The turning point was a few years later when she signed up one of her two young daughters for gymnastics. “We get there at 8:45 and I take off her sweatpants and her little jacket and sneakers and I put them in a cubby hole and there she is with her little pig tails and her bangs and her whole black leotard. She just wandered off in with the teacher and I looked and burst into tears,” Miriam said. “The woman standing next to me saw that I was crying and tapped me and she’s like, ’Is it your daughter’s first day?’ And I was like, yes.” The woman told her she had cried at her daughter’s first day too. “She had no clue I saw my reflection. I was like, when I was four, I ran in and I did it and this is what I’ve become. I’m the fat mom, out here, looking in. How did I let this happen? I was so disappointed, I was angry with myself.” Worse yet, the man who owned the gym had been one of Miriam’s coaches for a team she had been on and she was so afraid he would recognize her. Or what if she had gained so much weight he didn’t? She joined Weight Watchers after that, in November 2000, when she was about to turn 31. It took her 17 weeks to lose 55 pounds.
Ten weeks into her weight loss, Jean announced to her friends that she had lost 20 pounds. They wanted to know her secret. So she decided that on a Wednesday six of her friends who all struggled with dieting would go to Jean’s apartment to play mah jong and she’d tell them what she had learned the day before in diet class. She wasn’t yet at her goal weight, and she thought it would help her stick to the clinic’s strict diet guidelines and maybe they’d lose some weight, too.
The first meeting was a low-key affair. They settled in to play and chat. “They all have their secrets, their compulsive habits like mine that they kept to themselves,” Jean said. But that afternoon they opened up to each other. “It was a liberating experience for all of us. It was just such a great relief for us to be able to confess these things for the first time and get over the embarrassment.” Someone suggested they meet again the following week, and Jean suggested they make it a weekly thing. That’s how Jean the housewife created a space where a group of women struggling with their weight could come together and be honest about their lives. But it also gave Jean the spotlight she craved, a place to be funny and charismatic and glamorous, even if it was for an audience of a few friends. Years later she reflected back on those early meetings and said, without a trace of modesty, “It’s as if, having never had a lesson, I sat down to a piano and played a concerto.”
A few months and fifteen pounds down, I had so far refused to make weird Weight Watchers recipes, which felt like the modern versions of things that would have been printed in the magazine in the 1960s, like these three-point “bagels” people at the meeting had been talking about. You mixed one cup of self-rising flour with one cup nonfat Greek yogurt, painted the “bagels” with egg wash, sprinkled them with everything-bagel seasoning, and baked. To this, Sadie, the Orthodox Jewish meeting regular hissed, “That is not a bagel.” Nor was a “pancake” made with self-rising flour and non- fat Greek yogurt and a banana a pancake. I would rather have eaten just one fluffy blueberry pancake or half a real bagel. But who could do that? Certainly not me.
I wish there were an alternative, something besides completely eliminating that which tempts you or substituting for what you really want with something that only sort of resembles it. There is another philosophy toward food: having something rich but not overindulging. Moderation can definitely be taught, and I’ve done the elaborate dessert-eating exercises to prove it, but I am not entirely convinced I can learn it. There is a huge difference between food I enjoy and food that’s good for me, although Weight Watchers would like us all to think that’s not the case. Dieting is at odds with pleasure. A certain person can build a life around denying pleasure, but I can never exist in that mode for very long and be happy.
Losing weight for Jean was magic, it symbolized potential, and it had the potential to bring strangers together. “In Israel, the Jews and Arabs sit together at our classes,” Jean Nidetch said in 1993, “and, you know, they don’t hate each other at all. They’re just interested in what they ate for breakfast.” Jean believed that sharing made us human, and that struggling with weight could be unifying rather than isolating. From frustration, one could find community. Every one of us has our own Frankenstein, our most obsessed over food, as Jean was so fond of saying. And that was also her genius: if we all have complicated relationships to food then we are all potential Weight Watchers members. She knew that what fat people needed more than a plan and a program was the support of each other, a place to vent or share notes or just listen. For Jean, a diet wasn’t a tool of oppression, but just another way of keeping ourselves on track and having a plan for the future.
Jean said, “You measure success by the length of time people can keep their lost pounds off.” That’s certainly how she measured her own success. But that strict definition was its own kind of prison. Jean lost a tremendous amount of weight and essentially, for the rest of her life, lived in the gilded cage of her own weight loss.