The best Weight Watchers meeting I ever attended featured a recurring segment called “food porn.”
My meeting leader would bring in an iconic high-calorie food item—a bagel with cream cheese, a large blueberry muffin, a slice of pizza—and dissect it to reveal how many Weight Watchers points it actually contained. (The weight-loss program uses a member’s current weight and goals to suggest a specific number of daily points, which are based on caloric, fat, protein, and fiber content.)
We looked on wide-eyed as this matter-of-fact woman pried the cheese from a fresh slice of pizza and plopped it onto a food scale for weighing. “See, that’s three ounces of cheese,” she’d explain, “so if you add that to the bread and the sauce, this slice is about 15 points.” “NO!” we’d cry out. “But I usually eat three slices!”
Nothing—no diet book, no home gym, no new fitness craze—compares to the vulnerability and camaraderie of sitting in a room with other people who are struggling with their weight. At Weight Watchers, I listened to people’s inner monologues about free restaurant bread; nodded as they told embarrassing stories of sojourns to the gym; and laughed as they explained the detailed ways they would hide food from themselves in their homes. Before it was anything else, Weight Watchers was a safe space.
These days, Weight Watchers is trying to open up that space. In September, the company removed “weight” from its name, changing it to “WW” to “reflect the next stage of the company’s evolution to focus on overall health and wellness.” On Monday (Dec. 17), WW doubled down on this new vision, naming actress Kate Hudson as its latest brand ambassador.
Hudson is far from the first celebrity WW spokesperson: Oprah Winfrey (a part owner of the company), Jennifer Hudson, and DJ Khaled have all shilled for WW in recent years. But Jennifer Hudson famously battled her figure; DJ Khaled visibly battles his. Oprah’s most iconic WW commercial features her passionately, passionately, declaring her love for bread.
Kate Hudson is WW’s first… nontraditional spokesperson, which is to say that she’s the first WW advocate who might have walked into an old-school Weight Watchers meeting to a chorus of glares and hisses. The actress’s other side hustle is Fabletics, a sportswear company for which she often models sports bras and yoga pants—or no pants at all—with her toned figure on full display.
There is logic to WW’s brand pivot. Mounting scientific evidence backs up the notion that health is far more nuanced than just weight, that obesity is widely misunderstood, and that shame is an ineffective motivator for people looking to lead healthier lifestyles. It makes perfect sense for a company whose entire brand is weight loss to offer some response to a culture increasingly frustrated by the societal pressure, especially on women, to fit a particular slender ideal. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the global wellness industry topped $4 trillion this year, while WW’s business was faltering (paywall).
But many aren’t buying it. WW’s focus on points and pounds, its extreme before-and-after photos, and the overpriced and chemically questionable diet foods in its product suite make the company an easy target in this new era of holistic body positivity. Bringing Kate Hudson on board is unlikely to help.
Listen, I’m sure Kate Hudson has her own struggle. She recently had a baby, and in an interview with Oprah, Hudson said she was working with WW because of “my family and my longevity and wanting to be here as long as I possibly can.” But is Kate Hudson’s struggle the same as those of us who have sat in those meetings? Does Kate Hudson love bread? Here’s the thing about safe spaces: They feel less safe when everyone else gets invited.
Because actually, WW was never really about body shame, or even dieting. (The point system isn’t for depriving yourself; it’s for knowing what nutrients you’re putting in your body, and making decisions based on that knowledge.) Weight Watchers is about a community of normal-to-large-sized people trying to collectively understand why habits that appear to come easy to everyone else—do a little exercise, eat a piece of fruit today, don’t devour the whole box of chocolates—can be such a struggle for us.
To the casual observer, those “food porn” sessions would have looked slightly insane: a group of two dozen people watching in awe as a woman took apart a piece of pizza like a science project. In fact, rarely would a Weight Watchers meeting have seemed entirely normal to a passerby. There was the time we each brought in an article of clothing that our WW experience had rendered obsolete (whether by virtue of weight loss or simply newfound confidence) and presented it in a sort of show-and-tell fashion show. Another time we passionately discussed the tyranny of office snacks and the food pushers—truly, domestic terrorists of the workplace—who dare to bring in home-baked goods.
The beginnings of meetings, weigh-ins, were also full of curious rituals: a line of adults clutching small paper pamphlets where our latest weight would be stamped (this was pre-smartphone app). Another line for the bathroom, where women would change into their lightest possible clothes before stepping on the scale. And at the top of the meeting, a personalized round of applause for anyone who wanted to celebrate their weight loss, even if it was just 0.2 pounds.
No one could say that WW’s extremely granular focus on weight is ideal, given what we now know. But for many current and former adherents, the company’s new appeal to regular folks who just want to embrace wellness signals its abandonment of another universe of people.
WW has always said that people who attend its meetings lose three times more weight than those who follow the system alone. Whether this statistic is real or just savvy marketing (meetings cost more money), it’s emblematic of a truth known to anyone who has visited WW IRL: We fats love talking to other fats. We love feeling less helpless in this world, where everyone else seems to be able to walk by baked goods unbothered, eat two chocolates and put the box away, or say with sincerity that they’re “really craving a salad.”
My five-year tour with Weight Watchers ended in my early 20s, and by then I’d lost 60 pounds. In the intervening decade, a lot has changed: I stopped following points, started my career, drank and ate a little too much, exercised too little, and gained back more than that weight.
Over the past two years I’ve kicked off a new wellness regimen, which involves no points, lots of exercise, and not even owning a scale (my last personal weigh-in? Summer 2017). But even as my own approach to health has evolved, my appreciation for the original, pre-wellness Weight Watchers never waned.
WW taught me not to eat less but to eat smarter. It taught me not to give up, to keep coming back. It taught me to celebrate small victories and move past small slip-ups. And to this day, whenever I see an advertisement for sportswear featuring, say, a lithe blonde with a flat stomach wearing a sports bra for a shirt, I think back to group-ogling a slice of pizza and feel just a little bit less alone.