Nidetch longed for support on her weight loss journey and started small, holding the first meeting in her Queens apartment. Before long, she’d assumed a larger-than-life presence in her company — founded in a time when women needed their husband’s signature to lease office space — with her charisma, flowing gowns and unabashed love of the limelight. She dated Glenn Ford and Fred Astaire, befriended Bob Hope, tried her hand at Hollywood, moved to Las Vegas (where she traded her food compulsion for a gambling habit), and managed to topple housewife narratives before being phased out of the company, which was sold to Heinz in 1978 in a closed-door meeting among men. By the time she died in 2015, she’d burned through the $7 million she made from the sale.
Nidetch was a pioneer among business executives, a “well-fluencer” well before those existed. Yet, as Marisa Meltzer writes in “This is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World — And Me,” Nidetch literally ended up a footnote in the brand’s lore, her trademark quote (“It’s choice, not chance, that determines your destiny”) etched into the floor of the company’s New York headquarters. “In a time when we as a culture are very interested in forgotten stories of women and female founders, Jean is really getting lost to history,” says Meltzer, whose book intercuts Nidetch’s life story with her own Weight Watchers journey. “She is a super complicated, fascinating figure who wasn’t educated, and no one had her best interests in mind. I think it was easy for her to write herself off as a mascot — but what she did was huge.”
Q: Jean mostly managed to maintain her weight loss, but she was never able to relax around food. She insisted dieters refuse their own birthday cakes, and she washed cookies in the sink to make them inedible, rather than just, god forbid, eat one. That may have seemed quirky in her day, but would probably be considered disordered today, or at the very least, obsessive?
A: Definitely. There’s a scene in the book at an early Weight Watchers meeting when someone is triumphantly describing how she went to a dinner party and brought her own can of mushrooms and weights to weigh out her portion, while everyone else was having creamed spinach. Can you even imagine someone doing that now? I would be speechless. I would be calling a psychiatrist on their behalf.
Q: Maybe after months of social distancing, our priorities around dinner parties — when we finally get back to them — will be less about the food and more about the company.
A: And you’ll want to eat whatever someone serves you. Nothing sounds better to me than going out for a lovely meal with great friends right now. In Italy, if you want to get specific.
Q: Weight Watchers changed its name to WW in 2018 “to reflect its focus on overall health and wellness.” You call it the “least chic diet company,” though it’s clearly one of the most enduring. Could its pivot — and inclusion of the buzzword “wellness” — help make it, dare I say, cool?
A: Weight Watchers is not cool. I always thought about it as a place for people who enjoyed talking about diet swaps for, like, bagels. None of that appeals to me. But it’s fascinating how it’s tried to keep up with diet culture at large. When Jazzercise was all the rage, they were trying to put together their own exercise program.
Q: The book takes a fascinating look at America’s diet culture. Weight Watchers was founded in 1963, which overlapped with second-wave feminism. Things like the “Can Opener Cookbook,” packaged foods and fast food restaurants started to represent freedom for disillusioned housewives — but also signified a nutritional shift.
A: Now we’re so used to the idea of Whole Foods and farmers markets being extremely progressive and liberating. But it makes sense that to a woman who is bound to the home, all of these timesaving measures, like can openers and microwaves and cake mixes, felt like freedom. Weight Watchers was founded the same year that Julia Child went on the air and “The Feminine Mystique” came out. You look at these three things that are seemingly quite disparate, but they’re all connected — all reacting to and against and around the idea of the homemaker.
Q: You write, “Diet culture and weight loss is directly related to the Protestant work ethic in America,” and “denial, particularly self-denial, is its own kind of pleasure.” You also mention that Ivana Trump once deemed the refusal of food empowering. What are the implications there?
A: I think the idea of denial and being elegant are wrapped up together, which seems to be a bit of a class thing. There’s that quote that’s probably misattributed — whether it was Diana Vreeland or Coco Chanel — that you take one accessory off before you leave the house; and also “elegance is refusal,” whoever said that. This idea that to be elegant is to say no to things, to pare down and minimize — your body definitely goes along with that, as does your diet.
Q: You write a lot about cultural beauty standards and insist they’re endlessly pervasive “unless you live in a yurt in Montana.” Absent that, what hope do we have for tuning it out?
A: No one should blame themselves for not living in a vacuum. You’d have to be a real pioneer to be like, “Nope! I feel so strongly about this, I’m going to flout all expectations of society.” The urge to change how you look, to manipulate beauty, is as old as time.
Q: And in any case, if your yurt had WiFi, you’d be just as susceptible as the rest of us.
A: Yeah. At this point, we’re all basically living in yurts with WiFi — and the pressures don’t go away. People are half-dressed or wearing pajamas, but we still see each other, are curious about each other. People are still feeling guilty about what they’re cooking for themselves — even in the course of an unprecedented pandemic.
Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.
This Is Big
How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World — and Me
By Marisa Meltzer
Little, Brown. 305 pp. $28