A devastating, beautifully written NYT Magazine piece by Taffy Brodesser-Akner explores the weight-loss industry’s recent rebranding into the lifestyle/wellness movement, cutting straight to the point that “wellness” is often the same thing as trying to conform to an age-old beauty ideal, while wearing an “empowerment,” “self-care” cloak. It’s the feminist-ization of dieting.
In other words, instead of changing oppressive and unrealistic societal expectations we are, as ever, still just trying to change ourselves. Titled “Losing It in the Anti-Dieting Age,” the piece begins with Weight Watchers, which realized it had an image problem in 2015 and began to slowly tweak its messaging to be more parallel to the girl-power branding that’s been so popular in recent years, employing Oprah as a spokesperson and, like other companies from Lean Cuisine to Women’s Health, discarding language we now think of shaming for a more positive tack. This, Brodesser-Akner found, is the same old shit in a prettier package:
If you had been watching closely, you could see that the change had come slowly. ‘‘Dieting’’ was now considered tacky. It was anti-feminist. It was arcane. In the new millennium, all bodies should be accepted, and any inclination to change a body was proof of a lack of acceptance of it. ‘‘Weight loss’’ was a pursuit that had, somehow, landed on the wrong side of political correctness. People wanted nothing to do with it. Except that many of them did: They wanted to be thinner. They wanted to be not quite so fat. Not that there was anything wrong with being fat! They just wanted to call dieting something else entirely.
Of course body acceptance is an important step in changing the culture, but as we have written extensively here at Jezebel, the body-positivity movement’s co-opting and corporatization has tended to reabsorb it into the very ideals it was trying to subvert. If that wasn’t already apparent, it becomes pretty clear about halfway through Brodesser-Akner’s piece, when she talks about joining Weight Watchers (for the fourth time) and details instances in which she has been shamed for her weight. At something called an intuitive eating class, she writes, “They told me that hatred of fat was a societal construct, but I never understood why that should comfort me. I live in society.” But of course, perhaps no one can articulate the tyranny of the “wellness” movement better than Oprah herself, she of the unfathomably public weight fluctuations, who Brodesser-Akner interviewed:
She knew that you were no longer supposed to say that you wanted to diet or be thinner. You had to want ‘‘fitness’’ and ‘‘strength’’ and just general health. But this thinking was a prison. So was the one where you just accept yourself and move on. “This whole P.C. about accepting yourself as you are — you should, 100 percent,” she said. But it was that thinking that made her say yes to Weight Watchers. ‘‘It’s a mechanism to keep myself on track that brings a level of consciousness and awareness to my eating. It actually is, for me, mindful eating, because the points are so ingrained now.’’ Meaning, Oprah wasn’t interested in ceding to a movement. She was wondering how to finally make this work.
And, from Brodesser-Akner, after Oprah Oprahs on her and she cries on the phone during their interview (who wouldn’t?):
Weight isn’t neutral. A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own. Even in our attempts to free one another, we were still trying to tell one another what to want and what to do. It is terrible to tell people to try to be thinner; it is also terrible to tell them that wanting to lose weight is hopeless and wrong.
We’re at a strange, confusing juncture in feminism, where “self-care” is often preached to us in a way that is infantilizing and “strong,” “aspirational” Instagram fitness models who are just slightly more muscular than runway models are presented to us as a physical ideal of Woman Power. (I have recently found myself extremely appreciative and thankful for a corrective in the form of a fucking Kotex commercial.) The thought process behind a majority of “wellness” tips and marketing feels inhumane and, at times, potentially physically problematic, especially when coming from lithe Gwyneth types whose bodies most people will never be able to achieve, no matter how long we sustain ourselves on powders and juices. (It’s called bone structure! Deal with it!) And so Brodesser-Akner’s (and Oprah’s) conclusion—that the best way to combat this is to imagine the question “What’s best for you?”—feels generous and important, one step into untangling the weeds of our current cultural dieting moment.