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Is Oprah Disempowering Women By Investing In Weight Watchers?

oprah weight watchers

Oprah announced that she bought a 10% stake of Weight Watchers, the 50-year old company that helps people lose weight with their “point-system” and their “Weight Watchers meetings.”

I was not surprised by the news, esp. knowing Oprah’s struggle with weight. What was surprising though was the backlash. Take this article for example. The author suggests Oprah, the self-love guru, has disappointed her fans because:

Anything that promotes biases around body types (ahem…Weight Watchers) – the belief that thin is good and fat is bad – keeps our culture focused on weight as a measure of moral superiority.

and

Weight Watcher’s entire business is built on people buying in to the idea that thin is preferred and controlling your food makes you a better person. It perpetuates this idea that self-worth is derived from obtaining compliance and achievement as it relates to weight and food.

And this article is just an example. I found several similar sentiments shared in the corners of the anti- fat-shaming world. Apparently if you promote weight loss, then you’re promoting that you can only have self-worth if you’re thin.

Hmm…Let’s discuss that.

First things first: Is there a cultural, disproportionate focus on weight loss? Yes there is.

  • Is there such a thing as fat-shaming? Yes (I wrote about being fat and fit here).
  • Would we be better off if we focused LESS on weight loss? Definitely (I think fitness would be a much better goal to focus than weight loss! Just imagine discussing our yoga practice vs. what the scale said.)
  • But does that mean that weight loss is an inherently harmful goal that should be discouraged in all cases? No.

For instance, wanting to go to a cinema and kill a bunch of people is an inherently bad goal that should not just be discouraged – it’s crucial that it’s prevented!! But weight loss does not have anything inherently evil to it. It’s just like any other goal people have. And I’m saying that while fully recognizing our society’s pressure on looking thin but while also acknowledging that obesity can be dangerous.

But back to weight loss not being a sound goal…Let’s explain this with 3 examples: buying a house, buying a new car, and getting promoted at work.

For instance, say you live in an apartment and want to move to a single-family house.

Maybe you need to save up to make the move. Is buying a house an inherently unfavorable goal? No. Are real estate agents who promote single family houses bad people who hurt apartment owners by singing the praises of single family houses? No.

(They’d be bad if they were dishonest for example, but they’re not bad just because they’re realtors!)

Another example. Say you’re driving an 8-year-old Toyota.

Actually ALL your friends drive better cars than you. Some drive Audis, others Mercedes, others have a Porsche. They have even made comments about your car. They’ve said “why are you still driving that old car?”

Then the other day a friend of yours was discussing his new car’s safety feature of automatically stopping when it recognizes an obstacle. Then the others jumped in saying how this feature works in their cars. Guess whose car doesn’t have this feature? Yours. You’d like to have that extra safety too. Not to mention, the feeling of driving a new car. You’ve set your eyes on a BMW SUV.

The problem is because you’ve had quite a few expenses later, you now cannot afford such an investment.

And you feel like a loser.

You berate yourself for not having a better car. You may even avoid your friends just in case the car conversation comes up. So you isolate yourself.

(Notice the similarity to feeling like a loser for being fat and then avoiding social interactions because you feel so bad for yourself.)

Still – is buying a newer car a bad goal? No. Do car salespeople in those dealerships hurt others just by selling those cars? No. Wanting a different car is a fine goal.

The problem here is not the goal – it’s that you feel like a loser for NOT already having that car. Because you could want the car, but not feel like a loser. You could feel content driving your cozier, older car, while being excited by the possibility of upgrading.

I’m pretty sure there are several people who in this position, yes they may feel some pressure, but no, they don’t feel like losers for not keeping up with the Joneses!

I’m not saying this to put you on the spot. You feel pressure to get a newer car and that pressure is undeniable. But your attitude also plays a role in how you feel.

Next example: Job promotion.

You’ve been doing your best at work for years. Yet despite all your hard work, you keep seeing other people advance while you’re stuck at the same middle management level. Other people’s success stories make you angry. You’re thinking “they’re not better than me, so why do they get promoted while I’m left behind?”

And you feel like a loser. You avoid talking to your family just in case they ask “how’s work?”

You start bearing a grudge at your manager. You resent your colleagues. You feel so, so bad.

Is wanting to get promoted at work a bad goal? No. It’s a fine goal.

Is feeling like a loser for not having already achieved it a problem? You bet!

Other people in this position may feel a bit discontent, but sure, they have a few new project ideas to suggest, and maybe if those ideas get approved, they’ll have enough success to have a promotion case! Or maybe they’re actively getting feedback, improving their skills, to be part of the next round of promotions.

Compare this to shutting down because you feel like a loser; trying to do what your manager asks while resenting the whole thing. This situation sucks.

But again the problem here is not the goal itself (i.e., getting promoted), but rather your position towards it.

So back to weight loss: It’s not an inherently bad goal.

But it is a goal that has (probably) been overhyped and the media attention to thin people makes things worse, esp. if you happen to be in the non thin-privileged group of people. It’s no coincidence so many people think that they’ll “only be happy if they become X pounds thinner.”

So if you feel terribly bad for yourself for not being thin:

  • Cultural factor: Yes, our culture is to blame because of their extreme attention to weight loss.
  • Personal factor: But you have some part in it too, because you could be overweight and cool with it, instead of being overweight and feeling shame for it.

Imagine that: You could actually be both overweight, AND wanting to lose weight, without feeling bad for yourself!

Now if you’re overweight and feeling shame, don’t take this is as an accusation for feeling shame instead of being OK with your body. This will only make you feel worse, plus it’s not the point of this article about whether Oprah disempowers women by investing in Weight Watchers. (Also: it’s a prooooocess to emotionally go from shame to acceptance. Working with a coach will help.)

Again, BOTH the cultural factor and the personal factor are in play here. Because of the existence of the cultural factor, you need to do even better mindset-wise to not let it get to you. I’m not saying this is easy, of course.

But does that mean that Weight Watchers, or any institution that promotes weight loss, should not be supported? No. That’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Does that mean that we don’t need to push for the end of fat-shaming? No, we need to keep pushing for our cultural norms to change.

But changing cultural norms does not mean that we should stop supporting all institutions that promote weight loss. Weight loss, just like a job promotion, a newer car, or a different house, are all fine goals.

I’m not saying this to support Weight Watchers in particular.

I’m by no means a Weight Watchers expert. From my limited experience, Weight Watchers seems to be encouraging moderation, at least compared to other programs.

Unlike fad diets, Weight Watchers is about eating better, and taking care of how much you eat, while providing support through their meetings and coaching. Their “points” system is built so that vegetable consumption is encouraged. They encourage a weight loss goal of 1-2 pounds a week, which is by no means an extreme goal like you see on other programs (“lose 10 pounds in 10 days!”).

Now I’m sure since this is such a big company things won’t always work great. A google search of “Weight Watchers fat shaming” reveals a few examples. The most disturbing in my opinion was this piece from Bustle:

What they call “accountability,” I call weight-shaming. Before each meeting, people step on the scale to see how well they’ve done. It’s supposed to be private, but that’s a real joke. It’s pretty clear to tell that someone’s gained weight when you see the tears well up in their eyes and they say “I thought I had done really well this week.” It’s also impossible to not overhear the woman exclaiming “I just lost seven pounds in seven days!”

This sucks.

I can also see how their points system may not let people eat their favorite guilty-foods, guilt-free. For example, this is a snapshot I got from their website:

oprah weight watchers points

Yes, you’re encouraged to eat an apple rather than a cookie, even though both foods are equally calorie-dense. But that’s also punishing you for wanting to eat a cookie.

So if you eat a cookie, now you have to count those 2 points, while if you ate an apple you wouldn’t have to account for those points.

Now if instead of Weight Watchers you counted calories instead, you could eat that cookie with no second thoughts! Yum!

I can totally see how this decision to artificially give zero points to fruits and vegetables encourages their consumption, but I can also see that this decision can make people feel deprived.

Because we want to eat cookies. And ice-cream. And chocolate.

And we know what happens with deprivation: Binge eating! You eat one cookie, and before you know it the whole box is empty!

Or you’ll just end up hating fruits and vegetables, just because you have to eat so many, in lieu of some other foods you’d rather have.

So even though Weight Watchers is more “balanced” than other diet programs, it’s may not work for some people.

But diet programs don’t work. People gain the weight back. Isn’t the system “broken?”

It’s hard to talk with generalized statements without knowing the specifics of each case. For instance, say you lose weight with Weight Watchers. Then you stop the program and gain the weight back.

It’s not surprising that you took the weight back, since you lost the weight with the help of this system, that you then stopped using.

Another similar example: Maybe you lost weight because you started intense TRX training 5 times a week. Then again you lost the weight, you cut down on TRX. Is it suprising that you saw weight gain?

Or maybe you lost weight, but then didn’t enjoying having only 1900 calories a day for maintenance. You prefer eating 2300+ calories. So you gain weight. If that’s the case, then you need to accept that this is what you want. Don’t try to lose weight again. Eat your daily 2300+ calories, exercise, and live happily ever after. (I know that accepting yourself at a higher weight point may not be easy, especially given the culture we live in. I’m not saying any of this is easy.)

Having extra pounds doesn’t mean you’re living unhealthy, especially if you’re exercising. Again we have to do some cultural work here to dispel the bias that “fat equals unhealthy” by default.

Oprah + Weight Watchers: Should Oprah be accused for her investment?

About a year ago a friend of mine promoted an animal center on her Facebook wall. One of her “friends” jumped in and accused her for caring about animals – why doesn’t she support an organization that helps people instead?

My friend replied to her “friend” that she does also support organizations that support humans. But why the judgement for backing a non-profit for animals?

That’s how this Oprah discussion seems to me. Maybe she could support something else. But so what? Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with weight loss or Weight Watchers. Oprah made a financial decision. I don’t even know what her investment portfolio is, but I’m pretty sure she has invested in a variety of industries.

And that’s why I disagree with the criticism Oprah received.

That said, we can do better on the fat-shaming front. What’s your take on this? Leave a comment!

[image credit: Photo by Alan Light, CC by 2.0]

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  1. No one has the power to “disempower” me but me. Oprah certainly doesn’t have that much influence over my life. Please.