Barbara Kay on her experience with Weight Watchers: Vanity has no cutoff date

The queue was longer than usual last Thursday, but we women — I have never seen a man in this particular lineup — waited patiently. Patiently, but an alert observer would note a common tension in our body language: a mix of resignation, hope and dread, with the odd expression of righteous assurance.

With only two women ahead of me, I made final preparations for the … event. I set my handbag and coat on a nearby chair, removed my boots and sweater. I had purposefully not worn jewellery. My pants and t-shirt were summer weight. I had eaten nothing but fruit for breakfast. There was nothing more I could do.

When it was my turn, I handed my Weight Watchers booklet to the hostess. I exhaled (surely air weighs something) and stepped gingerly onto the scale (as if stepping on them forthrightly would alter the result). I was up 0.2 lb. from last week, when I was down 0.6 lb., so I am still ahead. Considering the week I had — out of town for four days, during which I attended a gourmet dinner party, a sumptuous charity gala and a family barbecue — I can’t complain.

When it is not infantilizing you, Weight Watchers humiliates you — with your full cooperation, of course — because it works. There’s the public weigh-in (although nobody but the staffer actually sees the number), followed by the meeting. You don’t have to attend these excruciatingly unsophisticated and rudimentary pep talks — it’s the weigh-in that actually keeps you honest in your consumption — but if you want to maintain your motivation and discipline, it’s recommended. And so I dutifully attend them, even though I feel like I am in kindergarten the whole time, especially when the leader puts a star-shaped sticker on the back of my hand for my “contribution” to the discussion (“I spray my popcorn with aerosol coconut oil before popping — tastes almost like butter!”).

These sessions are run by successful Weight Watchers’ graduates who are the diet equivalents of charismatic Christians. Such is their joy in their personal success with the program, that spreading the Good News becomes their life’s mission. Their sincerity thus lends dignity to their fortune-cookie banalities (“a journey begins with a single step,” “tomorrow is another day,” “you’re worth it”). It is quite touching to see how my circle of 15 to 20 women, who range from the curvaceous to the seriously obese, hang on our leader’s every cliché. I may be slightly more detached than most of the others, but I share their humility before the tyranny of food.

You would think that by my age, I would have stopped caring about those pesky extra 10 pounds. But as I have learned, vanity has no cutoff date. To be fair, my sisters (already trimmed to perfection through Weight Watchers) and I come by our obsession honestly. Our maternal grandparents were both obese and died young. Our mother was plump and obsessed with weight loss. I thought it was perfectly normal for children to know the calorie count of everything they ate.


The genetically lucky haven’t a clue what life is like for those of us who live in constant fear of gaining weight. Our mental calculator that clicks with every bite taken can never be turned off. Here is a painful confession: in moments of gustatory torment, I understand anorexia’s appeal, and I know I’m not alone, which is a disturbing reality. How marvellous would it be to honestly say, “I was so preoccupied I forgot to eat lunch,” or, “Chocolate? No thanks, sweet isn’t my thing.”

When I look around the circle at Weight Watchers, I can’t decide if what I am listening to is tragic or comic. One well-upholstered young woman confesses that she had eaten five tablespoons of pure whipped cream without thinking about it. A collective gasp was quickly suppressed — no judgment! Another confesses she had drunk three glasses of wine at a wedding — half her allotted daily points. We nodded sympathetically; we share her pain.

My admission was that I had only meant to take one bite of a dessert at the dinner party that week, but I finished it. It’s not quite like standing up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and confessing, “I am a foodaholic and my name is Barbara,” but it’s close. The huge difference, though, is that once the battle for sobriety is joined, booze can be treated like a full enemy — to be embargoed and forsworn. With food as the frenemy, you love and hate, and your body its contested terrain, the battle never ends and you never really know a day’s peace. Just ask Oprah.

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