The Weight Loss Industry Is Exploiting Women. Here's How We Can Change That

How many times have you decided to go on a diet? For me, it’s certainly been too many times to count. Eventually, my diet and severe food allergies led to an eating disorder, which is a story so many women can tell. 

Of course, the issue is systemic. Our desire to lose weight comes from many sources. We can choose to blame magazines, our mothers, the scale or mean boys on the playground, but we should also take a look at the way the weight-loss industry, one that has been steeped in sexism for years, is taking advantage of one of our greatest insecurities.

Take, for example, Weight Watchers. The company has created a program based on denying yourself a basic need - food - and profits as your dress size drops. To be sure, the program works, and it’s safer than many other cleanses and supplements on the market. But make no mistake, the company profits from your choice to remain in the program. 

When you leave after reaching your achieved goal, Weight Watchers isn’t so worried. Why? It’s basic science - most diet programs, including Weight Watchers, cause you to gain the weight (and more) back when you stop using them. And so, a diet empire now worth $3.06 billion is born. 

What makes it worse is that the Weight Watchers’ board is dominated by men; of the 11-person board, just three members are women.

Of course, this is only one in a sea of companies and programs urging us to lose weight. 

Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a moving piece in The New York Times this August about how frequently women “fail” with these programs and the problems with the science around why people gain weight. She also touched upon the language companies use to sell their programs to us over time and how it has changed to focus on wellness. 

Lean Cuisine, peddler of frozen meals with calories counts inappropriate for most adults, has declared itself an “ally for women’s wellness.” Special K has declared that “women are strong,” while selling a Special K challenge that involves replacing two meals out of your day with its own products.

The truth is that these companies are selling us something that we truly don’t need: different bodies than our own. 

There are ways we can fight back against this nonsense. Choosing to see a body positive nutritionist about what you put on your plate is a positive first step. Maven is a great service for nutrition appointments at a low cost. Beyond that, looking into Health at Every Size and intuitive eating are major ways you can shift your thinking about food and weight. 

From a money perspective, take a look at how you are spending your monthly grocery budget. Is it supporting companies like these? Can you consider shifting your spending around to focus on vegetables and fruits that you love, with occasional treats? 

If all of these suggestions are things you already do, take a look at your portfolio. Does it invest in companies like Weight Watchers, Herbalife or other major weight-loss programs? You can shift that money around. 

Finally, there’s a ton of resources out there to help you get started. Some of my favorites include Beauty Redefined, the She’s All Fat Podcast and Project HEAL. Most importantly, be kind to yourself.

- Alicia McElhaney / She Spends Issue #25

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