Monday, June 05, 2006
Weighing In: My Lunchtime Field Trip to a Weight Watchers Meeting
As some of you know, I’m a big proponent of the anti-diet movement. Weight Watchers, as flexible as the plan may be, still, in my mind, constitutes a diet. Before issuing my official stance on WW, however, I decided to attend a meeting.
A little bit of background: I was first introduced to WW through clients who’ve enrolled throughout the years. About five years ago, a client described her adherence to a WW food plan, as I listened intently:
“I get 24 points a day.”
“How many points are in a slice of pizza?” I asked, thinking of the smaller size slices typical of Domino’s, or Papa John’s, that I regularly enjoyed.
“Oh. . . So, what if you happen to have three slices of pizza for lunch?”
“You can’t eat the rest of the day?”
I began to think about the program’s restrictions and its tendency to promote alternate episodes of bingeing and fasting. Personally, I like to conceptualize what I eat as food, not points, and I can’t bear the possibility of restrictions. I’m the kind of person who, when visiting some friends in Ventura, CA and learning that there were no public bathrooms (I’m still perplexed!) immediately had to pee. Tell me not to eat, and you’d better clear the trajectory between the bag of Twizzlers and my mouth.
Nevertheless, I didn’t pursue a research degree for nothing, so it was only fair to gather some background data before I published my conclusions. This is how I ended up at a Manhattan WW meeting last week.
Just before noon, I entered the building and climbed the steps to the second floor, which opened to the meeting itself. The first thing I saw? The scales. (Cue the score to Jaws.) As those of you who know me are aware, I don’t believe in scales.
I completed a registration form and took my place on line. The card asked for my address. In anticipation of the upcoming, frequent mailings, I wondered, “What will the mailman think?” For the record, I’ve never before pondered the intricacies of my mail carrier’s mind. The form also inquired about any “disability” I might have that would require special consideration. I thought about the scales that lined the reception area. Yes, in fact, I have a condition that requires people to treat me with dignity and respect. It’s quite disabling. I also had to sign a waiver of damages, indicating that I would not hold WW responsible for any adverse health consequences. What, exactly, were they planning to do to me?
At the front of the line, I greeted the lady behind the counter, handed her my card, and stated that I was here to try out a meeting.
“Oh, I thought the first meeting was free.”
“No, it’s $13.”
“But, on the web site, it said the first meeting was free.”
“I’m not sure where you saw that.”
Probably on the specific web page entitled, “Visit a Weight Watchers Meeting for Free!” (See for yourself: http://www.weightwatchers.com/beourguest/index.aspx)
I scrounged through my bag for $13 and handed it to her, intent on not causing a scene, in a place where I’m already. . . out-of-place.
“How tall are you,” she asked.
“Ok, now, put down your bag, take off your shoes, and step on the scale.”
“Oh, I really don’t want to be weighed.” (part defiance, part personal philosophy)
“You have to be weighed. You don’t have to look, and I won’t tell you, but you have to be weighed in order to register.”
“Oh, you see, I don’t want to register. I just want to try out a meeting.”
She threw my $13 on the counter and said, “See me at the end if you’re interested in joining.”
Not off to such a good start.
I take a seat and survey the room. I notice a man from my gym. Terrific. What catches my attention is the preponderance of already-thin women. I wonder if they’re WW success stories, or if they’re just starting out, New York City’s take on “overweight.” Diaries, food planners, and boxes of Pretzel Thins, Smoothies, and Mini-Bars line the shelves that occupy the room’s perimeter. An older woman seated in front of me has a banana and a Diet Coke. (Lunch?) I later learn she’s been on the program for 40 years. 40 years?! I debate whether I’d rather go to WW or wander the desert for 40 years.
The meeting is facilitated by a woman I’ll call “Marilyn.” She’s 60-ish, and I believe she’s had work done on her face. Marilyn begins the discussion by focusing on “lapses,” when WW members fall off the wagon and eat in excess of their points. She mentions the tendency to overeat once you’ve already lapsed, rationalizing, “I’ll never be thin, anyway.” Her analysis is consistent with a cognitive therapy approach and focuses on the thought distortion known as “black-and-white” thinking. Nice work, Marilyn.
Marilyn continues by querying why a lapse occurs. People volunteer: stress, illness, missing meetings, attending dinner parties/special events. As solutions, members reiterate their commitment to plan their meals, come to meetings, and use their extra points. Marilyn also asks the group about their “last-straw incident,” the final push that brought them to WW (e.g., seeing themselves in a photo, doctor’s advice). She transitions to other ways people might handle their emotions, rather than reaching for food. Members offer: exercise, reading, talking to a friend. Here, Marilyn focuses on enhancing coping resources and self-soothing techniques. Not bad. Later on, she returns to the experience of emotions and, capturing the omnipresent legitimacy of what you feel, states, “You can’t take a feeling away from somebody.” That’s right.
Throughout the meeting, various members share their stories. Following one, Marilyn praises, “That’s a little bravo!” She hands out stickers as positive reinforcement. I suppose candy is out of the question. I don’t know what the stickers said. I didn’t get one.
It seems that in order to qualify for what’s called “lifetime membership,” you’re supposed to weigh below a certain amount. Marilyn points out that if there’s a bona fide reason you’re unable to attain this goal, “You can get a doctor’s note and Weight Watchers will accept that.” At one point, Marilyn notes, “Having a plan like this makes you feel happy.” I can understand secure, hopeful, in control, but I’m not sure I get “happy.”
Inadvertently, I learn a little bit about the food plan. It seems that, daily, you’re allowed two milks, two teaspoons of oil, five fruits, unlimited vegetables (mostly), a limited amount of grains and proteins at every meal, and “3-4 points a day for goodies.” I learn how to use “pointing” as a verb and that it has nothing to do with my index finger.
One woman reveals that following a meeting last week, she left and “immediately went out” and “was bad.” To me, there’s no such thing as “bad,” unless you’re hurting someone else, and it’s frustrating how commonly morality’s intertwined with food. I can, however, understand the need to rebel, particularly following a weigh-in (with consequent shame) and a discussion on restriction.
Marilyn closes the meeting by offering, “Think where you don’t want to be again and where you want to go.”
My answers arrive without pause (“here” and “home”), though, surprisingly, I’m not opposed to the program in its entirety. It seems to offer a bare bones approach to healthy eating, provides social support, incorporates a number of sound psychological principles, and is less restrictive than most diets I know. Still, it is a diet, forces (I believe) a fixation on counting and planning, and in its (even flexible) restrictions, can’t help but arouse rebellion—I’m not surprised when I hear how various members have yo-yoed as a result. Oh, and the scales? They really gotta go. . . .