into like, a Walmart at that point.
Totally. This is the John Mulaney "horse in a hospital" bit, right. Like, it's already gonna be bad and you are hastening that and deepening that in ways that are like, totally unnecessary.
And then, those kids are going to end up 38 years old and still mad about the fact that they can't wear sweat pants in public anymore.
Or, thirty seven years old and still mad that they had to go to fuckin' Weight Watchers.
Or that, for example, yes!
So, the National Eating Disorders Association releases this big response, like, "you don't have doctors working with kids, you're not screening for eating disorders." And here is Weight Watchers response. Are you ready?
Give it to me.
Last week, we shared the future vision of Weight Watchers, including some changes we are making to bring health and wellness to all, not just the few. As part of that, we announced that we would open WW to teens for free. We know that the teen years are a critical life stage and opening WW to teens with consent from a parent or guardian is about families getting healthier, not dieting. We have and will continue to talk with health care professionals as we get ready to launch this program.
It's so -- it's so Biggest Loser, trying to disguise a literal weight loss competition as some sort of, form of empowerment.
It's literally called Weight Watchers. You are there to focus exclusively on your weight. It's not like, cholesterol-reading watchers.
Yeah, that's right. And like, they're sort of recasting dieting as some kind of like, radical accessibility thing, like, "We're the champions of the people. We believe that wellness belongs to everyone, not just the few."
Right, like that, "not just the few statement," I'm like, what the fuck are you, Robin Hood?
It's also -- I love the thing where people repackage the most fucking normie conventional wisdom as somehow like, forbidden knowledge.
Like, the idea that people need to lose weight to be healthier is the most, like, widespread societal belief imaginable. This thing of, like, "it's only the elites that are trying to lose weight." It's like, no, that's literally like the majority of the population at any given time believes that it is healthier to be thin.
Like, you are not saying something that's going against the elite consensus. You're literally just repackaging the elite consensus.
Totally. None of this is new.
And also, you're not new.
Right, like, this is what you've been doing since time immemorial. If you believed in wellness for all, not just the few--
Then, like, make your whole fuckin' program free, I don't know, man. So, this is also where we get into some of the shortcomings of this, quote unquote, support group model. Growing up, it seemed like one of the parts about Weight Watchers that was sort of beyond reproach, right. And actually, the data on these kinds of quote unquote support group spaces is super not good.
It's bad enough that there is a term for it. Psychologists call it normative discontent.
Oh, does that mean, like, a bunch of people just like wallowing in their sadness together?
Mm-hmm. Specifically around their negative body image.
It's like fuckin' incels. That's totally what it is.
Totally. It's the ways in which people -- and again, particularly women -- bond over disliking their bodies. So like, "oh my God, my thighs are so fat, nobody wants to see my thighs." And then someone else will go, "your thighs look great. You look amazing. I look like shit. Look at this double chin."
Like those are the conversations, right. Researchers call it fat talk, which is like, not my favorite because that's not totally what's happening there, but OK.
As of 2011, 93 percent of women reported engaging in social quote unquote fat talk.
Which they sort of, define as this practice of like expressing dissatisfaction with their own size or talking about like, quote unquote, feeling fat, right?
People who engage regularly in those conversations have lower body satisfaction rates. They're at more risk for disordered eating. For fat people who are part of those conversations and, sort of, on the receiving end from thinner women, it often registers as an insult, right? Because they're -- like, you're listening to a thinner person talk about how disgusting and fat they are. And you're like, "what the fuck? I'm right here. What do you think of me then?"
And that's also borne out in the research. There's quite a bit of research that's just like "if you think you're fat, then what do you think of me? Yikes," right?
Oh, my God. Can I scratch, like, a decade long itch right now?
Do you remember when Britney Spears was on -- what was it, the VMAs or something -- and she had a snake around her neck, remember?
And she gave, like, a really lackluster performance. And a lot of the, sort of, discussion of why her performance was lackluster was that she was fat.
And she had like a bare midriff or whatever, and they're like "How far Britney has fallen." And I remember looking at the footage and being like, "She is smaller than like two thirds of American women. Like, she is still extremely small."
And it just felt like reading people talk about somebody with a body like that as like, irredeemably fat, just felt like it would be so fucking damaging to the population. They're like, you're looking at the photo and then you're looking at the rhetoric about the photo and you're like, "Uh, this is how most women look. And we're being really mean to her."
Totally, totally. So, the research bears out also exactly what you're saying about that, right? There is some research into college students of all genders. They found that positive body image and positive body talk were linked to greater optimism, higher self-esteem, stronger relationships, and like, higher sexual satisfaction, stronger relationships, right, like all of that kind of stuff sort of comes together.
Just orgasms, constantly having orgasms. Nice jacket, ooooh! Yes. Satisfied, happy, depression is gone, I love it.
Also, like if you looked at any of the data about like, how often are straight women having orgasms? It's real fuckin' bleak.
So like anything that helps them -- Oh my God, it's so bad dude.
Digression! Take me on this digression. What does the data say?
Oh, I haven't done the deep dive into the research, but like, every few years there's a big story that's like, "we know more about the orgasm gap, and it's basically, like, lesbians and bi women are having great sex. Women who exclusively have sex with men are having shitty sex and many of them are, like, never experiencing an orgasm."
That's really rough.
It's so rough. So it's basically like, all men are having good sex. Gay and bisexual women are having great sex, straight women are fucked, and, like, not in a way that they like.
Sometimes you hear these findings from research and you're like, "Why aren't we talking about this all the time, every day?"
It's so rough.
It seems like a huge deal. Just like, women are not having great sex, like, as a population.
There's also like, a bunch of data that's just like, "a bunch of women who are in long term relationships or who are consistently like, dating and sleeping with people, or whatever, report never having experienced an orgasm."
Oh, my God.
Of course, like, asexual people exist, people who, like, are not driven by sex exist. Like, all of this sort of stuff is true. And also, there is a group of people who are desiring of orgasms and not getting them.
And like this feels like such a weird, shitty window into like, how straight people talk or don't talk about sex, like, how much isn't negotiated or even spoken.
Right. And so what you're saying is like, this wallowing effect is in some way a contributing factor. And the more self-conscious you are about your body, the less sort of likely you are to have orgasms.
They don't necessarily talk about orgasms in the research, what they talk about is sexual satisfaction, like how would you rate your satisfaction with your sex life? So that actually, like, makes some more room, right? There are people who are like, "I don't have sex and I'm satisfied with that. 10!"
Look, Aubrey, some of us are extremely mediocre at sex and very fine about it. Some of us are lazy, selfish lovers, ya know?
So basically, like, people who engage in this kind of fat talk have, like significantly weaker romantic relationships and friendships, so like relationships of all stripes are weakened by this. It really does seem to have this weird, pervasive impact on folks' lives.
And Weight Watchers is a place that has sort of systematised and participated in the popularization of this phenomenon, right. If you have rooms full of people who are at these Weight Watchers meetings talking about all the ways they want their bodies to be different, talking about all the ways in which their lives will just sort of fall into place when they lose weight.
They are reaching millions of subscribers over the years. It's hard to imagine that that hasn't somehow increased the sort of social expectation and ritual.
But so, help me understand how these meetings actually work, because like, what is the content of one of these meetings? Like, what does it actually look like?
My recollection from being there as a kid was that people would, sort of have space to share where they were at. You would talk about shared strategies for hard situations. So like, if Thanksgiving was coming up, you would talk about like, "What do you do on Thanksgiving?"
But a lot of it was also just space for people to grieve their bodies not being what they wanted them to be. And a lot of space for people to indulge in this total magical thinking, that was like, "When I lose weight, my marriage will sort of heal itself. When I lose weight, I will get this promotion for my job," right? That it becomes this sort of peg that people hang all of their hopes on.
And it fortifies their commitment to weight loss, but also the -- like, it deepens the despair, I think, that people feel when they don't lose weight. That's what it did for me. Again, like speaking only for myself, right?
And that's where we get all this data, that's like, I don't have the numbers in front of me, but it's something like 30 percent of American women say that they would rather become an alcoholic, or walk away from their relationships than get fat.
I mean, it depends on the relationships, but yes. Because these women are not having orgasms, Aubrey, keep -- keep in mind
This is yet another reason why fuckin' 11-year-olds, 13-year-olds should not be in these groups is because you're also -- the meta message that you're getting is that your weight is central to who you are.
If you're like, whatever, you're larger than you'd like to be or something, that doesn't actually have to be seen as a central failing. Like, you can focus on, like getting into a super dope college, reading 50 books a year, or like, there's all kinds of other things that you can be focusing on and that you can make central to your life.
But you're reinforcing this message that like, your weight is who you are.
Yeah, totally. This is also like a strain of, sort of, thought in like, feminist circles, right, is sort of like, being sort of constantly engaged in dieting and weight loss is like, part of how women disengage from, like, fighting for their own rights and like expecting better of the world around them, right? That it sort of like, placates women and distracts us, is sort of the thinking.
When what they should be mad about is the lack of orgasms! There should be people with picket signs outside of men's houses at all times!
So around this same time that Weight Watchers introduces this free membership for teens business, they also announce, interestingly, that they're going to stop using before-and-after photos in their ads--
--which is a legitimately big deal.
Their CEO, Mindy Grossman, goes into the press and is like talking to them about this sort of shift away from before-and-after pictures. So what she says is this, quote, "What I find is that people want to know about the journey. They want to know what people are experiencing. They want to know how it relates to their own life. When I talk to people who have had an incredible experience with Weight Watchers, whether they have lost 10 pounds or two hundred pounds, the consistent thing they are saying is how it made them feel versus how it made them look." So they're saying we're not going to use these photos, but also it's not about how you look, it's just about how you feel. And you feel better when you look better, right, where you're like, "OK, fine."
So I have their website in front of me. It's just all a bunch of people who are thin.
And like, playing with their kids and exercising and doing happy stuff. But there's not a lot of representation of actual fat people. So the project is not like to humanize fat people necessarily. It's like, "Let's get you thin."
Right. It's not, like, look at all these fat people do-- like, eating healthy foods and doing whatever and whatever size they end up at is fine, right? They're still very clear that they are Weight Watchers, right. Interestingly, this is the same time -- 2018 is the same time that they changed their name to WW.
Their tagline at the time was "Wellness that Works." They launched an incentive program called "Wellness Wins." And it feels like this microcosm of a larger trend that you and I have talked about.
Which is this kind of search-and-replace that searches for weight loss and replaces it with wellness but, everything else is exactly the same. It's now just coded language for weight loss, right, like when we talk about, quote unquote, wellness, what we're still talking about on some level is weight loss, but it feels more aspirational than just weight loss. So it feels more neutral or empowering or something to people.
When it is truly just like, "Diets just changed their clothes."
I mean, I guess the idea is you're skipping the middleman. Because the whole -- the rhetoric around weight loss is you must lose weight to be healthy. And so now, instead of saying you must lose weight, you're saying you must be healthy and the way to be healthy is to lose weight. So, the same message is embedded in there.
That's exactly right. So, the next year, just after this rebrand, after the free memberships for teens, Weight Watchers makes another big wild swing. They acquire an app -- like a smartphone app -- called Kurbo. Did you hear anything about Kurbo?
Kurbo? No, never heard of it.
It is an app that is designed and marketed towards kids as young as eight.
Oh, fuck, it's like cartoon evil.
It's so fuckin' dark, dude. My niece is thirteen, my nephew is nine. And when I think about either of them engaging in these programs, it makes me want to cry, barf, and punch.
All at once. Once again, because there had been this, almost like, trial run of backlash to the, like, free teen memberships you can imagine when they're like, "Anyway, now we're getting younger," right, like the same group of people, like, had a fuckin' freak-out, like, "Fuck off! Eight year olds?"
I feel like they only did it to take away the backlash from the teenagers. They're like, "Let's get them to not be pissed off by the 13-year-olds, just like, throw 8-year-olds in there. And then everybody's gonna forget about the other stuff.
Yeah, be pissed off about this other garbage. So, once again, NEDA, the National Eating Disorder Association, releases a specific statement on this. They asked them to pull the app. There's even an organization in the UK called Obesity UK, and they're like, "This app is irresponsible." Is what they say publicly. And I'm like, "Fuck, man. If the, like, obesity epidemic, quote unquote, organisations are like, "Your app is irresponsible," like--
Even like the institutional fat-phobia institutions are like, "Let's slow down."
Right. So like, things sort of have turned around a little tiny bit for Weight Watchers, but then it has sort of, returned to this downturn. Basically, the single biggest boon to Weight Watchers success today is Oprah Winfrey.
In 2015, Oprah bought a ten percent stake in the company.
So like, after that happens, the company breaks the one million member mark that they've been sort of looking at. Their profits shoot up about 20 percent. So, like the Oprah effect is huge. It's not the program, right? It's just Oprah.
But even with the Oprah effect, like, they start losing subscribers again by like, the end of that year.
Do we know why?
The way that I sort of read all of this and this is just my own sort of, like assumptions, is Oprah brings you a big new bump of people, right? It brings you a ton of Oprah loyalists, lovely people remembering their spirits. And they still have the same functional problems with Weight Watchers that they've always had.
They got a big boost of people and then I suspect they had attrition at like a similar rate that they normally do, but because that initial boost was so big, the attrition looks huge, too.
When they get Oprah, they also get the Vision 2020 tour. Have you and I talked about Vision 2020?
Vision 2020? No.
Oh, my God, Mike. So, in 2020, before we knew that 2020 was garbage, in like, January and February, Oprah does this national tour--
--and it's about how to become your best self and how to set your goals for the year etc. But ultimately, it is sponsored by Weight Watchers.
At one point they have, like, NYPD officers or New York Fire Department officers who get up on stage and they're like, we all did Weight Watchers, and here's how about how much weight we lost.
Julianne Hough, who's on Dancing with the Stars, comes on and does her like, weird, like, I can't remember what it's called.
Tango. Salsa. What'd she do?
No, it's not dancing, it's like, some combination of, like, energy work, like, it's like Reiki plus yoga plus cardio, kind of thing.
That's less cool than salsa.
Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, The Rock. Like, it's a very bizarre thing to have this weight loss tour and have all of these people who are famously thin.
Do not take diet and exercise advice from The Rock. If you learn nothing from this show, do not -- have you seen those like men's health articles where they walk you through what he eats in a day?
Listen, man, sometimes a guy just wants to eat seventeen pounds of cod.
That's the thing. It's like, it's like 7:30 a.m., dried cod and like, a handful of peanuts, 9:30, more cod and like, a bowl of yogurt with nothing on it. And then like 10:00, cod! Like, whatever you're doing in your life, do not emulate the fuckin' Rock, man.
I love fish. I am a major seafood person and I absolutely saw that and was like, "This is upsetting."
So -- It's so upsetting, oh my god.
So here's where we get into the research around the effectiveness of Weight Watchers. Johns Hopkins does some research and they found that Weight Watchers participants lost three to five percent more than a control group. It's a real nominal--
Wooo! That's like four extra pounds.
There's one other study that gets a ton of big splashy headlines that are like, Weight Watchers is twice as effective. This is like a big get. Weight Watchers loves pointing to this study. But the actual numbers in the study are like, not that impressive.
So, after a full year, people in standard medical care lost five pounds and people on Weight Watchers lost eleven pounds.
Dude, I am three hundred and fifty pounds. Eleven pounds makes me three hundred and thirty nine pounds.
I am not no longer fat. Right?
Yeah, always beware of relative statistics. I remember a friend of mine who worked at a small town newspaper got a press release from a church saying it was the fastest growing church in the city that he lived in. It said that it had added fifty percent to its congregation over the course of one year, which was like, totally unprecedented. And then he looked into it, and they went from eight people to twelve people. It's like, yeah, it still fits within a minivan.
And also, Weight Watchers has before-and-after photos on their website, by the way. They have what are called member stories. I've got three of them, the three that they feature on their website. One of them, a woman loses one hundred eight pounds. Another is a couple who lost a combined ninety one pounds, and another is a woman who lost eighty nine pounds. The before-and-after stories that they're featuring in their marketing is not eleven pounds.
That's right. So they're still sort of, like, projecting out like, "this could be you, you could be the ninety one pounds person."
Oh, wait-- Although I should say in the headline of all of these stories there's an asterisk after pounds.
It says, "Alicia, 32, has lost eighty nine pounds, asterisk." So then when you go to the page you have to click on the headline and then the asterisk says, "people following the WW program can expect to lose one to two pounds a week." So that's good, disclaimer. And then it says, "Alicia lost weight on a prior program and is continuing on my Weight Watchers." So the weight loss that they're advertising on their website was literally from another diet.
I truly was, like, really hoping that you were going to be like, "This person lost eighty nine pounds" and then the asterisk was like, "British Pounds Sterling."
Oh my God.
Like, this person lost like a hundred and eighty bucks on your dumb diet that didn't work.
That's on you for thinking, we were talking about weight. We never said weight.
Again, it's like, really hard to study the effectiveness of this because of how many times its formula has changed, right?
These are the years when Weight Watchers changes with their plan. You ready? They change their plan in 1963, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1997--
2000, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2017. So like, as time goes on, the plan is changing more, and more, and more.
Yeah, you can really smell the desperation with those last few.
Totally. So when people talk about like, "Weight Watchers is the one that really works. It's the one that's stood the test of time." I'm like, has it?
It seems like it has changed a lot.
Man, we're really coming up with sort of, "Now That's What I Call Maintenance Phase" themes. So much of what we talk about is just like, capitalistic solutions to public health issues are doomed. They're disguised as solutions, but they exist to enrich shareholders.
Yes, and they're not doing things that are like, "this will help you manage your blood sugar." They're trying to solve the problem of like, why are there so many fat people?
And I fundamentally don't think that is a public health problem. You know what I mean, like, I think that's a kind of person who exists in the world.
And using that as this perfect proxy for health--
They're bragging about Alicia, who seems nice, losing eighty nine pounds, but they're not talking about like, Alicia's cholesterol levels or resting heart rate or like, what's going on in her life. Like, how -- like, what is she able to do, what does her income allow her to do. There's no broader context of the individual.
Totally, totally. Listen, if it were not going to be ugly as sin, I would 100 percent leave this podcast record and immediately make a "Now That's What I Call Maintenance Phase" logo T-shirt. But I don't think anybody wants that logo on a t-shirt.
No one wants that graphic design back.
It's so ugly. But I'm very delighted by "Now That's What I Call Maintenance Phase."
So, yeah, what are what are our concluding thoughts, Aubrey? What what do you want to leave us with?
Look like, a lot of people have a little -- lot of like strong, like, fond or positive feelings about Weight Watchers and sort of, this sense that it is like the thing that works, the thing that has stood the test of time, all of that kind of stuff. Honestly, like I had some of those assumptions going into this research. And what I have found is that that's just not true. What I found was like, this business that's really struggling, with a business model that doesn't really seem to work, right?
With people that maybe lose a little bit more weight, but there's no evidence that they keep it off. They just keep people tithing to Weight Watchers, right. Like, in a funny way, I have a friend who's in, like, public health world. She'll talk about her favorite viruses as being the ones that are, like, sophisticated enough to keep their host alive.
Weight Watchers is kind of a sophisticated version of a diet, right. They keep you engaged effectively in a way that other diets don't, necessarily. And that's more a testament to their ability to keep consumers engaged than it is a testament to their ability to help people actually lose weight.
So you respect Weight Watchers the way you respect a tapeworm. You know, nature has designed you for a purpose and you fulfill that purpose.
But like, yeah, I mean, like they have done a good job of sort of hitting home this lifetime member thing and getting people to identify with the lifetime member thing.
It's such a missed opportunity because, like, fat people really do need support. Maybe your spouse doesn't understand what you're going through. Maybe your boss doesn't understand what you're going through. You need other people that share that experience. But instead, it became something that was just another avenue for people to feel shitty about themselves. And so, that to me is like the huge bummer, is that if people were getting together in each other's houses on Wednesday nights, like they could have passed some cool laws, like they could have radicalized each other, like they could have done all kinds of really cool stuff, and it just didn't happen.
Right. They could have had -- they could have shared skills around like what do you say when people, you know, give you shit about what you're eating?
How do you push back on dickheads? Yes.
But because they're sort of centered around this idea that your body is changeable and it's your responsibility to change it, not only did it not sort of go down the road that you're talking about, it actually pushes folks, I think, further away from that road by saying, "Your body can change. It's your responsibility to change it. Therefore, this is in no way a legitimate identity. You shouldn't form relationships with other fat people because you're not going to be fat."
"They're going to be sad and fat. You're going to be happy and cool and thin."
"Please only think of your body as a pit stop--"
"--on the way to your ultimate sort of, like, destiny of becoming a thin person." It is a big part of the fantasy of a lot of restrictive eating disorders.
Yeah. And also, in all of those groups, the whole time, they could have been talking about how to give each other more orgasms. Who are the men in your life? Why aren't they delivering?
Look, man, if they had Weight Watchers meetings that were like, here's how to have great sex as a fat person?
I don't want to tell you how to do your job, Weight Watchers, but like, come on.
Get in touch!
That is a major gap in the market.
Aubrey you're going to be a group leader from now on.