LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
During the coronavirus pandemic, people are shut up at home. And many of us are walking from the fridge to the couch and back. Keeping from putting on the pounds is hard at the best of times. And these are not the best of times. But dieting has been big business in America for a while now. Roughly 45 million Americans diet each year. And in her new book, Marisa Meltzer chronicles her own weight loss journey by uncovering the real story of the founder of Weight Watchers. It's called "This Is Big: How The Founder Of Weight Watchers Changed The World And Me." And she joins us now from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.
MARISA MELTZER: Thank you for having me. Anything to, you know, break up my day.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. You start this book talking about yourself, and this is kind of a memoir and also kind of a biography. Tell me about yourself and how you interacted with your weight issues growing up.
MELTZER: I don't even know the age. I was so young that I don't remember having a relationship to food that didn't involve dieting. And at the same time, because it was so normal to me and ingrained in my life and in my family life, it took me a long time to understand that wasn't everyone's experience. And as I was getting close to turning 40, I had this sense of wanting to make sense of a lot of things - relationships, some of the clothes I wear but also, and kind of most importantly, my relationship to food and my body and dieting, which I kind of perceived as a series of failures.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So one day as a successful adult who struggled with your weight, you came across an obit of Jean Nidetch. What did seeing that sort of trigger?
MELTZER: Well, I read it, and the headline of the obit said the founder of Weight Watchers. And I kind of thought, oh, ah-hah. I'm going to put a face to this kind of thing that I felt was torturing me, diet culture. And for one, I had no idea that there was a person behind Weight Watchers and was intrigued that it was this middle-aged woman who had lost weight on a city-sponsored diet program in New York City and used her - I don't know - revision of that diet to teach to friends, which grew into the Weight Watchers that we know today.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, you know, you uncover a really rich history. Tell us a little bit about her.
MELTZER: Jean Nidetch was a working-class Jewish woman from Brooklyn who kind of came of age during the Depression and World War II, was a housewife. Her husband was a bus driver. And they loved food. And she got this big idea that the secret to weight loss was other people and that community was essential to the dieter, to show that fat people weren't lonely and lacking in friends and also that they had things to tell each other and to learn from each other. And so she started Weight Watchers. And what followed is kind of the American dream. She became a millionaire. She was on the cover of magazines and on the cover of frozen fish.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). And as you mentioned, at the heart of Weight Watchers or their meetings, it's this sense of community. It's like group therapy. And you track your year of attending one such group. What stood out to you the most about that experience?
MELTZER: Well, I think I thought that I was better than Weight Watchers, that Weight Watchers was for suburban housewives. And that's not me. And I ended up finding a meeting group in Brooklyn in Park Slope led by a tattooed vegan woman. And it was diverse in terms of race and class. But it was also diverse in terms of the reasons why and kind of motivating factors behind the dieters there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does that say to you, I mean, about this obsession that we have as a society with our weight?
MELTZER: Diet culture has kind of invaded all of us. It's how we compare ourselves to each other. And companies like Weight Watchers - they're not nonprofits. They're making money off of us as repeat customers and wanting to change ourselves. But we've all dealt with it by making it our own problem to deal with privately. And something that we should have a more honest conversation about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the end of the book, you cite the founder of Weight Watchers and her life story as a kind of cautionary tale.
MELTZER: Yeah, I see her as being what I call a woman of appetite. Even though she was able to lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off for her whole life, she struggled in other ways. And they were ways that she wasn't totally honest with her - public and maybe not even herself. She was the kind of person that gambled all the time. And when I researched her life, I pictured it like a grand game of whack-a-mole, where these issues pop up in other places. And you're kind of whacking one of them down. But it's going to show itself, this idea of appetite, this hunger in other ways. And you have to deal with that more than anything or come to terms with it or love it or decide how much of it you're willing to give up in pursuit of a perfect body.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Marisa Meltzer. Her book is "This Is Big." Thank you very much.
MELTZER: Thank you.
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