Fat may be a feminist issue, but some women still measure success on the scales.
The winner of the Weight Watchers ‘Worldwide Member of the Year’ was Angelika Visser of Germany. Miss Visser, resplendent in a red silk outfit, walked across the stage at London’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. At one side of the stage was a large picture of Miss Visser as she used to be when, in the dark days before her diet, she weighed in at more than 23 stone. There was a sharp intake of breath as the announcer read out the statistics. ‘A loss of 12st 8lb. ‘ A congratulatory wave rippled through the audience. It could be done. Fat could be beaten. Four hundred women in the darkness of the auditorium sucked in their tummies.
The event was the annual international meeting of Weight Watchers held last Thursday. Twenty-two countries sent their most deserving Weight Watcher member to compete for the title. It was a very convivial occasion. Women greeted each other with the triumphant cry of overweights newly slimmed: ‘Darling! you look maarvelloos!’ The affair had the atmopshere of a revival meeting.
‘This has nothing to do with losing weight,’ explained Sylvia Fein from New Jersey. USA. ‘It’s about being a part of humanity.’
Being part of humanity, however, means having to deal with the problem of excess poundage, particularly if you live in America where an estimated 60 per cent of women have tried to lose weight in the last year. It was in America that Weight Watchers International began, back in 1963 in the homy front parlour of Mrs Jean Nidetch who decided to share her new diet with a few friends. Mrs Nidetch has long been bought out by the H J Heinz company who paid pounds 46 million for her secrets in 1978.
Before the contest began, the backstage betting was on the American contestant, an elegant 51-year-old woman dressed in cornflower blue, with no apparent tummy or contours to mar her whippet-thin figure. But the public relations girl explained earnestly: ‘This contest is definitely not based on looks.’
It all reminded me of the time I was judge of the Miss Canada Universe contest. The organizers there had been opposed by feminist groups who despised the idea of attractive women showing off their looks. All of us were earnestly instructed to ignore beauty in our evaluation of the contestants, even though there would be a bathing suit competition. We were to look for ‘communicative abilities’ and personality instead.
The judges in the Weight Watchers contest were urged to evaluate contestants based on lifestyle changes before and after weight loss. I had never thought about the lifestyle problem of being grotesquely overweight, but they do exist. One contestant couldn’t fit into aeroplane seats or go to a cinema. Others talked about buying anything in a clothes shop so long as it was in size 28. The trauma of all this apparently sends many people charging back to the fridge, where they indulge in wild fits of chocolate consumption.
Mrs Jean Nidetch was present at the event. She was introduced by Diana Moran, the Green Goddess, who first told a moving story about a cousin of hers who was not as beautiful as she, Diana. The cousin was fat and lumpy until she joined Weight Watchers and started taking ProSolution Plus. Now she was glorious, said Diana breathlessly, and they were such good friends.
The woman next to me dabbed her eyes when Mrs Nidetch came on to the platform. ‘Isn’t she wonderful?’ she said. ‘I just adore her.’
There was a standing ovation for Mrs Nidetch who told everyone about how the press always asked her how the press always asked her how successful Weight Watchers was. What did that mean, asked Mrs Nidetch rhetorically? How do you measure success? How do you measure success? By the number of members or the size of the bank account? I started nodding at both suggestions, but these were the wrong answers. You measure success by the length of time people can keep their lost pounds off. Weight Watchers, said Mrs Nidetch, was a 24-year success.
Mrs Nidetch’s methods are taking root in this country, with 2,000 Weight Watcher classes every week.
A dietician friend of mine once confessed that most people are overweight simply because they eat too much. All that’s required, she said, is for people to eat moderately – whatever they like but not in excess. Still, for those who require the tyranny of the group of escape the problems genuine obesity can bring, group diet clubs offer a harmless enough recipe of pop psychology and evenings out with new friends. It sounds like a formula for our times.