The Big, Fat Lie We Need To Stop Buying

Photo: Courtesy of Slim-Fast.
Open your browser and click over to the Weight Watchers website. Next, go to Jenny Craig and Lean Cuisine. Do an eagle eye scroll through their homepages and you'll see a lot of exciting new terms and trademarks: Beyond the Scale
Cuisine with a Purpose What you won't find is a single mention of the word "diet." The word "weight" has also been quietly erased from the ads, campaigns, and other marketing devices of many mainstream weight-loss programs and products. Instead, they now urge women to "unlock your inner awesome" and remember that, "the true measurement of success is a smile and a happy heart." You are, "not just a number on the scale." The number is just standing in your way. And if you can just get that number down, then all that inner awesome will finally be yours. What to make of this new trend away from calorie talk and 30-pounds-in-30-days? Is this a reflection of third wave feminism and the rise of body positivity? Or are we simply swapping out the buzzwords into the same old model. "We all want to be healthier," says Oprah, in her recent Weight Watchers ad. "But let's just get real: we also want to lose weight." This is not the end of dieting. It's just the end of "diet." We prefer "clean eating" to "low-calorie," but Weight Watchers and all the biggest (and smartest) brands recognize a truth we'd rather not admit: We still want to lose weight. We just don't want to talk about it.
Photo: Courtesy of Sego, Metrecal.
"We've been studying women for the past two years and really realized that the word 'diet' has become very irrelevant," Julie Lehman, Lean Cuisine's marketing director told me. "It's the same with 'low-fat' and 'low cal.' That's really not what she's looking for anymore in her life." Lean Cuisine launched in 1981, with a line of 10 frozen meals, all under 300 calories. Back then, it was a perfect fit for the dietary and cultural climate: a convenient, low-calorie meal for the working girl who runs from the office to aerobics, and wants all the flavor of chicken a l'orange — without all the fat. But by 2014, the brand popularity had waned as consumers gravitated away from the concept of "lean" and more toward things like "clean." In response, Lean Cuisine conducted extensive research, initially looking for the new "silver bullet" their target shopper wanted. "We realized there wasn't one anymore," Lehman explained. "Some women are really motivated by the caveman diet and CrossFit, and they were looking for high protein. Unfortunately, some folks can't eat gluten, so we wanted to offer them something. Some folks, it's really important that they eat organically. We wanted to make sure we offered a broad range of solutions that met the way she wanted to eat, depending on her mood, her philosophy, her lifestyle, or her health needs." Lean Cuisine now sorts their meals by categories like: High Protein, Organic & Non-GMO, Gluten-Free, and <20 Grams of Carbs (which, up until recently, was listed as Low-Carb). When I asked why they chose these characteristics, Lehman explained that they were simply the most popular dietary concerns — in her words, "benefits" — in the marketplace. "And we'll be pushing out into new benefits that we see emerging with consumers into the future as well," she added, explaining that they'll continue to adapt their product line based on dietary trends from here on out. "It's definitely where the future of the industry [is] for sure."
Photo: Courtesy of Weight Watchers.
Lean Cuisine's overhaul goes well beyond their website. They've put a lot of money where their mouth is, creating a "diet filter," and launching initiatives like the #WeighThis campaign. One #WeighThis video features women standing beside a scale, talking about all their accomplishments that cannot be weighed: surviving a brutal divorce, going back to college at 55, donating bone marrow to save someone else's life. It's a really good video, and the #WeighThis campaign is one of the most sincere and successful examples of our cultural pivot away from weight-loss fixation. Still, Lean Cuisine's actual product has one crucial thing in common with the '80s version. Though the terms have been scrubbed from marketing materials, all meals are still decidedly low-calorie and low-fat. That's partly due to the fact that "lean" is a government regulated word, and all products labeled as such are limited to the amount of fat they can include. "Ah, I wasn't aware of that but it totally makes sense," I responded when Lehman clued me in. "I know. Most people don't know that," she said. I imagined her on the other end of the phone, sighing in commiseration and wishing her well-intentioned brand could quit this low-cal business, say #WeighThis to the government, and join the anti-diet revolution. Then, she jumped in: "But we also believe portion control is really important to creating wellness, and we want to make sure we do that."

"Inside every overweight woman is the woman she knows she can be."

Lean Cuisine's overhaul isn't perfect, but they deserve more credit than most. If their rebrand is slightly prone to paradox, then Weight Watchers' is a case of all-out doublespeak. Take, for example, the Glowment campaign. (FYI, a Glowment is, "when you feel so proud of what you've achieved that you can't help but glow." You with me? Cool.) "What happens when you stop struggling with your weight and choose to live Beyond the Scale?" the most recent ad begins. Five women appear on the screen, reading aloud letters they have written to their past, pre-Glowment selves. They tell themselves it's time… "To say goodbye to that sad, unhealthy, insecure person." "When I believed the scale was a measure of my self-worth." "I'm here to tell you — it's not." The sad, piano soundtrack gives way to triumphant drums as the women describe how, "everything changed when I decided, 'that's enough'" and made the decision to go beyond." If that sounds vague but faintly positive, that's because it is. From there, the ad is just a patchwork of very exciting incomplete sentences: "And see true happiness and pride in what I am now showing the world." "I realized I'm worth it." "Knowing I have done my best."
Courtesy of Jenny Craig.
It's as if all the relevant nouns have been cut out, leaving a series of optimistic fragments. There's no mention of losing weight, but rather, "growing brighter" and more "empowered" each day. Anyone watching this video out of context could reasonably assume it was from some women's advocacy group — and it's hard to believe that's an accident. But, as with Lean Cuisine, the product remains the same. In order to go Beyond the Scale, you need to get on the scale, every week. In the end, it's Weight Watchers. You have to watch your weight. In the past, these same diet programs played on a woman's fear of romantic rejection or her envy of younger, thinner women. Now, they've co-opted the language of feminism and the body positive movement. They recognize that our values and goals have changed, but still say weight-loss is the way to achieve them. They preach self-acceptance — only for when you get that thin Glow. No one embodies this fact more perfectly than Weight Watchers' own spokeswoman (and 10% shareholder), Oprah: "Inside every overweight woman is the woman she knows she can be," she declares. No one could rationally argue that Oprah is lacking in "inner awesome." Yet, there she sits, speaking of the woman she knows she can be — casually brushing off the astounding woman she already is. By any definition, Oprah is an empowered, self-actualized, wildly successful woman — unless you equate success with weight-loss. Clearly, we still are. And as long as we keep buying that belief, someone will sell it to us.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.

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