Weight Watchers (WW) was created by Jean Nidetch, a self-described “fat housewife.” Nidetch felt embarrassed and ashamed about her weight, especially after a bad experience with a “skinny nazi” diet instructor at a New York “obesity” clinic. Nidetch felt it would be less intimidating to diet with her friends and so she organized a support group. Between 1961 and 1963 Nidetch turned her dieting model into a business. In her 1970 autobigraphy, Nidetch said that she believed the strength of her approach was that it offered a safe, snack-free space where women could talk about what they ate, why, and how they felt about it. She wrote, “I don’t guarantee that losing weight makes life beautiful. I don’t guarantee that it’s going to give you the success in life that you want. But surely it’s going to make you confident that you are capable of controlling your own body, that you are not a victim.”
This belief, that you can control your weight through discipline and a conscious understanding of your food habits is pretty typical of the 1960s and 1970s. Doctors and psychologists treating women for obesity worked on the assumption that weight gain was about something, bad relationships, childhood trauma, stress, etc. It followed that if a woman better understood herself, the weight would fall away.
In Season Five of “Mad Men,” Betty Draper has gained weight. Her new, chubbier body is first seen emerging from a bathtub. Betty isn’t exceptionally fat in this shot, just fatter than she was when we first met her character. The weight is distressing for Betty who refuses to attend public functions. She does not want to be seen in private, either, hiding under a series of muumuu-type dresses and refusing to undress in front of her husband. Betty’s fat mother-in-law encourages her to go on a diet, and tells her to take responsibility for her weight before it is “too late.”
Betty’s first instinct is to ask her doctor for diet pills. He chastises her for making this request, but not for health reasons. He wants Betty to understand that she can’t simply demand a prescription. It seems to me this exchange was simply a set up for a subsequent plot development, as diet pills were widely available to women in the 1960s. Anecdotal evidence from my interviews with women who took these pills in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s suggest that doctors in Canada had few qualms about prescribing this “medication.” The women I talked to were provided pills that contained amphetamines, often at a very young age. The appetite suppressants worked for a while, but the side-effects made women feel over-caffeinated. They described to me a feeling of being “wound…tighter than a top,” “nuts” and “wired…up for sound.”
After a health scare, Betty decides to join WW instead. She does so around 1966, when the company was beginning to take off in the eastern United States. At these meetings Betty alludes to her day-to-day frustrations and receives encouragement from the group leader. The leader’s role is one of a fellow-sufferer. Her expertise stemmed not from professional knowledge of dieting but rather her success at losing weight with the WW program.
Mad Men has done a good job over the last five years of representing weight gain. In Season One, Peggy grows fatter in a way that does not go unnoticed around Sterling Cooper. As her clothing becomes tighter, Peggy is less frequently the object of male attention. Her co-workers snicker about her weight and sometimes comment to her face. The show captures the uncomfortable way that weight gain plays out personally, as well as socially. Peggy feels self-conscious, her co-workers laugh and her relationships change as she becomes the fat girl in the office. In the end we discover [spoiler] that Peggy is actually in denial about a pregnancy. Nonetheless, the show helps us to think about the experiences of people who start out thin, and grow fatter over time. It shows that women can lose social power and become the object of ridicule when they are perceived to have “let themselves go.”
Betty’s weight gain similarly gets commented on by her family members and friends, and like Peggy, her clothing doesn’t fit and she becomes preoccupied with eating. We see her ambivalent relationship with food play out in each episode where she struggles to stay in control, alternately weighing and measuring “good” foods and bingeing on “bad” foods. “Mad Men” writers are approaching Betty’s weight in a way that is consistent with most attitudes toward dieting in the 1960s. Her weight gain is the external sign of an internal struggle. Perhaps, as Adam Vary of EW.com argues, she simply can’t stand to see her ex-husband happy? Or, is Betty Draper the embodiment of Betty Friedan’s “feminine mystique,” a woman who feels trapped in her role as housewife and mother?
It remains to be seen where WW will take Betty Draper, but I suspect we will find that she loses weight and is still unhappy. If the show were really true to life, we might see her lose and gain weight over and over again, as statistically this pattern most reflects the experiences of women who diet.
Financially, the story of WW from the 1960s until the present is one of unmitigated success. The company developed rapidly. Incorporated in the 1970s, it was purchased by Heinz in 1978 and has been a public company since the early 2000s, trading on the NYSE as “WTW.” Feminist critics are wary of WW because it is a for-profit program. It is in the business of making money and so, it has been suggested, they profit from women’s low self-esteem and weight preoccupation. More than this, they profit from the fact that dieters almost always regain the weight they have lost, and so return to WW over and over again.
What stands out to me is the ways that WW has picked up on feminist models of consciousness raising and applied them to dieting. WW became a space for women to share their experiences, positive and negative, about food, marriage and family. Nidetch’s goal was to empower women to take control over the lives, which, from the present, sounds a lot like some liberal feminist rhetoric of the 1970s, i.e. if women have more control over their lives they will be more equal. What is to be gained from weight loss is the subject for debate, as I have written elsewhere. I think, though, that rather than attacking a woman for dieting it is important to ask what has drawn her to WW in the first place. Betty Draper’s experience with the group suggests to me an alternate interpretation of dieting and weight loss support groups. Perhaps WW has been successful because it builds on a consciousness raising model. WW was never feminist, and it never intended to be. But, it provided a safe space for women like Betty Draper, who was not drawn to feminist models of liberation, to talk about her life with other women.