Oh, Mackereally?

All right. If you keep up with the Fatosphere feed—and you do, right?—by now, you've seen plenty of outrage about the new Weight Watchers campaign that goes on about how diets are miserable things that don't work... so you should try Weight Watchers instead.


I saw one of the taxi-topper ads ("Diets are mean!") a couple weeks ago and was nauseated by it, but not quite moved to blog. Other people were already handling the topic quite well, and I didn't think I'd have much to add, for all the sputtering. But last night, I actually watched television in real time for once (damn you, Law & Order franchise, for always and endlessly being there when I feel like sitting in front of the tube!), which meant watching commercials (or at least listening to them while fucking around on the internet). Watching commercials two days before the new year, and the rise of The Resolutionists off their couches.


The thing is, "Diets don't work—but Weight Watchers does!" is hardly a new marketing concept for them. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Weight Watchers' success at convincing the world it's a "lifestyle change," not a "diet," is right up there with the Devil's success at convincing the world he doesn't exist. (Except, you know, I actually am convinced of the latter.) I've been hearing that argument for ages—hell, I made that argument while I was on Weight Watchers—and I'm sure it was around before I was born. I'm sure there were women—and my mother and sister J. were probably two of them—walking around in 1974 talking about how they'd changed their lifestyles to include exercise, eight glasses of water a day, and regular helpings of delicious braaaaains melon mousse.

(Go buy Wendy's book. Buy it lots.)

In fact, the message is so insidious, I'm half willing to believe there were women walking around in 1874 saying, "You know, Essie, I've given up on reducing diets completely, but as soon as someone invents Weight Watchers? I will gladly give them money to help me change my lifestyle. Because that will be way different."

Here's a story: In 1992, my sister M. and I walked into a Nutrisystem outlet and decided we wanted to sign up together. We were finally going to lose weight! Forever! But because I was under 18, and M. was more than 100 pounds over her "ideal" weight, they required us both to get a physician's approval. Fortunately for us, our doctor said, "Nuh-fucking-uh." (Or words to that effect.) Unfortunately, she followed it up with, "Those programs don't work. The only one I'll approve for you is Weight Watchers."

So the message has been around at least that long, anyway. The only difference now is that they're being more explicit about it. Really explicit about it.

In fairness (and through gritted teeth), I will acknowledge that as commercial diet programs go, Weight Watchers is probably the least offensive one out there. But that's kind of like saying I find Chris Matthews less offensive than Bill O'Reilly. It's technically true, but I still wish they'd both STFU. A lot.

Let's take a look at how Weight Watchers is, in their own words*, distinct from a "diet."

Weight Watchers: An integrated approach emphasizing good eating choices, healthy habits, a supportive environment and exercise.

Diets: A focus just on food. Most “diets” tend to ignore exercise and other factors necessary for sustained weight loss.
I'm sorry, what? When was the last time you heard of any weight loss program that focused solely on food and never mentioned that getting off your ass and moving might also be helpful? Probably not since about the seventies—and as we've discussed, if we're going back that far, Weight Watchers is in no freakin' position to talk. I'm pretty sure the WW marketing team would consider Jenny Craig and others of that ilk "diets," yet exercise—not to mention the "support" of a counselor and instructions on food choices—are every bit as much a part of those programs.

Also, what are these mysterious "other factors necessary for sustained weight loss" you speak of? When I was on WW, the only real maintenance advice I got was, "Keep doing what we're telling you to do now for the rest of your natural life. If you get fat again anyway, come back and give us more money. We're always here for you!" Which, not coincidentally, was essentially the same maintenance plan I got from Jenny Craig (of which, I have confessed before, I am actually a lifetime member because, by the second time I did that program, I realized that regain was practically guaranteed, and I am nothing if not a conservative gambler).

Also, how do you reconcile research that shows dieting changes your metabolism to the extent that permanent weight loss involves "maintaining [oneself] in a permanent state of starvation" (and please note that the few people who achieved long-term weight loss in the study referenced "made staying thin their life's work, becoming Weight Watchers lecturers, for example"), with a claim that your totally healthy, balanced, non-punishing, non-obsessive non-diet program holds the key to permanent weight loss?

Weight Watchers: A plan that allows you to eat what you like, with an emphasis on nutrition and advice on staying satisfied by choosing the foods you enjoy.

Diets: Rigid rules you must follow to succeed or requirements that eliminate some foods entirely. Often, you must buy special foods from a specific diet company.
Um, yeah. You can eat what you like on Weight Watchers, but if what you like is, say, a cheeseburger and fries, you're done for the day—and possibly cutting into tomorrow's nutritional allotment—unless you knock yourself out at the gym, in which case you might earn yourself enough POINTS(tm) to have a non-fat yogurt before bed. As long as "what you like" is fruits, vegetables, broth, and whole grains, you can eat yourself silly. But if that was what you most enjoyed eating in large quantities in the first place, why would you need to spend money on learning to make "healthy lifestyle changes"? Despite their ballyhooed emphasis on exercise, does anyone sign up for Weight Watchers just to get advice on gym-going? And despite the fact that there are plenty of fat vegans out there, and some of them undoubtedly want to lose weight, are they really the target market here?

So sure, you can "eat what you like," but you have to eat a whole lot less of it and/or work out maniacally to ostensibly counteract it—otherwise you've failed to stay "on program." Which sounds kinda like a diet to me, but wevs. I mean, at least Weight Watchers is still morally superior to those companies that just want to sell their special diet foods!

Weight Watchers: A sensible plan to help you lose weight at a healthy rate plus the knowledge and info you need to help you keep it off for good.

Diets: Promises of rapid weight loss with little effort, but no information on how to keep the weight off for the long haul.
This is my fucking favorite. Weight Watchers, once again, will sell you the secret to keeping the weight off for good. That's why it's not a diet!

Well, as someone who was unwittingly giving Weight Watchers money until a few months ago—because I completely forgot I'd signed up for their online program again about a year and a half two years ago** (until they sent me a notice saying that credit card had expired) —I'm here to tell you I never got the magic secret. What I got for my money was access to a diet plan; no more, no less. And—as I said above—virtually the exact same advice on nutrition, exercise, and long-term maintenance I'd gotten from every other diet plan I tried, all of which is available for free on about eleventy billion websites.

The only thing you really get from WW, or any of its competitors, is a specific structure for your efforts. If that's what you want, go nuts. It's your money. And it's certainly true that some people respond well to the WW structure and do lose weight steadily on it. I myself lost 40 lbs. on Weight Watchers pretty easily, as diets go. Found it all again within a few years, but hey, that's just me and my lazy, non-committed, hopelessly gluttonous ass, right?

Uh huh. Except, do me a favor. Go click on the "Success Stories" section on their website. I won't link, but go ahead, I'll wait.

Do you see that asterisk underneath the "after photos"? The one next to the words "RESULTS NOT TYPICAL."


Weight Watchers, according to their website, is "unique." It's different from all those other diet plans—in fact, it's not one! And one of the main reasons it's different is that they will give you "the knowledge and info you need to help you keep it off for good." But for some strange, inexplicable reason, they still have to include the same disclaimer as every other diet program that touts its success with pictures of former fatties. The disclaimer that says, in slightly fewer words, We cannot legally claim that someone who lost weight and kept it off represents the typical consumer of our product, even though the entire purpose of our product is to help people lose weight and keep it off. Or, in still other words, In a majority of cases, our product does not do what it is meant to do.

Oddly enough, they still include that same disclaimer, even though this is not like all those other programs that include it. Even though this is the one that will teach you how to lose weight and keep it off for good! Somehow, despite having discovered the magic secret to permanent weight loss, they are still not willing and/or legally permitted to claim unreservedly that it works for most people.

Weird, huh?

Weight Watchers: A time-tested approach informed by analyzing years of scientific studies.

Diets: “Proof” often based on one scientific study designed to support the diet’s claims.
Okay, first, how "time-tested" can their approach be, when only thirty years ago, their approach was fucking Mackerelly? And when the Weight Watchers program I did in 2003 was a different program from what's offered now (though what I did was very similar to the current "Flex" plan)? One of the slogans in the new campaign is, "If diets work, why do we need a new one every 5 minutes?" To which I respond, if Weight Watchers works, why does the whole program get revamped every five minutes?

And... *snicker* and... *BWAH* and... *wipes away tear*... I'm sorry, did Weight Watchers just slag off other diet programs for basing their claims on studies designed to support them? I need to go lie down.

Weight Watchers: Flexible food plans that can adapt to any lifestyle or unique needs.

Diets: Little consideration for you as an individual, with just one approach to suit everyone’s needs.
That's right. Weight Watchers doesn't offer "just one approach." They've got TWO! The "Count our fancy POINTS instead of the calories and fat they represent!" plan, OR the "If you're already a vegan who doesn't eat sugar, you'll never have to count anything again!" plan. SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE.

That's it. That's their whole list of ways Weight Watchers is different from "diets." On the other hand, here are a few things the program involves that bear some small similarity to "diets":

~ Restricting fat and calories
~ Exercising for the express purpose of being permitted to consume more fat and calories without breaking the rules
~ Focusing on weight loss as the primary goal
~ Weekly weigh-ins
~ Rewards and encouragement for losing weight
~ Zero guarantee that the program will help any given individual lose weight at all, let alone permanently
~ Warnings that people who do lose weight and keep it off are not "typical" of those who use the program
~ Warnings that "only permanent lifestyle changes—such as making healthful food choices and increasing physical activity—promote long-term weight loss." Promote long-term weight loss, you'll note. Not guarantee it. Not even cause it. Merely promote it.
~ Blame placed entirely on the individual, not the program (much less the myth of long-term weight loss being possible for most people)—if permanent weight loss does not follow from adherence to the program.

But it's not a diet. No siree!

Yeah, pull the other one.

And you know what? That's not even the worst part. The claim that Weight Watchers is not a diet isn't even what got me off my fat, lazy ass to blog about this—like I said, that claim has been around for as long as I can remember. What got me was the tag line on the TV ads: "Diets don't work—but Weight Watchers does!"

From Merriam-Webster's definition of "work:

transitive verb

1: to bring to pass : effect <work miracles>
(I swear, I'm not even making up the "work miracles" part.)

So, what is it that diets are supposed to bring to pass again? Weight loss—ideally permanent—right? And to that end, the ads claim, Weight Watchers works!

Just not... typically.

That's the part that makes my fucking blood boil (which doesn't burn as many calories as you'd think). They're claiming they have different results from those awful "diets" they're nothing like, which... um, where's the proof of that again? The five-year or longer study? The success story that comes without a "Results not typical" disclaimer?


You know what's not a diet, what's a feasible "permanent lifestyle change," and what actually works, if you go by measures like cholesterol, blood pressure, increased physical activity, improved eating habits, lower rates of depression, and higher self-esteem? Health at Every Size. And it doesn't cost a thing.

If you want to make a New Year's resolution to eat better and exercise more, that's fantastic. More power to you. Hell, I'm making the same resolution, even though I already do okay with those things—I can always do better, and I always feel better the more I do those things. But here's the part of the latest Weight Watchers ads you should take to heart: Diets don't work. Diets are mean. Stop dieting. Start living.

Fat acceptance activists have been saying those things for years. So in a way, it's actually really nice to see those words splashed all over billboards and cabs and TV—just as long as nobody forgets that the people spending gazillions to put them out there right now are the same ones who brought you Mackerelly, who brought you once-a-week liver, who brought you food scales sitting ominously on the counter for years, and who are now bringing you nothing but calorie-counting in sheep's clothing.

Diets don't work. You can just stop listening to the ads right there.

*I'm not linking to them, but you can easily find my source for this on their website, the url of which is exactly what you'd expect it to be.

**[I edited this after doing the math and realizing I'd been paying them for over two friggin years, not 18 months. The rest of this note stands, however.] Just in case anyone was still laboring under the delusion that I'm an old, unwavering hand at this whole body acceptance thing. Hell, I haven't even fully accepted my body for as long as I kept the weight off after my diets yet. I guess we'll have to see if I'm still here in 5 years, huh?


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