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Oprah Winfrey is, and will always be, an icon of strength for women and people of color. There is no denying her immense contributions to philanthropic efforts and the diversification of television. With a single speech at the 2018 Golden Globes, Oprah rallied the support of billions to raise awareness about sexual assault against women in Hollywood — and apparently accidentally launched the beginnings of a presidential campaign! The woman has power.
However, despite all that Oprah has done to move society forward, one aspect of Oprah’s advocacy is actually working to hold society, and particularly women, back: She endorses Weight Watchers.
Weight Watchers, marketed as a “body positive” and uplifting company that improves consumers’ health, is not at all what it seems to be. When you boil things down to the facts, Weight Watchers is neither body positive nor health-focused. Instead, Weight Watchers instructs its members to diet and restrict their food intake in order to lower the number on the scale.
From its very name to the details of its programs, Weight Watchers exploits weight stigma, one of the most harmful types of discrimination facing women (and people of all genders) in our society. Weight stigma is the prejudice against people with larger bodies. Once you see it, you realize it’s everywhere —in the lack of representation of large bodies on television shows, the excess of weight-biased magazine ads, and in the freedom that bullies feel to overtly shame people in larger bodies.
This society-wide pressure says you have to have a smaller body to be acceptable, to be successful, and to be OK. Weight stigma has played a role in keeping larger women out of prestigious careers and in the margins of mainstream representation. Oprah herself has faced this unfair treatment — her weight has famously been a tabloid feature for decades — though like every other obstacle she’s faced, she has prevailed in spite of it.
This type of prejudice is not only rude and unjust; it’s also (ironically) harmful to people’s health. Studies have shown that weight stigma takes a massive toll on people’s mental health, contributing to stress, a reluctance to exercise, and an increase in disordered eating behaviors. Overweight or obese persons are also less likely to go to the doctor, reporting that they had a negative and stigmatizing experience after being judged for their weight.
Weight stigma is actually so severe that studies show it increases fat persons’ risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health conditions. The health consequences of weight stigma could even explain why obese persons are more likely to have those diseases in the first place.
In short, our fear of being fat is literally taking years off of some people’s lives — without meeting its health promises in return. Research has shown that body size is actually not the massive predictor of health many believe it to be. In fact, people who are deemed “overweight” by BMI categorization are likely to live longer than those of a normal weight and actually enjoy a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases.
The science is clear: Health can exist at any size. And the concept, appropriately called Health At Every Size, has become a legitimate movement in healthcare, with hundreds of endorsements from top dietitians and doctors. With so many voices calling for change — for people of all body types to get appropriate health advice and be afforded the same level of opportunity by society — genuine body positivity has in recent years seemed ascendant.
That’s why Oprah’s role in this dialog is so disappointing. It is within her power to shift the scale, if you will, of conversation to advocate against this prejudice. In the same way she’s helped black women to overcome oppression, she can help women with larger bodies to overcome the limits of weight stigma — instead of lending her trusted voice to help Weight Watchers exploit people’s insecurities.
In light of the increasing awareness that weight loss is a purely aesthetic pursuit with limited health benefits, Weight Watchers’ marketing team faces a Herculean task — one that Oprah is generously assisting them with.
Just a few years ago, consumers fed up with being told to diet were flocking toward concepts such as wellness and self-care instead. Weight Watchers’ revenue plummeted, and in January of 2015, their stock shares dropped an alarming 32 percent in just one month alone.
Then, in October 2015, Oprah bought a 10 percent share in the company, and stock immediately soared. (CNBC has estimated that Oprah has already made $300 million on her investment.) As time went on, it became increasingly obvious: More Oprah meant more money. The media icon made appearances in dozens of commercials and advertising campaigns, vaulting the company into its recent resurgence. The whole world now knows that Oprah loves bread.
Later, she even went so far as to say she’d be on Weight Watchers for the rest of her life — and not just because she couldn’t keep off the weight. Now, DJ Khaled has also come aboard, which has created a huge buzz and caused stock to sail yet higher. Weight Watchers’ marketing is winning, which means body positivity is losing.
But Oprah, as we all saw at the Golden Globes, has tremendous cultural power. With one stirring speech, Oprah added energy to the drive for worthwhile social changes that could benefit women (and men) and people of color (and people of all colors). But right now, Oprah’s message has one gaping blind spot: People of every gender, color, and creed deserve to be treated fairly — but if you’re fat, there’s something wrong with you.
Now, Oprah is faced with an opportunity. She can stop counting the points in her bread. Oprah has the chance right now to face a powerful prejudice that disproportionately harms women head on, denounce Weight Watchers, and bring body positivity to the main stage. Doing so would represent a gargantuan step forward for America’s mental and physiological health — and it would help women everywhere by championing equal treatment for all human bodies. Then maybe someday, bodies like Oprah’s wouldn’t have to overcome oppression to achieve success — bodies like Oprah’s could just live without having to apologize for their size.
Oprah has the power to directly fight the prejudice that overweight and obese women feel every single day. But by continuing to endorse Weight Watchers, Oprah is holding the body positive movement — and women everywhere — back.