Yesterday, America and Oprah’s most trusted diet system, Weight Watchers, announced that, along with changing its name to the verbally awkward WW, the brand was pivoting from weight loss to a new broader focus on overall health. It even introduced a snazzy new tagline: Wellness that works. This particular pivot was, of course, all but inevitable.
The old language of diet culture, with all its attendant focus on weight, has fallen out of favor in recent years, just as the fuzzily defined concept of wellness has bloomed into a $3.7 trillion industry. Rather than striving for a goal weight, wellness demands that we should want to “feel strong” and “eat clean” … while practicing all the same calorie restrictive rituals our mothers did. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in a New York Times Magazine feature last summer on losing weight in the anti-dieting age, “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.” She continued:
‘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.
The verbal change around weight loss was just that—verbal. Underneath the masquerade of health or “moving beyond the scale” was the same obsession with thinness that remains as American as apple pie. Influencers touting “clean eating” and “body positivity” do so with the same moralistic chirpiness of SlimFast ads, except now, disdain for fatness is hidden beneath a veneer of caring about “health,” and those attempting to lose weight are forced to couch their personal choice under the veneer of “lifestyle changes.”
According to the Brodesser-Akner piece, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers had seen their membership recruitment decline for four years straight before their overall pivot to wellness began in 2015. Some observers couldn’t help but wonder if, as part of this week’s culminating name-change, the company would, say, help their members actually understand nutrition rather than encouraging them to rely on the WW point system in perpetuity. That’s debatable, but we do know that WW is partnering with the meditation app Headspace so that users can continue to be mindful of their journey to a “healthier life,” a journey that now includes “WellnessWins” that members can earn “for tracking meals, activity, and weight.” How exactly that differs from any other diet-tracking app is unclear.
WW has a reputation of not being as punishing as other diet regimes, since it doesn’t really deem any food off-limits, but rather monitors quantities. (Theoretically, foods with higher calories or more added sugar or fat count for more points, while boneless skinless chicken breast and most fruits don’t use up any points.) In contrast to restrictive diets like Atkins or the recently faddish Whole30, WW offers a fair amount of freedom for those, like Oprah, who love bread. Or at least it offers as much freedom as you’re going to get on a commercial diet.
That even WW, the “chill” diet system, felt the need to ensure their bottom line by pivoting implies that, on some level, this linguistic change around dieting is triumphant. And the seeming lack of real substance in that move highlights the fundamental hypocrisy of everything that wellness supposedly stands for. Rather than a radical change, WW’s pivot is a succinct illustration of how wellness and “clean eating” and all the rest is really nothing but a rebranding opportunity for the same toxic cult of weight.