A few weeks ago I attended the DitchDieting protest with the lovely ladies from AnyBody, Adios Barbie and the inspirational Susie Orbach (author of Fat Is A Feminist Issue) amongst others. After standing in front of parliament chanting out our anti-diet slogans we went inside to hear a panel of industry representatives give evidence to the Parliamentary Body Image Enquiry. The panel included Susie herself (representing the no-diet/intuitive eating approach), and spokespersons from Weight Watchers, Slimming World and Holland & Barrett. The enquiry was chaired by Jo Swinson and Caroline Nokes, two pretty clued up MPs who gave the WW and SW people quite a grilling (frankly I’m not sure what the Holland & Barett guy was there for – and it didn’t look like he did either!).
It was fascinating to listen to. Fascinating to witness the tactics the diet industry giants are adopting first hand. I could write thousands of words, ranting and raving and tearing my hair out about what was said (and, just as importantly, what wasn’t) but I’ll keep my observations brief…and as objective as possible!
When asked about the negative impact of dieting on body image, the Weight Watchers and Slimming World spokeswomen went to great pains to distance themselves from the diet industry. They kept on insisting that they were not the same as all the other dieting outfits out there and that it was important to understand that they were offering something quite different. They kept talking about ‘healthy’ lifestyle changes and a ‘responsible approach to weight loss’. What they were effectively saying was that dieting doesn’t work. Have a look on the Slimming World website to see how they do this for yourself. One article says: “In stark contrast to these restrictive, quick-fix diets, at Slimming World we provide our members with a healthy eating plan that’s flexible, generous and sustainable so it’s a new way of eating that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.”
Of course, nobody is disputing the fact that crazy fad diets and quick weight loss schemes are dangerous and guaranteed to fail and that WW and SW are selling their customers more reasonable eating plans. But they’re still eating plans – and that’s just another word for diet isn’t it? The definition of dieting is: “to restrict oneself to small amounts or special kind of foods in order to lose weight” (Oxford Dictionary) and whether you’re subsisting entirely on acai berries, calculating ProPoints or Syns – it’s a diet. What’s interesting here is that by focusing repeatedly on something as indisputable as the idea that fad dieting is dangerous and ineffective, they distracted the panel’s attention from talking about the real issue: that dieting and restricted eating – in any shape or form – doesn’t ever work in the long term.
However, Jo Swinson and Caroline Nokes are smart women and they refused to be distracted by this mutton dressing itself up as lamb. So they changed tack and grilled them about their members, asking how many of them were repeat customers. Interestingly, the Weight Watchers lady, who until then had had no trouble reciting figures to back up her claims about the number of members and target weights reached and percentages of body weight lost thanks to the WW programme, suddenly got a bit tongue tied and mumbled something about it being difficult to know exactly how many members were not first timers. She knew her numbers back to front for everything, except for this. Mmmmmh. The MP expressed surprise at this and grilled her a little more on the subject: she was concerned, she said, that the diet industry was roping people into a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting.
This was when the Weight Watchers representative dropped her bombshell. She said: “Well we know that being overweight is a chronic condition” and went on to explain that weight regain was an inevitable part of dieting and that it was a fact that most dieters put any weight they lose back on eventually. She then went on to say that Weight Watchers’ aim was to support women to lose weight when they needed it, even if that was several times over, or something to that effect.
[Edit: what she actually said was “ “People have to get over the idea that you just diet once and that is it. It is a life-long commitment.” Many thanks to Ninabeenaribeena for providing the exact words in her comment below]
Extraordinary! I had just heard the Weight Watchers official spokesperson explicitly admit that dieting doesn’t work, for the second time in an hour!
Sadly the meagre hour dedicated to the enquiry was soon over and I returned home feeling both hopeful and despondent. Hopeful because there are women out there like Caroline Nokes and Jo Swinson who are willing to challenge the status quo and take on corporations like Weight Watchers and Slimming World. Despondent because these corporations have huge financial resources and smart people working for them which means they can continuously shift the goal posts and adapt their marketing to get desperate people to buy their products. Despondent because I see hundreds of women each year who have spent years trapped in an endless cycle of weight loss and weight gain and wasted time and money on diet club memberships. Despondent because these women feel like failures and hate their bodies. Dieting doesn’t work because it teaches women not to trust themselves. It doesn’t work because it reinforces the fallacy that overweight = unhealthy and that thin = happy. It does’t work because it doesn’t address the real reasons why women overeat and offers no viable solutions for having a balanced relationship with food.
Have your say. The Body Image Enquiry is inviting people to take part and give evidence by completing a questionnaire about the causes and consequences of body image anxiety in the UK and what practical steps can be taken to address this. Lets give women like Jo Swinson and Caroline Nokes who have the power to bring about change some ammunition. The more we speak up about our experience of dieting, the more we have a chance of seeing something change.