Weight Watchers: How I Lost Weight and Gained a Best Friend
We each grabbed a handle of one of the large wooden double doors to the Bellmore Jewish Center at the same time. We glanced at each other and nodded in recognition but also in bewilderment. I wondered if she was there for the same reason I was. It was too late for either of us to be going for a bat mitzvah lesson. Youth group met on Sunday nights so I knew she wasn’t there for that. Since her mother dropped her off in the parking lot but did not come in, I assumed she hadn’t been dragged in to wait while her mother went to a Sisterhood meeting. She could only be there for the same reason I was and her awkwardness confirmed it.
I knew Judy from our elementary school. We were in the same grade but in different classes. She lived on what we called “the other side of the canal” since our town was formed by two peninsulas jutting from the nearby bay. I had been at Shore Road School since kindergarten but she had transferred in when the elementary school on her side of town got overcrowded.
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We actually looked quite a bit alike. Both blue-eyed and fair-skinned, we wore our long medium-brown straight hair parted down the center -- the Ali McGraw style popular at the time. We were dressed in the uniform of the time: bell-bottom jeans, navy blue military-style parkas, beige suede Clark’s Wallabees dessert boots and Huckapoo button-down shirts tucked tightly into our jeans, revealing subtle rolls of, well, let’s say chubbiness. We were both a little overweight.
“Are you going to the Weight Watchers meeting?” I asked her sheepishly.
“Yes. You too?” I sensed a certain hopefulness in her reply. She would not be in this alone.
“Yup.” I, too, was relieved that there was someone I at least sort of knew joining me for this endeavor. “I’m rejoining,” I said, using Weight Watchers parlance for people who had been members before but had let their memberships laps when they either failed to lose weight, lost weight but gained it back or just gave up altogether. “I used to go in Wantagh,” I noted, mentioning a town just east of ours.”
“Me too,” Judy said, seemingly pleased that we had something in common. It was hard enough being an overweight pre-teen. Being the only pre-teen in the room was even harder.
“Well, let’s do this,” I said, indicating that we were now in this together.
We headed into the synagogue’s event space. Its white walls and light brown wood-paneled wainscotting although bland, allowed the room to fit whatever purpose it needed to fill at any given moment. For kiddish, the light snack that follows Saturday morning services, the room was filled with white table-clothed round tables and gray metal folding chairs. For the Jewish high holidays, the room’s folding dividers were opened up and the room was filled tightly with those same gray metal folding chairs, covered with needlepoint cushions made by the synagogue Sisterhood.
For this particular meeting, the same gray folding chairs were carefully lined up, classroom style. Two middle-aged women greeted us from behind the long white plastic table that served as the reception desk. We shared our status as rejoining members, an admission fraught with the shame of either not having lost weight or have lost it and then not keeping it off. No one ever wants to go back to Weight Watchers.
After paying our membership fee, we received a document that would serve as our passport to a lifetime of struggles with weight control: a membership card that doubled as a record of what would most likely be our weight fluctuations over the course of many years. We were also given a separate little pamphlet that allowed us to log what we ate every day and check off the boxes indicating the number of servings of starch, protein, fruit and vegetables we ate every day. I’ve been ticking off those boxes – if not on paper then in my head – ever since.
“Would you like to buy a scale?” one of the ladies asked, pointing to a small spring scale with a tray barely bigger than a playing card, that would measure our daily intake in ounces from that day forward. “Your mother is going to need one to know how much to cook for you.”
“And my food is going to fit on that little tray?” Judy asked her. “You don’t know my mother.” Weight Watchers was where I’d got my first glimpses of Judy’s sharp-witted humor, often at the expense of her mother, Carol.
We dutifully bought the scales. I’m not sure how often I used the scale but I carried it with me as a sign of good intentions as I went off to college and then moved from apartment to apartment. I think I finally threw it away about 10 years ago.
Looming just inside the entrance and barely hidden by a folding screen was one of those large balance scales you find in doctor’s offices. I entered the room feeling like I was slowly wading into the ocean with a great white shark just visible in the distance.
“Are we ready for this?” I asked Judy. “As ready as we’ll ever be,” she repeated back to me.
We each took our turn stepping onto the scale, watching carefully as the scale attendant (if there’s a name for that job) slid the black weights from left to right until the top portion of the scale remained level. At future meetings, the attendant would glance at our membership card to note our weight the previous week as we silently prayed that the black weights would keep moving to the left.
After the dreaded weigh-in, we grabbed seats as far back from the lecturer as possible. At the front of the room were two giant photos of Weight Watcher founder Jean Nidetch, before and after. Those photos appeared at every meeting, a reminder that if Jean could do it, so could two overweight pre-teens.
The other members, women – mostly housewives – gathered in groups around the room, discussing their successes or failures over the previous week as they stepped off the scale.
“How’d you do?” they asked each other, responding with reports of the weight they either gained or lost and confessing to the previous week’s sins. “I ate a whole box of Mallomars. In one seating,” I heard one woman confess.
Judy and I scanned the room. No, no one else our age.
“I don’t know anyone here, do you?” Judy asked. We lived in a small town and most of the women were around the same age as our mothers. Any of them could have been our mothers’ friends or friends’ mothers.
Looking around the room, we could have been at a Sisterhood meeting. Only three or four of the women could be considered obese or even overweight. Most looked like they needed to lose 5 or 10, 20 pounds at the most. There were a few who, quite frankly, were so thin that I imagined that their only goal in attending a Weight Watchers meeting was to get out of the house and away from their husbands and children.
As much as we tried to be anonymous, the women – and this was a women’s only club at the time – couldn’t help but notice the two pre-pubescent girls at the back of the room. They smiled at us weakly, as if to be saying, “How brave of you to come to a Weight Watchers meeting at your age,” while also acknowledging the likelihood that we were about to enter an endless cycle of weight loss and weight gain that would likely last the rest of our lives. I also think they were just a tad bit jealous since we would be on the Youth Diet, which allowed you a little bit more fruit and more meat than the adult diet. After being on Weight Watchers for a few months, I understood why they might kill for an extra peach or an extra two ounces of chicken.
Judy and I scanned over the small pamphlet that was also handed to us at check-in: THE DIET. THE DIET in 1972 was a lot different than it is today. Just like there are good witches and bad witches, there were Good Foods and Bad Foods. The “all foods fit as long as you count your points” approach of WW (as the non-diet diet is now known) was non-existent. In fact, there were some surprising foods on that Bad Foods list. Bananas, cherries, watermelon and grapes were too high in sugar and starches (the name for carbs back in the 70s) and were strictly verboten. Brussels sprouts – the vegetable darling of the 21st century – were “restricted,” along with tomatoes, eggplant and beets.
“Six ounces of meat for dinner!” Judy exclaimed. “My mother makes each of us a 16-ounce steak.”
“Well, if you get hungry, at least you can have as much bouillon broth as you want,” I said, pointing to the “unrestricted” items list.
Other vagaries of the diet included liver, which we were required to eat once per week. And they did not mean the chopped liver my grandmother lovingly made with gobs of chicken fat. Liver. Plain liver. To this day, I don’t know what eating liver has to do with weight loss but I do know that I have not eaten it since 1973.
Loud conversations turned into hushed murmurs as a slender woman walked up to the front of the room. She wore a skirt that unfashionably hit just below her knees with a gray-patterned button-down blouse. She seemed old to me then but thinking back on it now, she was probably in her mid- to late-40s, perhaps 50s.
“Quiet everyone, we’re about to start,” the woman said in her loud booming voice, the thick Brooklyn accent and jovial demeanor sounding like Joan Rivers about to start her comedy set. The room obediently quieted down. “Hi everyone. I hope you had a wonderful, successful week. I’m your lecturer, Mimi Ackerman. For those of you who are first timers – I see who you are -- I’ve been on Weight Watchers for 20 years and have lost 40 pounds. Do you believe that?!” She then held up a 20-year-old photo of a woman that was unrecognizable from the woman at the front of the room. She was fat. Then, she held up a pair of pants that could easily fit two Mimi Ackermans. “These are my slacks from back then. A size 20!” As first-timers, Judy and I were impressed but the women in the audience oohed and aahed as if they hadn’t seen this shtick before. In actuality, every Weight Watchers meeting opened with a similar confessional, a formulaic description of the lecturer’s membership at Weight Watchers, her weight loss, and some token of her life as a fat person.
“So how did everyone do this week?” Mimi asked, receiving a mix of groans and happy shouts in response. “How did you do?” she asked a woman in the front row, shoving a microphone in her face. “I lost two pounds,” the woman responded, followed by a burst of applause from the approving audience. Judy and I dutifully clapped along. “What about you?” she asked the next woman in the row. “I gained a half pound,” with more shame than someone pleading guilty in front of a judge. Heads nodded around the room, acknowledging the pain this woman must have felt for disappointing Mimi. “Oy,” Mimi said, “what happened?” She half listened to an excuse she had probably heard hundreds of times before. “You’ll do better next week,” Mimi said only somewhat encouragingly.
Like a Borscht Belt comedian, Mimi continued to go through the audience eliciting more confessions of success or failures, cracking a joke here and there to keep the mood as light as possible. Judy and I rolled our eyes at each other more than once.
Following the food addicts’ confessional, Mimi went on to talk about the topic of the night. Every Weight Watchers lecturer was sent a suggested topic – guilt, cheat foods, guilt, recipes, guilt -- but was supposed to personalize it.
“Let’s talk about what makes us cheat,” Mimi said, as if the consumption of any food that failed to appear on THE DIET was an illicit and sinister act. “What foods make you cheat?” she asked the audience, blaming the food, not the attendees, for their actions.
“Friendly’s butter crunch ice cream,” Judy whispered to me.
“Ooh. With hot fudge,” I responded. My family always had hot fudge in the refrigerator, which may be one of the reasons why I ended up at Weight Watchers.
The audience gleefully responded by shouting out their favorite treat foods, as if shouting them out would either purge their desires or satisfy their cravings in some strange way. We were starting to feel like we were at one of those revival meetings we caught an occasional glimpse of on Sunday morning television.
“For me, it’s Oreos,” Mimi admitted. “Those darn Oreos? They look sooo good, sitting there in their blue box, beckoning me every time I walk into the kitchen.” She went on to describe the two chocolate cookies sandwiching a thin layer of sugary cream with the same passion Pete Wells uses to describe a dessert at a restaurant he has just given three stars. As the description went on, so did her passion. I could almost swear she closed her eyes as she waxed poetic about this most familiar cookie.
Judy and I exchanged confused glances. “She’s making me hungry,” I whispered. “All I want to do right now is go home and eat a box of Oreos.”
The next day at school, we smiled at each other brightly. “I have a confession to make,” I told her. “I went home and ate a bunch of Oreos.”
“So did I,” Judy said and we both laughed.
“Try again next week?” I said, the first of many, many times I asked myself that question.
I don’t remember if Judy or I lost weight during that particular run at Weight Watchers. In the decades since, we have joined Weight Watchers many times – sometimes together, sometimes on our own. We’ve lost weight and gained weight. We’ll likely lose it and gain it again. Dieting became such a central theme in my life that I became a dietitian.
To this day, I still can’t look at an Oreo without thinking of Mimi Ackerman or of Judy. In fact, I avoided Oreos for years until Judy hosted a dinner party for me at her apartment. For the cake, she served a concoction known as Slutty Brownies: one part chocolate chip cookies, one part brownies and one part Oreo cookies (it’s awesome, trust me). I blew out the candles and thought, if not for Mimi, I wouldn’t have had my best friend.
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