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Monday, October 12, 2020

Weight Loss Memoir Tells Remarkable Story of Weight Watchers Founder Jean Nidetch

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Dieting is asking you to control something wild and governable, your body, with your brain, which is only slightly more under your control" (141).

If you've ever attended a Weight Watchers (now known only as WW) meeting, you understand the feeling of support and camaraderie that comes with having a group of like-minded peers behind you as you try to lose weight.  It's powerful.  Long before health experts understood the importance of weight loss support groups, there was Jean Nidetch.  A Brooklyn housewife who weighed more than she wanted to, Jean searched for a program that could help her slim down.  When a city-sponsored nutrition course helped her lose 70 lbs, her friends begged her to teach them how to achieve the same results.  In 1961, she started gathering these women in her home for sessions of instruction, discussion, and support. Weight Watchers—a company that would sell for $17 million in 1978—was born.

Like other WW attendees, I had heard the basic story of Jean's home-grown idea that turned into a formidable enterprise.  I knew little else about her, however, until I picked up This is Big by Marisa Meltzer.  Having struggled with her weight since childhood, the New York City journalist decided to give Weight Watchers a try.  Not only did she investigate the program, but she also started researching the life of its founder.  What results is a deeply personal but very readable account of Meltzer's struggles with her own weight, her experience as a Weight Watchers member, and a balanced recounting of Jean's life and how it changed in unexpected ways as her company became increasingly popular and profitable.  The book is funny, insightful, honest, and relatable.  As one who, like Meltzer, is often guilty of the "crime of appetite" (7), I devoured This is Big in almost one sitting.  Although it deals with weighty issues, the book really is that engaging.  I came out of it feeling understood and with a deeper respect for Jean Nidetch.  Despite a fanaticism that caused problems in her personal life, her entrepreneurship led to the development of a revolutionary company that was changing lives in the 60s and is still doing so today.  No matter what you may think of counting points, weight loss programs, and the whole dieting industry, you can't read This is Big without being a little bit in awe of what Jean Nidetch accomplished with her ingenuity, exuberance, and her deep desire to help other people.  Her story really is rather remarkable.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other weight loss memoirs, although I've never read another specifically about Weight Watchers)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder expletives), mild sexual content, and references to illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find


  1. I wonder how many lives this woman has saved over the decades...and how many she's improved overall. Sounds like an interesting story.

    1. Tons, I'm sure! I know the basic program has changed a lot over the years, always trying to incorporate the latest weight loss science, but Nidetch's original idea of having a network of support during your weight loss journey hasn't - and that's what makes WW different and more effective than other programs.

  2. It's so funny - my husband and I were just talking about starting this program (the online option - no meetings!) in January. I really don't know much about the origin story but it sounds so interesting!

    1. Really? It's a great program and I know lots of people who have lost weight on it. I have, too, as long as I stick with the program, which is actually very doable. I just have a hard time sticking with any "diet"—the spirit is willing, but the flesh is oh so very weak!

  3. I like the sound of this one. I just checked and my library has a couple of copies so it is on my TBR. Great review Susan.


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