The next article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Trendy Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about corporations within the information and the way they bought there.
In 2018, Weight Watchers modified its identify to WW, two letters connected to the tagline “wellness that works.” It was shifting away from the factor that it appeared like the corporate was all about—weight-reduction plan. However Erika Nicole Kendall, a nutritionist, private coach, and writer, wasn’t satisfied.
“Once I noticed the advert and I noticed the brand and it simply form of fully eliminates the phrase weight altogether, it’s like, did you suppose that that was going to imply that we weren’t going to comprehend that the WW nonetheless stands for Weight Watchers?” she says. “You thought that eradicating the phrase weight was simply going to be this mind-blowing factor for all of us, and we have been simply going to really feel in a different way about this model? No. No, it’s nonetheless the identical factor. However my second thought was, lastly, the physique acceptance motion bought a win.”
At present, the entire concept of weight-reduction plan and shedding pounds is more and more seen as unhealthy and typically misogynistic and actually simply uncool. The cult of thinness hasn’t disappeared, however the physique positivity motion has begun to chip away at it. And so WW, an organization constructed to monetize the need to shrink your bodily self by proscribing your caloric consumption, has needed to make a number of changes. “The local weather is altering,” Kendall says. “The tradition for ladies is altering. The area for ladies to be comfy with themselves is altering. And if you wish to proceed to select up customers, it’s a must to change.”
For practically six a long time, Weight Watchers has satisfied thousands and thousands of individuals it could assist them drop extra pounds. In contrast to different diets that inform you precisely what you may and may’t eat, Weight Watchers tells you you may eat no matter you want, so long as you keep inside the boundaries of their level system. It appears to be like at your top, weight, gender, and weight reduction purpose, and it says this quantity—that’s what number of factors it is best to eat in a day.
You’ll be able to even drink as many zero-point objects as you want. Which means just about limitless apples and celery and cups of black espresso, however it’s a must to finances for the whole lot else. If you’d like a packet of sugar in that espresso, add some extent. If you’d like the sugar and a splash of milk, add 2 factors. If you wish to eat a Massive Mac alongside it, at 17 factors, effectively, that’s most of your allotment for the day. And if you wish to discuss why you retain ordering Massive Macs and blowing via your allowance of factors, there are Weight Watchers franchises in cities all over the world the place you may weigh in, commiserate, and share recipes and ideas with different dieters—or a minimum of you could possibly earlier than the pandemic. Now they’ve gone on-line.
The science behind all of the factors and numbers has modified lots over time—the purpose system didn’t even exist when Weight Watchers was based—however the firm bought its signature mixture of flexibility, promised success, and built-in group very well. Till it didn’t.
By the mid-2000s, lots of people have been getting uninterested in food regimen tradition. They have been realizing that skipping meals would possibly assist make you skinny, but it surely actually wouldn’t make you wholesome. Virginia Sole-Smith, now a contributor to the New York Instances’ parenting part, used to put in writing a whole lot of weight-reduction plan tales for teen and girls’s magazines. However she was “more and more feeling like this doesn’t add as much as a message that feels useful to folks, largely as a result of our readers have been by no means discovering magical unicorn thinness. They have been nonetheless struggling.”
It doesn’t matter what it bought, Weight Watchers was nonetheless saddled to the phrase weight.
In the meantime, a brand new mind-set about meals was turning into mainstream, one which targeted on consuming unprocessed meals and shopping for from native farmers. “Natural meals was getting actually fashionable, farmers markets,” Sole-Smith says. “There was this complete tradition solidifying round wellness.” To individuals who had spent their lives weight-reduction plan, so-called clear consuming regarded lots higher than what they’d been placing their our bodies via. “That was a really seductive concept as a result of folks have been sick of the mathematics of counting factors and counting energy. So that you had what began as an environmental justice motion now develop into a public well being motion, however actually about making ourselves skinny.”
Weight Watchers actually suffered in these years as wellness tradition began to take form. By the autumn of 2015, the corporate had reported 10 straight quarters of declining gross sales. They knew they needed to pivot. If solely there have been one thing that would change the messaging, somebody who may convey that placing your self on a food regimen was at its core about feeling and looking your finest; it was actually about loving your self …
Enter Oprah. Towards the top of 2015, Oprah Winfrey purchased a ten p.c stake in Weight Watchers for $43 million. She additionally grew to become its spokesperson, proudly declaring, “I love bread.” “She makes use of physique positivity rhetoric on a regular basis when she justifies her involvement with Weight Watchers and her involvement within the food regimen trade normally,” Sole-Smith says. “She all the time filters it via the language of self-love and being your finest self, and she or he is saying to you, I’m superb, however I may very well be extra superb if I used to be thinner.”
Oprah was Weight Watchers’ savior. After years of declining gross sales and share costs, membership lastly grew. Round that point, the corporate unveiled a program known as “Past the Scale,” with extra holistic messaging and strategies rooted in cognitive behavioral remedy that appeared extra on development. However it doesn’t matter what it bought, it doesn’t matter what hoops it jumped via to persuade those who it wasn’t nonetheless hyperfocused on physique dimension, Weight Watchers was nonetheless saddled to the phrase weight.
So in 2018, Weight Watchers’ new CEO, Mindy Grossman, went on the At present present and introduced that her firm was henceforth to be generally known as WW. The corporate stated these two letters honored the legacy of Weight Watchers however didn’t actually stand for something particularly.
Virginia Sole-Smith didn’t purchase it. “I believe I laughed out loud as a result of it felt like such an apparent transfer, but additionally such a determined transfer,” she says. “I imply, it was each very good of Weight Watchers to say, ‘Oh, let’s model as a wellness plan, as a result of that’s what folks really need, and it will get us away from this complete weight reduction factor that’s gotten so controversial,’ but it surely was additionally unimaginable. You’ll be able to’t drop weight from Weight Watchers. It’s WW. All people who writes about it, at any time when I report on it, would say, ‘WW, the corporate previously generally known as Weight Watchers,’ as a result of they’re by no means going to lose that from the model.”
By the best way, this was additionally across the time Dunkin Donuts grew to become simply Dunkin. It didn’t cease promoting the doughnuts; it simply didn’t need them so entrance and heart. And that’s what WW, previously Weight Watchers, was doing right here too. It was nonetheless a food regimen, however with some further wellness bells and whistles.
“Weight Watchers isn’t promising to forestall my youngster from growing diabetes. It’s promising to not have my youngster be chubby.”
— Erika Nicole Kendall
Regardless of skepticism, the rebranding was initially successful. 2018 introduced a rally in inventory costs and substantial subscriber development. However by the next 12 months, the whole lot plummeted again to earth. And in 2020, there was extra dangerous luck exacerbated by the pandemic. There have been many canceled memberships, and the corporate introduced it needed to reduce prices. By late spring, there have been stories of mass firings over Zoom. And by way of its wellness choices, WW has thrown virtually the whole lot on the wall. It’s partnered with Headspace, the mindfulness meditation app. Some variations of its present plan have considerably expanded the record of zero-point meals to incorporate issues like lean proteins and even complete grains. Its app gives on-demand health lessons. It lately launched what it calls its most holistic program ever, the brand new “myWW+,” which guarantees to assist customers, sure, with their weight, but additionally with their bodily exercise, psychological well being, and sleep. And it’s tried to talk on to the pandemic by providing an internet group of coaches and fellow members on-line.
But it surely’s additionally carried out some issues that contradict this holistic, caring picture. As an illustration, it nonetheless requires periodic weigh-ins, and when you don’t personal a scale, it’ll promote you one. There was additionally the matter of the controversial Kurbo by WW, a color-coded weight reduction app designed for dieters ages 8 to 17 within the type of a site visitors mild system—inexperienced mild for all the time OK, yellow mild for proceed with warning, and pink mild for meals that ought to be eaten by your youngster sparingly. “It blew up huge,” Sole-Smith says. “There was a really rapid and highly effective backlash on-line from dietitians, from medical doctors, from dad and mom, from consuming dysfunction advocates, all saying that we don’t should be promoting a food regimen to children.”
Erika Nicole Kendall says that this advertising and marketing effort has much less to do with wholesome existence for youngsters and extra to do with the anxieties of their mothers and dads: “They’re not concentrating on kids. They’re concentrating on the dad and mom. They’re concentrating on us. We’re listening to, ‘Coronary heart illness is straight linked to weight problems, and diabetes is straight linked to weight problems.’ And it’s like, Weight Watchers isn’t promising to forestall my youngster from growing diabetes. It’s promising to not have my youngster be chubby.”
You would possibly say that WW dropping the phrase weight from its identify is an indication of one thing altering for the higher, an indication that we’re studying to inform the distinction between being wholesome and being skinny. However are we actually? Each individual within the story, myself included, has skilled a lifetime of actually sophisticated messaging about meals and physique picture. We’ve inherited it from our households, from the food regimen advertisements we noticed after we have been children, from the best way we’ve been handled as our our bodies have modified at completely different factors in our lives. A few of us have been placed on diets after we have been younger, earlier than we actually understood any of this, and it could actually screw you up. And so long as we nonetheless stay in a society that prefers folks to be skinny, whether or not or not it all the time says so explicitly, there’ll nonetheless be enterprise for WW. But when the corporate truly desires to make its prospects more healthy, it’s going to should do greater than change its identify.
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