Downtime

Way Off Plan

Why I find joy in following strangers’ fitness journeys online.

Rabbit hole of Weight Watchers on social media.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Who is the least familiar person that you know the most about? We all seem to have at least a handful of strangers about whom, thanks to social media, we can rail off random facts. One friend can tell you the location of a favorite SoulCycle instructor (whose class she’s never taken!) at any given moment. Another can describe the art on the walls in her ex’s new girlfriend’s apartment. My best strangers just happen to have one thing in common: They’re all trying to lose weight, or as they would put it, “on a weight-loss journey.”

Last year, I spent a week immersed in all things Weight Watchers on the brand’s inaugural cruise for a piece. In the name of due diligence, I followed a few Weight Watchers “ambassadors” on Instagram. I came home, wrote the article, and shelved my notes, but the Weight Watchers members were still, quite literally, with me on my Instagram feed. I could have unfollowed and moved on with my life. Instead, I settled in. I started to check in on my favorite Weight Watchers members every day, multiple times per day—which is as often as they update their endless Instagram stories.

These women have channeled their enthusiasms and frustrations about weight loss into specific Weight Watchers–themed Instagram accounts with names like tradingcardioforcosmos, patty.gets.fit, and groceriesandgrace. Some members like skinnytaste have the bright, edited feeds we’re all conditioned to accept as the cost of doing business on Instagram. But my faves don’t seem to own Photoshop for iPhone and they would never Facetune. The everydayness of their lives is at once relatable and mesmerizing. They post their food diaries made up of the lame items, like sliced turkey and apples, that I actually have in my fridge. They chug water on camera with abandon. A haphazardly cut veggie platter is a triumph worth dozens of congratulatory comments; a 20-minute walk is a #win. They stop to celebrate the simple moments that actually do make up your day, and they’re right. It’s easy to forget that drinking enough water, on its own, is a small victory. Their joy has been a reminder to celebrate all kinds of stuff I do already.

In a slightly upsetting testament to the sheer amount of time I’ve spent in this rabbit hole, I can now read and decode Weight Watchers’ hashtagged lingo. “Off-plan” means a non–diet-friendly day and, as per unofficial WW code, is an opportunity to reset and never a reason to feel guilty. A #SDAC means a member has been tagged and now has to “stop, drop, and chug” water. #FacetoFaceFriday and #TransformationTuesday are for before and after selfies. My personal favorite is NSV, for Non-Scale Victory. It’s a reminder that weight loss is more about lifestyle improvements than cold numbers. My faves talk about how they’re now able to enjoy a hike or no longer feel angsty when asked to pose for family photos. I can practically hear the plinky music of a Zoloft ad or tampon ad while reading these posts. But instead of rolling my eyes, I find myself feeling happy for these strangers. Why not?

Recently, a recipe for two-ingredient dough, made with Greek yogurt and flour, whipped through the community. I’ve watched members roll it out for pizza and homemade pop-tarts. These meals do not look like the Instagram-addled avocado toast, açaí bowls, and chia seeds that social media views as acceptable health food. But I get a twisted pleasure out of watching something so average-looking go viral. And it’s not like I’m immune to the powers of the influencer either: In a fit of hunger-fueled mania one Saturday morning, I got dressed, left my house, went to the grocery store and bought a muffin tin so I could make one Weight Watcher’s egg white breakfast cups. FYI, they’re also her husband’s favorite.

On its face, weight loss is just a numbers game. All you have to do is burn more calories than you eat. And that’s part of what makes this community so satisfying: In theory, you can watch someone achieve their goal just by following a formula. In practice, weight brings up all sorts of complicated issues like access to nutritious food and time to exercise and genetics and upbringing. But watching these Instagram stories, it’s easy to suspend disbelief. My faves are all gainfully employed; they’re all married or have partner-level boyfriends; they count coupons and share promo codes but seem to be able to afford fancy groceries like Trader Joe’s Everything Bagel Seasoning, which is very hot right now. The only discernible conflict is the difficulty of resisting the brownies in the break room. It’s a popular notion that we turn to reality TV shows like My 600-lb Life to compare ourselves to the subjects and, in some perverse contortion, feel better about ourselves. These women don’t want to be pitied and aren’t pitiable. But still, they manage to make me feel better.

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