We were teenage girls eating sleepover food at a summer writing program on the campus of a Hudson Valley boarding school. My roommates and I ate french fries on manicured lawns, shared pizza in our dorm beneath gothic windows, had ribbons of vanilla soft serve after every meal. When it was time to leave, my jeans wouldn’t button.
It was 2003—peak early aughts low-carb era. At home in New Hampshire, The South Beach Diet was omnipresent. Its silver-green jacket flooded bookstores like a pool for bikini bodies. Authored by Arthur Agatston, the book sold three million copies in its first six months and spent 13 weeks in the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list. I bought it and began what so many before and after photos have called “a journey.” A year of fish and vegetables and part-skim ricotta cheese.
It was my first fad diet. After South Beach, there was the Master Cleanse, meal replacement shakes, microwavable Lean Cuisine sandwiches with 340 calories each. I tried MyFitnessPal for a few weeks. Noom for a few months. 1,200 calories a day and a bot-like virtual coach who suggested the gym instead of happy hour and responded with girlboss platitudes when I asked her if she was real, when I told her how much I hated myself.
And then came Weight Watchers.
Weight Watchers was founded in 1961 by self-described “fat housewife” Jean Nidetch of Queens, New York, who hosted the company’s first meetings in her apartment. When those got crowded, she rented space above a movie theater and charged $2 a person. This led to satellite meetings at new locations, a bestselling cookbook, celebrity endorsements, a magazine, and a brief acquisition by Heinz.
As other diets have come and gone, Weight Watchers has survived through its ability to pivot. When counting calories became tiresome, Weight Watchers introduced its points system, which assigns value to individual food items based on nutritional factors like protein, fiber, sugar, and fat. With the internet came a website; with smartphones, an app. In 2018, Weight Watchers became WW. A press release announced a new tagline (“Wellness That Works.™”) and a “more holistic focus” that included something called WellnessWins™ and digital groups for people interested in “gratitude, mindfulness, self-compassion.”
Each morning, the app greets me with something like “you inspire us!” “That’s so fucking dumb,” I think, and then I spend the rest of the day letting the algorithm cheerfully boss me around. I walk my dog and log “walking the dog” under activity. I like the ritual of keeping track, the ceremony of measuring things in tablespoons, the low-calorie desserts that taste like the memory of something I used to let myself love. I log my meals using the program’s points system. I get twenty-three a day. I try to eat a lot of vegetables and chicken, which, according to Weight Watchers, don’t count. Once, at a grocery store, a woman looked into my cart and said in a conspiratorial voice, “Look at all those zero points foods.” I hated that she knew.
And then I go to a party and have two slices of pizza (twenty points), abandon Weight Watchers entirely and eat nothing but pasta until I feel guilty enough to return. That’s part of the ritual too.
Today’s Weight Watchers is the Weight Watchers of the internet. On Instagram, influencers share recipes for three-point cocktails. On Reddit, strangers debate how many points are in a spray of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. Nobody seems interested in what spokesperson Oprah Winfrey called “the joys of a healthy life.” Everyone just wants to be thinner. We all know what we’re doing when we download the app, when we search “low point wine,” when we stand on the scale each weigh-in day and pray for the number that will tell us how good we are.
In May 2023, the weight-loss brand Jenny Craig announced it was shutting down after 40 years of gleeful jingles and pre-packed low-calorie meatloaf. Four decades is a decent run, but unlike Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig couldn’t pivot.
The internet was quick to blame Ozempic. The semaglutide typically used to treat diabetes has become known as a weight-loss miracle drug for those who can afford it. (Ozepmic costs approximately $1,000 a month out of pocket). Who needs calorie counting when you can inject yourself with something that makes food completely irrelevant?
Every day, I drive by a billboard advertising a semaglutide. A taut stomach beside text asking me if I’m ready to regain control of my life. I am a graduate student living on a monthly stipend from a university—$1,465.42 after taxes—but I find myself doing the math anyway. I dream of what it would be like to secretly take a drug that would make me skinny. To never reveal how I’d done it, to never even act like I’d wanted it.
People don’t display diet books anymore or tape calorie lists to refrigerators. Instead, celebrities promote the health benefits of bone broth and a banal stream of what I eat in day videos whispers feverishly about cauliflower. Everything is clean eating, gut health, wink wink. The legacy diet companies are dying and being replaced by secrecy and code words. Ozempic injections at home. Calling it intermittent fasting when really you’re starving yourself.
I can’t speak for all four million subscribers, but I can say that Weight Watcher’s ability to match the language and secrecy of modern diet culture is effective for me. I keep the app hidden in the furthest recesses of my phone. I don’t go to meetings. Instead of saying “I’m on a diet”I can say “Bread causes inflammation and I feel healthier when I cut out sugar.” If I said “I want to lose eleven pounds,” people would start talking to me about body positivity and disordered eating. But I don’t have to say that. I can silence the app’s notifications so no one sees them. I can pay $23 a month forever.
This spring, Weight Watchers announced its results for the first quarter of 2023. $241.9 million in revenue with an expected annual revenue of between $910-930 million. “It is rare to work at a company that positively impacts the lives of millions in such a personal and important way,” said Heather Stark, CFO. Sima Sistani, CEO, expressed confidence in the company’s eventual “return to a growth trajectory.” After all, they had recently acquired Sequence, “a weight loss program that provides members with ongoing, comprehensive access to online care.” Meaning they prescribe semaglutides. You can get a prescription from them without ever having to experience the shame of telling another human being that you want to be thin. “It’s a new feeling to not always feel hungry,” one of their online testimonials says. Sequence uses comforting, couched language about “the relationship between our brains and our guts.” It promises energy, motivation, and the same thing Jean Nidetch promised other housewives in her Queens apartment: You don’t have to do it alone.
The website is white and blue, just like Weight Watchers.