Marisa Meltzer, THIS IS BIG

Marisa Meltzer, THIS IS BIG

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Marisa Meltzer who’s the author of This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me). She’s the coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life and also Girl Power. She is a contributor to New York magazine and The New York Times. Her work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Elle, and Teen Vogue. She attended Evergreen State College. Originally from Northern California, she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Welcome, Marisa. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Marisa Meltzer: Thank you. I’m so happy.

Zibby: This is so fun. We’ve already been chitchatting.

Marisa: Name mispronunciation.

Zibby: Exactly. Can you please tell listeners what This is Big is about? I’ll read the subtitle again, How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me). That’s a hint as to what it’s about.

Marisa: It is. It’s a hint, but it’s hard to sum up a book in one subtitle. It’s about the woman who founded Weight Watchers. Her name is Jean Nidetch. She has a successful entrepreneurial story that’s been a little bit lost to history. It’s about how she went from fat Brooklyn housewife to thin woman who lives in Brentwood and is a millionaire and everything in between, founding Weight Watchers. It’s also a parallel story of my basically lifetime of being a dieter and feeling like I’m a failure at it, being sort of tortured about whether or not I should even be dieting, the discourse has changed so much, and just kind of turning forty and trying to reckon with it, and doing Weight Watchers in the current .

Zibby: So much material to delve into. This is so fun. Let’s start with what inspired you to write this book. Why this book? Why a book at all?

Marisa: I’m a New York Times reader and writer. I was reading the obituaries. I saw the one for Jean Nidetch. I admit I had never heard of her or had any idea of who she was. I had this sense of, oh, I can’t wait to read this because this is the woman who I can finally put a face to all of my rage. I can sort of blame her for messing up my life. Instead, I read it and I saw this rags-to-riches story. I saw a woman who was about the same age that I was at the time also reckoning with her forties and changing her life, a Jewish woman in Brooklyn. We even look a little bit alike. I thought, we have so much in common, I want to know so much more, and just had so many questions that I wanted answered about her life, about mine. That’s kind of the impetus. Then just couldn’t get it out of my head and finally decided to write about it.

Zibby: What was your process like? Did you just delve into the research? Where were you doing it all?

Marisa: I was in New York. I decided to, just for my own sanity, bookend it with a year in my own life, looking back of course, but just instead of reporting on and on. It was the year that I turned forty. I started right around my fortieth birthday, which was in July of 2017, and followed myself for a year. I did Weight Watchers for that year. I also spent a lot of time at Weight Watchers headquarters reading the archives of their magazines, interviewing anyone I could find who knew her, going to the Library of Congress and other things, keeping a journal of all of my thoughts and feelings about the whole process, taking notes on Weight Watchers meetings, just totally immersing myself in that world for a year.

Zibby: It was so great too because you really took the reader through the whole story as opposed to making it a biography of Jean Nidetch. It was really as you discovered it and when you — you took us along for the ride.

Marisa: I wanted people to have the whole story, which in my head, maybe narcissistically, always involved me. I love a biography, but I also felt like my life and, by proxy, so many other women’s lives are wrapped up in Jean’s story. The only way to understand where we are now in terms of the discourse about dieting and our bodies and feminism and health, the only way that we could really understand that would be to look back at how it all began and also assess where we are at the present. I decided to be that stand-in character. It was hard to do.

Zibby: Thank you for taking this on for the rest of us. I appreciate it. What surprises did you find about Jean? When I was reading it, I did know a little about her going into it.

Marisa: You did?

Zibby: As I mentioned to you before, I used to work at Weight Watchers. I was a receptionist. Then I was a leader. I was on the program. I drank the Kool-Aid for many years consecutively before abandoning it all. I know about her from that.

Marisa: Did they educate you in your training a little bit about her story?

Zibby: Yes. We were whisked off to a Holiday Inn in New Jersey for a weekend of training. That was definitely part of the story.

Marisa: She’s glamorous. Also in this time when we are so interested in stories of female entrepreneurs and also female pioneers who have been lost to history, she is that person.

Zibby: Then it didn’t end very well for her, which I was so crushed to read. You feel like these people that start great companies or make a mark or leave their creations to the rest of us end up somehow in a satisfied, happy place, but it was unclear whether that really happened with her.

Marisa: That’s something that I really wrestled with in writing the book and researching it, is this desire for a neat and happy ending. I feel like I’m sort of a living spoiler alert for my own book because I didn’t lose like eighty pounds and then get engaged and be like, surprise, it’s a new me. I lost some weight. I did a lot of really hard work just on thinking about what I even cared about and what I talk about when I talk about dieting and transformation. I think I changed a lot on the inside. It was the same thing with Jean’s story. I also wanted to be able to tell this kind of rags-to-riches story. Except, real life isn’t like Cinderella. It doesn’t just end with her cashing out and moving to the West Coast and fading into the sunset. There were decades where she was around and she was, I think, wrestling with some of her own demons.

I think that if you are really tied to food and you lose weight and maybe you successfully negotiate that in your life, that sort of desire for oblivion or for cheating or for being bad comes out in other ways. I see it with myself with spending money or going on a last-minute vacation or something like that. Other people have it. In other parts of her life, she very much gave big amounts to charity and bought real estate and certainly gambled a lot. I think that this is a book very much of our time, though, because as I was thinking about talking about her story and mine, I kept thinking, we’re not really living in an era where neat endings are resonating with us anyway. We’re in this world that feels really messy right now and really complicated. I think if we even look to our political leaders or our corporate leaders, they don’t seem like they have the answers and definitely don’t always seem like they’re making the best decisions themselves. I thought, that’s the reality of life right now. I didn’t totally change everything about myself. Jean also wasn’t able to be perfectly happy for the rest of her life.

Zibby: My ending with Weight Watchers was also not particularly —

Marisa: — Wait, will you tell me a little bit?

Zibby: Yeah. I have been dieting since age nine. My mother used to measure out a half a cup of orange juice for me. I had a calorie-counting guide.

Marisa: I relate to this so much.

Zibby: I still have it somewhere because I couldn’t bear to throw it out. It was the calorie and carbohydrate guide.

Marisa: I think you and I are about the same age.

Zibby: I’m forty-three.

Marisa: I’m turning forty-three.

Zibby: I’m a year older. She was very much from the beginning, like, “Write down what you eat.” I remember going in — I don’t want this to be about me.

Marisa: No, but it’s all of our stories.

Zibby: I know.

Marisa: To be a woman is to deal with dieting and food restrictions and the expectations of your mother and your family. So much of why I want to write this book is because I want to hear other people’s stories like yours just selfishly because it makes me feel a little less alone and pathetic and like I’ve gotten sucked in or wasted my time.

Zibby: No, I could write a book on this too. I swear to god. Maybe I should try. From the beginning, it was like that. I hate to sell my mother out. I think she was trying to help me, but she would hide all the food from me and give my brother all the good stuff to eat. I was never really that overweight. I think she was just afraid that I might become overweight because of her own, maybe, biases of her own.

Marisa: You’re a mother now. I’m not, but I certainly understand that feeling of — my parents aren’t terrible people. Some of their methods were a little weird, and their obsession, but they just wanted to protect me from the world, essentially. They certainly didn’t want me to be teased or bullied or to have people make preconceived notions about me based on my body. In a way, they were right. I did gain weight. I have dealt with a world that’s not always very generous to people who aren’t thin. I get it. We’ve also come a long way in terms of what we know on how to talk about food and weight and health with our children.

Zibby: I feel like so much of my parenting about body image with my kids is a reaction to my own stuff.

Marisa: I think our generation is absolutely — I talk about it with all of my girlfriends, even ones who have three-month-old babies. Their weights are already being charted and discussed. Not to compare it, but I have a dog. A friend of mine dog-sat her over the holidays while I was out of town. Several people were like, “Oh, wow. It looks like Joan –” that’s my dog — “had a really good time in the holidays. She really gained a lot of weight.” She’s a bulldog.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I used to have a bulldog too.

Marisa: Did you really?

Zibby: Yeah.

Marisa: Part of her charm is her corpulent body. It extends to everything.

Zibby: It’s true. Now I make such an effort, though. Last night even, I was getting ready for bed. My daughter was in the mirror. I moved my arm in a way that I realized I have a whole new layer of some sort of bat wing hanging off my arm. I literally was like, . I gasped to see it. I was like, oh, my god, what happened to my arm? It must have been those ten pieces of cake I’ve had in the last two weeks. She’s like, “What?” I was like, “Oh, nothing. I thought I saw something on my arm.” Then I went in the other room was like, oh, my god, what happened to my arm? So I tried.

Marisa: It’s so hard.

Zibby: Anyway, my Weight Watchers story, just in a two sentence, was I lost twenty-five pounds. I kept it off for like two years. Then I had kids. Now I’m heavier than I was when I even originally started Weight Watchers. I got so obsessed with it. It didn’t sound like you got — I got points on the brain. It was all I could think about. It should’ve been a Weight Watchers eating disorder. I swear to god. I mean, it wasn’t. Now I’m like, whatever.

Marisa: I didn’t, but I think I would’ve been more successful. I think you have to be sort of obsessed with points and essentially counting calories in order to lose weight. You have to kind of make this decision, is it worth it? My life and my job, I’m not an Instagram model. There’s no reason for me to look beautiful and amazing. There is certain health prerogative to be thin, but that’s a really different discussion and different weight range than just — we’re killing ourselves. It’s just taking up so much of our headspace to chase this ideal body. What is it for? Again, I look at my own mother who is still incredibly rigorous about what she eats and exercising and looks amazing.

Zibby: My mother also looks amazing.

Marisa: And is almost seventy. Also, I wonder more and more, why? She’s been married for a long time. Her job had nothing to do with what she looked like. She’s never been a sexy dresser. That’s not her vibe. She wears a lot of green and brown, earthy colors. It just becomes this arithmetic that we all have to do. How much of ourselves are we really willing to devote to this, and why? I personally would much rather eat the cake that you’ve been eating in the past few weeks —

Zibby: It’s great. I’ve been really happy.

Marisa: — than counting every point. At the same time, I just had the results of a physical yesterday. My blood sugar is a little higher, and higher than my doctor would like. I don’t want to get onto that obsessive diet rollercoaster that takes over everything. At the same time, I don’t want to be prediabetic. We have to make all these small decisions about how much we’re willing to go and what changes we really want to make.

Zibby: The best thing, I think, about Weight Watchers was taking the emotion, the value judgement, like, this food is good; this food is bad — because everything just came down to a number. I did like that as an analytical exercise, but whatever.

Marisa: Absolutely, because it’s just food. It’s not good food or bad food. I think one thing that Weight Watchers is trying to show you is that, within reason, you can and should be able to eat anything. As Americans, we love a drastic diet. My father loves a fad diet. He’s always keto or something like that, trying to lose and re-lose the same twenty pounds or so for his entire life. I was just in Europe. Everyone’s eating their small but very filling pastry. For lunch, they’re having soup that has butter in it and some good bread.

Zibby: That sounds awesome.

Marisa: Also, no one’s getting fat because they’re eating carrot soup and a big, good piece of toasted bread and butter and having a tiny little éclair every other day or something. I want to be that person. I as an American am still very much attracted to the quick fix.

Zibby: I haven’t even sat down for lunch in a couple days.

Marisa: I’m like, sit down? You and I should go out to lunch.

Zibby: We should.

Marisa: That’s absolutely the answer to this.

Zibby: Let me read a few quotes from your book, which I feel like I’ve neglected here. You wrote, “I have tried for years to wear my heaviness with a certain hard-won pride. I flirted with fat acceptance, tried to believe that weight should not define who I am and that beauty comes in different packages, but is that even possible today unless you decide to live alone without Wi-Fi in a yurt in Montana?”

Marisa: Again, I love a dramatic fix. With social media, I often think before Instagram, I don’t think I had any clue of how many beautiful girls there were. There’s just beautiful girls being beautiful, often in beautiful places. I have never gone through the world like that, as a gorgeous person living gorgeously. Yet I still have this pressure on myself to kind of be better. I’m very much enamored with the idea of fat acceptance, that I could just have someone suggest to me that dieting didn’t have to be my life. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. It’s no different than a doctor being like, “You should go on a diet and lose forty pounds. Then you’d be healthier.” It’s like, oh, really? No one’s told me that. Yeah, I know that I’m buying into this patriarchal culture. At the same time, I don’t live in a vacuum. I’m a product of this society. It’s so much easier to change yourself than to try to change society. There’s also so many other things wrong with the world that I’m not sure that, for me, body acceptance is going to be my number one thing to champion. I know everything is related. None of it is that easy. I think that there is a real narrative that oversimplifies all of it for us. I wanted to write this book partially because I felt like no one had shown how nuanced it was and how complicated. Yeah, we all know better about all of it. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

Zibby: Right. You had this great quote also. You said, “Good feminists do not diet.” I know this is what we were just talking about, but how should we think about it?

Marisa: I don’t know. Gloria Steinem, I’ve never met her, but I’ve always suspected that she eats a seventies diet to this day, just eats like cottage cheese and fruit plates.

Zibby: My mom had that every day for lunch.

Marisa: Like whatever the diet plate is at the diner. So I don’t actually know how feminists eat.

Zibby: Even the idea that to diet would be to make a statement about our femininity or our view of gender relations, then what about men? There are plenty of men who struggle with their weight just as much.

Marisa: Absolutely. In some ways, I don’t want to say it’s harder for men, but there are added things to the conversation. Men don’t have as much of a societal urge to talk about feelings or how hard things are for them or their bodies. Even though women reflexively talk about diets to each other, sometimes probably to their detriment, kind of egging each other on, I don’t know that men really talk about how they’re feeling about their bodies or their food or anything like that. I do think they end up getting seduced by these hardcore fad diets or these exercise regimes or whatever. A lot of what I see with that, I think, yeah, tell me about it. This is all old hat. Oh, you’re doing — what it is? Incremental fasting or whatever? There was a French diet book about that about ten years ago that I read. Catch up. It’s, again, this sense that we should all know better. I was raised a devout feminist. The same mother who took me to protest against beauty pageants also sent me to fat camp. I’m still to this day trying to piece all of that out in my own psyche. I’m a feminist. I believe in equality for women. I believe that the world has been influenced by the men who rule it. I would like to undo a lot of that. I know the way that I feel about my body is bound up in that. At the same time, it’s still just me and my body trying to just make it through the day.

Zibby: Like figure out what to have for lunch.

Marisa: Just to figure out what to have for lunch. Also, if you do not share those views about being a woman that I do, guess what? You still have those same issues that you’re dealing with. I think that there’s this added guilt that I have that I should somehow have every single part of me reflect my political ideas or just my values as a person. That’s hard. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to be the most honest. For me, it was a little bit about dabbling in the idea of being a bad feminist and saying I am feminist, but I also diet. I also wish I was thinner. I watched Fleabag, which was an amazing series. In the first episode, there’s a scene where the two sisters are at this feminist talk. The woman says, “Raise your hand if you’d give five years off your life to have the perfect body.” I’m paraphrasing. Their hands shoot up. I thought, I’ve never felt so seen and understood. I still probably would give five years off of my life if I could just snap my fingers and not have to deal with gaining weight or any of those things again.

Zibby: I don’t think I would give up years of my life.

Marisa: You’re healthier than I am.

Zibby: Stop.

Marisa: No, I mean your mental health is better than I am. I guess the point is that what we think and what we feel don’t always have to be the same thing. I don’t think that we’re going to really make headway in all of this discussion about our lives and our bodies until we allow ourselves to be honest with ourselves and with each other and really nuanced in that discussion.

Zibby: It’s so true. You had one other quote I wanted to read. You said, “I have days, or sometimes just hours, where I feel adequate, like someone could or should desire me for what I look like, but most of the time, I want to change it all.” Talk to me about your relationship with other people and how you feel about your body vis-à-vis your love interests and whatever.

Marisa: I don’t have a lot of love interests in my life right now. I was having lunch with a friend about a week ago who I hadn’t seen for a little while. She said, “Give me the update. Are you dating?” I always feel really bad because the answer’s always sort of no. I am so confident in most of my life, but I really have been sort of beaten down, not literally, but emotionally in terms of the way that men have been about my body and my weight. I keep thinking I’m going to get on those apps and do it. Then I just kind of shy away. Again, I don’t have what I would like to say is a good answer. It’s something I’m still struggling with. I’m hoping that by talking about it, it’s something that other people will chime in about and say that they too struggle with it. I think that there’s a lot of great stuff out there about visibility for more body sizes and shapes and shows where fat or larger women have love interests. It’s great. I know that can happen, but that’s also not really been how it’s been in my life. I’m interested in getting into that in terms of how do you feel good about yourself when so many people around you aren’t and when your life would probably be easier if you were a little bit thinner?

Zibby: Maybe.

Marisa: Maybe. Maybe not. There’s no guarantee.

Zibby: Maybe there’d be something else. You just don’t know.

Marisa: There’s always something. I’d be obsessed about food and I’d be boring to hang out with. I’m always kind of in these parallel stories in my head where I can sit in front of you wearing — we’re wearing, actually, fairly similar outfits.

Zibby: We are. We’re both wearing long skirts.

Marisa: Boots and dark sweaters. I love fashion. I dress myself. I feel good. I have a great life. I have good friends. I’m successful, blah, blah, blah. At the same time, there is this ever-present narrative in my head that is like, if I lost weight, certain things might be easier for me. I don’t know if they’ll ever kind of merge or if I’ll get rid of that nagging voice in my head. I don’t know. We’ll see.

Zibby: Did you have to ask Weight Watchers’ permission to write this book, by the way?

Marisa: I’m not a big permission-asker in general. No, but I made sure very early on that they were aware of it. I thought it would be less intimidating both for me and for the project if I started out with an essay. I wrote a piece a few years ago for The New York Times about my interest in Jean Nidetch. At that time, I used that as an excuse to get in touch with Weight Watchers just asking them for any info. Then I sold the book and was like, “I’m going to keep going with this project.” They opened up certain archival materials for me. They knew about it from day one, but it was never something of whether or not it would be endorsed or anything like that.

Zibby: What’s coming next for you? Do you want to do another book?

Marisa: Absolutely, but none of them are — I’m not being coy. The ideas aren’t really formed enough to even say what they are. I want, honestly, to get this book out in the world and to have these conversations and to maybe change a little bit how we talk about dieting, but really, transformation in our lives.

Zibby: I think one of the biggest takeaways is, it’s almost like you always want what you can’t have type of narrative. You seem to think, if I were thinner, then maybe this would be different in my life. Whereas somebody else might say — today I was saying to my daughter, “I always wished I had blue eyes.” She’s like, “Why?” I’m like, “I don’t know why.” Would my life be any different?

Marisa: I have blue eyes. I can tell you. I’m a natural blond too. People always are like, oh, a blond. It’s like, I don’t know if I really —

Zibby: You always wonder, if I had this, would things be different? How would things be different? This obviously is different because it’s within our control to some extent. This is our choice in a way.

Marisa: Which is what makes it so interesting because there’s certain things like the family you were born into, issues of class, race, ability, that you can’t control. That’s a very different conversation. There’s this idea that you can control your weight. Although, the doctors would or wouldn’t agree with that. We’re treated as if we can control our weight, and we can, sort of. It just becomes this thing of, well, here’s one thing that I could change. Do I decide to do it?

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Marisa: My advice is to read. I don’t think that you can be a good writer without being a good reader. I think it’s essential for just developing your own sense of what is good writing in your opinion and what isn’t. I also think it’s a really good exercise to learn how to write completely in your own voice before you try to tweak or change that voice. I feel like I read a lot of writing that seems like it’s written how someone thinks that writing should sound or how they think they should sound. Literally, you can practice exactly the way that you speak. A lot of friends of mine like my writing because they say it feels exactly the way it does to be with me and to talk to me. I think that is actually a skill that we could each develop. No one talks or thinks exactly like you do. If you can learn to really get that on the page, then you can start playing with it. I think that’s a really good first step.

Zibby: That’s great advice. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing all of your thoughts and personal feelings and everything. It’s really awesome.

Marisa: The pleasure was all mine. Let’s go to lunch.

Zibby: Let’s go to lunch.

Marisa Meltzer, THIS IS BIG