How Weight Watchers bastardised wellness

Emily Pritchard

Emily Pritchard argues that ‘well’ should not become just another word for ‘thin’

30 December 2018 07:51

Go find yourself someone who’ll admit they’re on a diet. No, someone under 40. Bet they don’t say ‘diet’. Bet they tell you that they’re cutting dairy for their acne, or gluten for their IBS, or refined sugar for their energy levels. And maybe, in fairness, they are. But maybe they’re also (cringe) trying to lose weight? Didn’t anyone tell them that that’s a bit, well, 2006?

Weight Watchers have been told. That’s why the billion-dollar company rebranded recently, binning the reference to weight altogether and adopting the shiny new brand identity ‘WW’, ostensibly an acronym for the new tagline: ‘Wellness That Works™’. Whilst, for £5.36 a week, the weekly weigh-ins, activity tracking and Smart Points system will remain, the re-brand marks a shift away from the diet-culture vernacular which we know so well, one that is increasingly becoming passé. The new programme, centred, purportedly, on wellness rather than dieting, ‘is focused on livability and how it is possible to enjoy the food, fun, and occasions in life while continuing to meet weight-loss goals and develop healthy habits,’ said Mindy Grossman, WW’s President and Chief Executive Officer. But should a corporation with roots so deeply entrenched in the culture of shedding fat be appropriating everyday language, and twisting it to their own ends?

Language exists as both a mirror and modifier; simultaneously reflecting and shaping human society. Back in 2006, pejorative use of the word ‘gay’ was so commonplace that Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles used it to describe a lacklustre ringtone live on air. Fast-forward twelve years, and the general decline in societal homophobia is apparent in our lexicon; for most of us, never mind the mainstream media, ‘gay’ as a derogatory term is, at best, out-dated; at worst, downright offensive.

We now see a similar cultural shift emerging in the language we use to describe our society’s fetishisation of thinness, of dieting, of food. Words like ‘skinny’, ‘loss’, ‘pounds’ – words that suggest diminishing or depriving ourselves – have been replaced by ‘strong’, ‘well’ and ‘nourished’. For a while, the wellness warriors liked ‘clean’ when talking about food. They liked it a lot, in fact, suggesting, as it does, the parallels that exist within the mind of every woman, between thin and good, between fat and evil. But ‘clean’ fell out of favour; the implications a little too stark to stomach. The new words, with their veneer of science, of good health, their air of the National Health Service, feel superior. They suggest that by dieting, we aim not to punish our bodies, but to love them. They blur the lines between behaviours that restrict and behaviours that care.

Should a corporation with roots so deeply entrenched in the culture of shedding fat be appropriating everyday language, and twisting it to their own ends?

Take ‘healthy’. A person can be healthy, equating to a body and mind free from illness. This, we should agree, is a good thing. Foods in themselves are not inherently healthy or unhealthy; any food, when considered as just a part of an overall diet, can be either. Quinoa and butternut squash, for example, would not be particularly good for you if you ate the two in isolation. But try telling that to fucking Sandra from HR, who peers gannet-like at your Tupperware of salad and tells you disapprovingly how ‘healthy’ your lunch is. This is how language enters our lexicon, is appropriated, takes on new meaning. This is how we came to fear the Mars bar, the full-fat Coke, the carbohydrate.

Better to say ‘unhealthy’ than ‘calorific’, right? The latter suggesting a desire to lose weight; the former merely a respect for one’s body. Weight Watchers realised this only just in time. 2015 marked four consecutive years of members-recruitment decline. When Grossman took the helm at Weight Watchers in 2017, she and Chief Scientific Officer, the psychologist Gary Foster, had cottoned on to what our collective lexicon knew already – these days, ‘diet’ is a dirty word.

Their aim, no doubt, is to capture the millennial market. Do millennials want to be ‘skinny’? Christ, really? Who are you, Kate Moss? To be ‘well’ – now that’s something to aim for. That’s celebrity-nutritionist-backed and equates to glowing skin and nice teeth and eight-hundred-thousand followers on Instagram. It’s a plant-based diet and a little sports bra and matching leggings from Sweaty Betty. It’s ‘07:44 SATURDAY’ on your Insta story and ‘Gym completed! Now for protein porridge and emails.’ Wow. You’re well. You really are winning.

But bitterness is unhelpful. As a nation, we are in the midst of an obesity crisis, one placing huge strain on our health service. In fact, the approach of Weight Watchers – making nutrition easier to understand, fostering a support network for users, reinforcing positive habits and offering encouragement – is far better in managing this than, say, the 5:2 diest. High muscle strength correlates positively with life expectancy. A plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes by up to 71 per cent. Quite apart from anything else, a vegan diet is the single biggest contribution an individual can make to slowing the rate of global warming. These are the facts, this is the science.

Do millennials want to be ‘skinny’?

But to take another, previously innocuous word from our language, and embed it into the culture of dieting? Weight Watchers is swimming in dangerous waters. According to the Oxford English dictionary, ‘well’, an adjective, means ‘in good health; free or recovered from illness.’

I am well, by which I mean, I am of sound body and mind. I am free from illness. But I am also ‘well’, by which I fear I will soon mean, I am not fat.

I am ‘well’, but I feel fat, and I know I am not. A nonsensical sentence; cognitive dissonance run amok. I also accept that I will probably feel this way for my entire life, and I wonder how many women feel the same. I pinch folds of skin on my abdomen. I turn sideways before a full-length mirror; I suck in my stomach. I take a photograph, delete it.

We’ve stopped using words like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’. We ‘don’t care’ about being thin. No, we just want to be well. But the guilt pervades. It’s the oil halloumi leaves on your lips, the slick feeling of your teeth when the buttercream icing is eaten, the bits that stick in your molars when the Walkers packet lies deflated and emptied. It’s residue. We can brush off the clean-eating language in the same way a toothbrush scrubs the sugar off teeth, but in the collective cognisance of women, the stains of diet culture remain. Simply conflating the nomenclature of dieting with that of health won’t change the way we see ourselves. It merely attaches further connotations of morality to fat and thin bodies.

Weight Watchers is swimming in dangerous waters.

The looking glass of language throws back at us glints of insight, words which catch the sun, show the dust of our present in a shaft of light. The Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year was ‘post-truth’, which tells us all we need to know about a tangled era of algorithm-controlled fake news stories, climate-change deniers and Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Defined as an adverb ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’, the official recognition of ‘post-truth’ may be new. But to the diet industry, this phenomenon – the emotional prevailing over the factual – is as old as time.

In our quest to be thin, we’ve had meal replacement shakes, juice cleanses, smoothies. We’ve had the Atkins diet and the Paleo diet and the 5:2. We’ve had the ketogenic, the low-carb, the no-carb, the fat-free. This year, we’ve had nutrient timing. And here’s the thing. The woman who signs herself up for another 3 months on Weight Watchers (£64.35) knows it, although she doesn’t want to believe it. Diets don’t work. Statistically, people on average lose just 5 per cent of their body weight, gaining two-thirds of that back within two years.

But, as Tara Isabella Burton writes for Vox, that’s not really the point of diets. The industry sells not a product – weight loss – but an idea; that of bettering yourself, improving yourself in some way. It’s the same reason that people buy gym memberships and steam cookers they never use – they’ve actively spent, or are actively spending, money on the person that they want to be. The morality of fat is ingrained into our culture; fat people are lazy, they are slovenly, they just can’t be bothered to drag their fat arses to the gym. Body positivity activist Virgie Tover writes about this in her manifesto You Have The Right To Remain Fat, noting that: ‘in the US, failure is an individual problem, not a collective, cultural or political problem. The idea is that is you don’t have something, you either don’t want it badly enough or you didn’t try hard enough. This fantasy – the American Dream – is a siren song for so many.’

The WW membership, that lovely silver juicer, is an exhibition – both to the dieter and to the society that brings them to stand in the changing rooms of a high-street store, pinching rolls of fat. It’s a moral investment, made by the consumer in the pursuit of this American or Western dream. Whether the end goal is reached is another matter. Weight Watchers capitalises on this perfectly by allowing members to actively engage in the act of ‘bettering’ themselves, whilst changing their lifestyles very little; by assigning metrics and values to food that consume time and head space, by allowing members to show to the world that they are paying attention at being better, at being thinner.

The morality of fat is ingrained into our culture; fat people are lazy, they are slovenly, they just can’t be bothered to drag their fat arses to the gym.

Millennial culture is moulded by the 2008 recession, by the gig economy, political uncertainty. If there’s one thing millennials want, it’s control. WW can deliver that, neatly packaged in an app, the way we like things; promising instant, positive feedback, and, now, using language that isn’t antiquated. We tried to fuck with our menstrual cycles, and look how that turned out. We tried to come back from the financial crash, and now work sixty-hour weeks with no job security. But you can always say no to a doughnut. Or, even better, say yes, and log it tidily in your app.

Post-truth millennials navigate a wobbling tightrope between the world of health (one backed by science and studies, spoken for by nutritionists and doctors) and the diet culture of old (the Daily Mail pop-up that advertises ‘10 Weird Tips To Lose Belly Fat’, the magazine covers that promise ‘sugar-free delights’ to ‘indulge in, guilt-free’). The blurring of these two, once distinct camps, should not be welcomed; the friend who ‘isn’t dieting’, but swears by eating only within an eight-hour window ‘because it maximises natural circadian rhythm insulin sensitivity’ is on a diet. By blending the ideologies of health and weight loss, companies like WW are allowing her to believe that her relationship with food is not disordered.

But, for as long as female bodies belong not to their owners but to society, the diet industry will continue to suck money from women. And as the paradigms of dieting seep slowly into the pores of our understanding of human health, the claws of companies such as Weight Watchers will sink ever deeper. Strong, healthy, toned; an arsenal of aspirational words for women who really just want to be smaller, less. Don’t let ‘well’ become yet another word for ‘thin’.