“It’s choice, not chance, that determines your destiny,” Mrs. Nidetch was often credited as saying, a kind of summary of Aristotelian ethics. Every modern era has had weight-loss gurus — Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Sylvester Graham, Frank Kellogg, Dr. Robert Atkins and Nathan Pritikin, for example — and they all play the role of both philosopher and survivor. Today, Oprah Winfrey owns a controlling stake in Weight Watchers and assures us in her commercials that we can eat bread and still lose weight.
In the old days, Weight Watchers was not so permissive. Avocados, peanut butter, ketchup and yogurt were all verboten. You could have one banana, once a week. Recipes tended toward the wacky: A suggested alternative to nuts was to roast mushrooms in an oven until they dried to a crisp.
“Not eating the hot fudge sundae has to be more important than eating the largest, richest hot fudge sundae in the world,” Mrs. Nidetch wrote. And she’s right: To maintain a weight loss like hers or even one of just a few pounds, constant vigilance is necessary and self-denial has to become its own sort of manic delight. Of course, staying thin was her livelihood, so she had ample motivation to follow her own suggestion of eating half a cantaloupe on one’s birthday after serving cake to party guests.
This was not about the fizzy highs of starving oneself, but rather pragmatism, substitution, portion control. A very American, almost Puritanical kind of determination. Dieting was work, a slog. To make up for that, the Weight Watchers tone was, crucially, upbeat and likable. Mrs. Nidetch wasn’t there to be a mean mother figure, disciplining her dieters like misbehaving children, but instead a fellow traveler…