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Hips, hips away!


After 25 years of turning losers into winners, Weight Watchers is still the heavyweight among diet plans.

Debbie Hudson, a 33-year-old schoolteacher from St. Petersburg, Florida, still remembers her moment of truth. It was Christmas 1986, and her father was trying out his new video camera by recording the family's holiday celebration. As Debbie watched the replay of the tape, she cringed. There she was in living color, all 240 pounds of her. She knew it was time to get serious about a diet--again.

Now, two years later and 90 pounds lighter, she describes the Christmas tape as a "major revelation." Sure, she had known that her weight was out of hand, but that hadn't stopped her hand from going to her mouth. She had made lots of excuses--loneliness, the end of a marriage, a cross-country move--and had always promised that tomorrow would be different. "This will be the day," she recalls saying. But it never was.

"I graduated from college No. 1 in my class and was voted the outstanding woman of Northern Arizona University," she says. "But it was no big deal to me because I felt my life was out of control, foodwise. I used to get so mad at myself because I seemed to have a lot of discipline in some areas but not with food. When my dad got that video camera I actually saw myself as others saw me. I think heavy people sometimes just look at themselves from the neck up. We can't deal with the rest, so we just forget about it."

Bess Gersh, 67, of Phoenix, Arizona, has been comfortable looking at her full-length profile since 9 p.m. on January 15, 1968. That was when she finally reached her weight goal of 135 pounds, down from 190. She says she had battled her bulges since birth. And speaking of birth, she was born under the astrological sign of the scales. Being fat was in the stars, she used to joke.

"I have never been thin in my whole life except for the last 20 years," she says. "I wanted to lose weight because I've got a skinny husband. When I married him I thought I could fatten him up. No one ever told me that certain people have buttons in their navels that shut off when they have had enough to eat. He gets on the scales with his shoes in his hands late at night hoping he's gained."

Not everyone is that lucky. Last year more than 60 percent of American women tried to loss weight. They counted calories, sweated through aerobics classes, and went on an average of five diets in 12 months. They joined health spas, had themselves pummeled by masseuses, drank chalky potions, and bought whatever diet book topped the best-seller list. About 700,000 of them attended weekly Weight Watchers meetings. Debbie Hudson and Bess Gersh were among then. Why? Because the plan works, they say. Others agree. After being in the business 25 years, Weight Watchers International ("International" because the program operates in 24 countries) is still considered the heavyweight in the diet industry. In spite of heady competition from other weight-loss programs, Weight Watchers memberships were up in 1987. Those figures are expected to increase even further this year. The company, now owned by H.J. Heinz, has total annual revenues of about $1 billion.

"It works because it's not just a diet," says Wayne Perra, the national Weight Watchers advertising manager. "We don't necessarily have people change the foods they eat, but we teach them to know how much they can eat and how they can modify their behavior if they're compulsive or binge eaters. The element of group support certainly adds to the effectiveness of the program."

Local Weight Watchers meetings are clubby affairs. Held weekly in church basements, YWCAs, company cafeterials, and other large facilities, they last an hour, generally with a lot of rah-rah, backslapping, and applause. Each member is weighed privately; he or she then joins the group to trade tales of success and temptation. Recipes are exchanged, ribbons are certificates are awarded for special achievements, and no one is scolded for occasionally regressing. The group's tally of pounds lost during the previous week is announced and cheered, and the number of pounds gained is mentioned only as a passing p.s. A short lecture follows, delivered by the group leader, herself a graduate of the program.

"The leader was a key factor for me," says Debbie Hudson, who joined and dropped out of Weight Watchers eight times before she was successful. "Maybe I wasn't mentally ready to listen the other times, but when I decided to get serious about losing weight I really hung on to everything that was said at the meetings. I still use the suggestions today to figure out if I want food because I'm hungry or if I feel the need to eat for another reason. Is it a psychological or physical hunger? That was something one of my leaders said briefly in a meeting, and a light went off in my head. It's been a really valuable tool ever since."

The program has four elements constantly being studied and refined to keep up with trends and research. For instance, the diet (Weight Watchers prefers the term "food plan") now offers guidance on dining out for members whose lifestyles dictate restaurant cuisine. And tips on celebrations are given to prevent holidays from resulting in noticeable additions to the hips and chins. The group support system supplies the element of friendly motivation; a new exercise plan is an optional element that allows members to achieve quicker fat loss while decreasing the appetite; and the Self-Discovery Plan is a behavior modification element designed to promote positive attitudes and help members understand why they are overweight.

For all the innovations Weight Watchers International (WWI) has come up with since Jean Nidetch launched the company a quarter century ago (see sidebar), members' successes or failures depend entirely on themselves. Not only do they have to be at least ten pounds overweight to qualify for the program, but they have to be committed to following the rules if they are going to make it work.

"I had dieted all my life," Bess Gersh remembers. "Then in 1967, a relative from New York was visiting and told me about this plan that lets you eat things like spaghetti and ice cream and still lose weight. I got the Weight Watcher book and started to follow it on my own. When I saw that it worked I wrote to Jean Nidetch and asked her to please send somebody out here to start a group. She wrote back and told me the program was coming to Phoenix and that I should watch for an announcement in the newspaper. I was there at the meeting the very first night and have been in the program ever since. Now I'm a group leader. I'm the one who stands up front and motivates."

Twenty years after Bess Gersh's introduction, Debbie Hudson also read about Weight Watchers in the newspaper, but this was WWI with a twist. Called Inner Circle, it was a new program that limits the support group to eight to ten people who meet for ten weeks. Once the group is formed, no one else can join. The meetings are slightly longer and designed to offer added support.

"For me, being an overachiever and a perfectionist, it's always been really hard to say to anybody, `Hey, I'm having a problem here.' But I learned to do that in this smaller group setting," Debbies says. "In the beginning no one knew each other, but feelings grew. If somebody was having a bad time we'd talk about it. Then when he came in the door the next week we were able to say, `How are you doing?'"

Everyone in Debbie's Inner Circle group lost weight, but not to the extent she did. Before she attended the first meeting she promised herself that this time would be different. This time she would not rewrite the program and turn it into a modified version she now calls "Weight Watchers a la Debbie," as she had in the past. She wouldn't pick and choose segments of the plan that suited her and delete parts she didn't find convenient. This time she would be serious.

"It worked because I did what the leader told me to do," she says. "It wasn't very long before I realized that I wasn't having all the cravings that I had experienced before. I ate the fruits, I ate the vegetables, I drank the water, and I weighed my food. I was shocked to find out when I began weighing the portions that I had been eating much more than I should have. Now I don't have to do that because visually I know how much should be on my plate."

If group motivation helps members lose pounds, the re-education process helps them keep the weight off. The food plan advocates healthy, balanced eating habits that last a lifetime. Members aren't burdened with the chore of fixing one menu for themselves and a second for the rest of the family. Even after they have achieved their weight goals they don't flipflop back to junk food. Meals continue to be attractive, falling, and creative, and there's no such thing as cheating--only portion control. Children of Weight Watching parents have the benefit of good food in addition to a lesson or two in nutrition.

Of course, roles are sometimes reversed. Kids who have graduated from the Weight Watchers program themselves can bring parents up-to-date on what's right and wrong with the family's eating habits. This is especially true of 10- to 21-year-olds who have attended one of the 12 Weight Watchers camps spread across the United States.

"The camps have been operating since 1974," explains Flip Shulman, one of two executive directors of the Weight Watchers camps. "We offer the same sports and activities of any camp, but our kids also come to lose weight and have their eating habits changed. Campers get three Weight Watchers meals and two snacks every day, lectures, rap sessions, and cooking classes, so they really learn what they're eating and why they're eating it. When they go home they receive an eight-week membership to continue the program in their community."

The camp program lasts two, three, four, or seven weeks, and the typical camper who stays a month goes home 18 pounds lighter. Most important, the majority don't regain the weight they've lost. "We call each of our campers in January, following their stay with us," Shulman says. "Between 75 and 80 percent have either maintained their weight loss or have lost more. A lot of the kids come back the following year, mainly because they like the activties, but also because they won't eat all the junk food that they might eat at a regular camp."

If it seems that WWI has explored every angle of weight loss in its 25-year history, company executives claim they've barely scratched the surface. At least one major change in the program is integrated every year; suggestions are gleaned from the membership or from the team of experts the company uses as a brain trust. A dietitian, a psychologist, and an exercise-physiology consultant are constantly fine-tuning the program. Weight Watchers executives regularly sit in on neighborhood meetings to keep in touch with typical members and listen to what they like and what they'd like to change. A recent program expansion has Weight Watchers meetings being conducted in workplaces across the country during the lunch hour.

"It's been proven that when somebody has his weight under control he feels better, produces more, and the morale is higher," Wayne Perra says. "There's a myriad of opportunity to improve not only what we deliver but how we reach more and more people effectively."

However the program may be changed in the future, nothing can improve on the moment of victory. Common to all Weight Watchers graduates are the memories of the times they stepped on the scales and finally reached their weight goals. Most of them recall not only the dates, but the precise hours.

"It happened right before my birthday," remembers Debbie Hudson, who was recently chosen the 1988 Weight Watchers International Member of the Year. "For me, life began at 33. I owe Weight Watchers my life. I really do."

PHOTO : Anyone can lose weight, Weight Watchers' founder Jean Nidetch preaches (far right). Big

PHOTO : losers become big winners like Weight Watchers' members of the year Angelika Visser of

PHOTO : Germany (below) with runners-up and U.S. winner Barbara Gouveneur (center) with actress

PHOTO : Lynn Redgrave.

PHOTO : Comedian Jerry Lewis says you can't laugh pounds away, but humor helps.

PHOTO : A lecture by the group leader is vital to each meeting.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Weight Watchers International, includes sidebar on founder Jean Nidetch
Author:Miller, Holly G.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1988
Previous Article:The Getaway.
Next Article:The Mormans' genetic legacy.

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