The scene: Ten women seated around a conference table. Cameras and microphones recorded our every word and gesture. Diet paraphernalia was scattered around like so much detritus. Six obese women faced four thin ones. We eyed each other warily across water bottles, coke cans and a plate of mostly untouched cookies.
Two older, very overweight women pointed at Allison and I and whispered behind their hands. I couldn’t tell what they were saying but the message came across clear enough. I was embarrassed and felt suddenly defensive. A few of the other women stared. One buried her face in a magazine and hid in the corner. Two of them hit the cookie platter that seemed like a strange feature to have at such a meeting. I waited for a hidden camera to be exposed. And the meeting hadn’t even started yet.
West Side Story – Weight Watchers style
We were all there to be part of a paid focus group on weight loss programs (we have already discussed how I sell out) and the only criteria was that we were women who had ever tried a weight loss product. Other than that, we came from all races, ages, socioeconomic strata and even BMIs.
Ostensibly we were there to merely discus our reactions to a new weight loss program marketing campaign – which I can’t write about per the confidentiality agreement I signed – but to do that we pretty much had to bear our souls, insecurities and all, to a bunch of strangers. Weight loss is very personal.
At last, I cleared my throat and said to the woman next to me, “You have the prettiest red hair I have ever seen!” And it really was: auburn, curly, well-moisturized. The hair I have many times tried to dye my hair to be like, before I decided forever forsake my desired Ariel in favor of my natural Snow White.
She grinned. “I was thinking of dyeing it but…”
“Oh you shouldn’t! It’s just gorgeous!”
The mood lightened a little. Then we got down to the business of introducing ourselves. We were supposed to say the diet programs/products we had tried and why. A young woman across the room started, “I have an 18-month old son and I just… can’t lose the weight. I’ve tried everything. Right now I’m on Atkins. And it’s working. When I stick to my plan. Which lasts about two weeks.” She dropped her eyes in shame and her voice quivered. “I just want to be healthy but its so hard, you know?”
Group Focus Therapy Night
Immediately every woman in the room spoke up to comfort her and sympathize. And from then on we were all on the same team. Previous prejudices were forgotten as we unraveled our torrid dieting histories. I’d tell you everyone’s stories except they were all the same: weight lost and regained, exultation followed by embarrassment and depression, and then desperation leading us all to the aisles of our nearest GNC/grocery store/weight loss center in search of the balm that would heal us and allow us to be the person on the outside that we were on the inside. No matter what our skin color or even our weight was, we all had this in common.
It was painful. It hurt listening to everyone else’s stories, especially the one woman who spoke so glowingly about every diet she’d ever tried from Herbalife to Slimfast to Jennie Craig gushing, “It really worked for me! It was really great! It really was!” only to add, “It’s me that’s bad. I just keep gaining the weight back again. See?” And she took another cookie and ate it, whether in defeat or defiance I couldn’t tell.
It also hurt telling my own story. I forget how freakin’ crazy I sound until I say it all out loud. There I was in my size 0 jeans, talking about how I always feel fat and how grocery shopping is a positively excruciating experience for me because I must read every label and compare every product, paralyzing myself with indecision (for reals – ask my husband if he likes grocery shopping with me. He’ll drop bowling balls on his foot and light his hair on fire in response.)
The worst moment for me was when the group moderator asked us, “What was it that first got you interested in diet (or “health” as they kept calling it) products in the first place?” I didn’t know how to answer her because for me there never was a “first” time. I’ve never not been interested in weight loss products. I honestly cannot recall a time, even as a child, when I thought I was okay just “as is.”
Nobody Got Knifed
Dieting and weight loss are the lowest common denominator for women in our society. Go to any locker room (as Leslie can attest) or Girl’s Night Out or scrapbooking party and you will find it. It’s a strange thing though because it isn’t socially acceptable to be “on a diet” anymore. So we hide it from each other or poke fun at ourselves or even, sometimes, break down and cry on a shoulder about it. We rebel against the restrictions of our diets together on New Year’s Eve only to become weight-loss buddies first thing New Year’s Day. Occasionally we sabotage each other. We laugh about it, blog about it, cry about it, write books about it and call our sisters about it because in the end, we all speak the language.
I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it’s wrong either. After the group concluded, Allison and I walked out to our cars with the two women who had been so hostile towards us at the beginning. We were chatting like old friends, sharing recipes and websites – and of course, which protein bars tasted the most like real chocolate.