“It’s choice, not chance, that determines your destiny,” Mrs. Nidetch was often credited as saying, a kind of summary of Aristotelian ethics. Every modern era has had weight-loss gurus — Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Sylvester Graham, Frank Kellogg, Dr. Robert Atkins and Nathan Pritikin, for example — and they all play the role of both philosopher and survivor. Today, Oprah Winfrey owns a controlling stake in Weight Watchers and assures us in her commercials that we can eat bread and still lose weight.
In the old days, Weight Watchers was not so permissive. Avocados, peanut butter, ketchup and yogurt were all verboten. You could have one banana, once a week. Recipes tended toward the wacky: A suggested alternative to nuts was to roast mushrooms in an oven until they dried to a crisp.
“Not eating the hot fudge sundae has to be more important than eating the largest, richest hot fudge sundae in the world,” Mrs. Nidetch wrote. And she’s right: To maintain a weight loss like hers or even one of just a few pounds, constant vigilance is necessary and self-denial has to become its own sort of manic delight. Of course, staying thin was her livelihood, so she had ample motivation to follow her own suggestion of eating half a cantaloupe on one’s birthday after serving cake to party guests.
This was not about the fizzy highs of starving oneself, but rather pragmatism, substitution, portion control. A very American, almost Puritanical kind of determination. Dieting was work, a slog. To make up for that, the Weight Watchers tone was, crucially, upbeat and likable. Mrs. Nidetch wasn’t there to be a mean mother figure, disciplining her dieters like misbehaving children, but instead a fellow traveler who made it.
She lived the part of someone whose life had changed greatly. She would always come to the meetings in high heels, a flawless manicure, her hair shellacked just so. After class she would take some of the group leaders out to eat, and the boys at the deli knew to rinse the coleslaw free of mayonnaise for her so she could eat it with her turkey with one slice of bread.
Weight Watchers didn’t just turn her into a millionaire; it enabled her to become the woman she must have always wanted to be. She bleached her hair platinum blonde, divorced her husband, moved to Los Angeles and started dating Fred Astaire. She took the role of an astronaut’s wife in a TV pilot in the early ’70s that was, sadly, never picked up. She was the kind of person who went on a cruise and came home married to the Italian bass player in the ship’s band. (It only lasted a few months.)
She seemed to charm everyone in her path. Maya Angelou was one of her best friends — “It was as if we were twin sisters separated at birth,” Ms. Angelou once wrote. Jessica Mitford tried to write a damning expose of Weight Watchers and ended up writing about how inspiring the company was.
Mrs. Nidetch celebrated Weight Watchers’ 10th anniversary at Madison Square Garden, wearing an orchid-pink organza gown and surrounded by success stories in the flesh.
I see myself in Jean Nidetch, literally. In photographs of her and the zaftig women of her family in the 1930s, I could be her sister, and I weigh more than she did at her heaviest. We’re both blonde, both 5-foot-7, both the kind of women described as brassy. I’m the same age she was when she finally lost the weight for good. But my diet history, unlike her descending line, looks like the stock market during a volatile period. I have gained and lost 50 pounds multiple times.
At age 8 or 9, I was already a diet veteran. My mother and I joined Weight Watchers together — parent-and-child dieting was more acceptable in the mid-1980s — getting weighed in once a week in a strip mall in Northern California. I remember the night before the diet was to begin, I went to the refrigerator for some Newman’s Own lemonade and my mother told me that would be my last glass. Now, 30 years later, the idea of not wasting calories on beverages still haunts me every time I drink grapefruit juice or order a margarita.
I can’t remember how much weight I lost before I gave up that time, but I always managed to cheat or quit. My parents wanted me to lose weight so that I could avoid future pain, but I interpreted it as punishment. I know well the small pleasures of losing weight: the pounds lost recorded in a notebook, the old jeans buttoning around my waist. But my version of rebellion was to stray, whether from a liquid diet or Lean Cuisine or the dry little meals at fat camp and spas.
These days the word “diet” itself is frowned upon; instead, we cleanse, we eat clean, we tell friends we’re trying to focus on healthy living, we try to love our body as it is.
We know how Mrs. Nidetch succeeded, but why did she manage to lose all that weight and keep it off when I — and most others, I should add — fail? I think it has something to do with ambition. That Queens housewife found an outlet, a persona, a funnel for an unrealized self in her weight loss.
After taking a metabolic test and finding out my VO2 max makes me have the cardio fitness of a 90-year-old, I’m dieting again. In homage to Jean Nidetch, I joined Weight Watchers. During the first week, I ate a lot of leafy greens and tried to give up my afternoon pastry habit. I lost three pounds. I remain optimistic, like her, though I’m not counting on finding any Fred Astaires online.