My experience of slimming clubs

// 20 February 2012

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A guest post from Saranga in response to Chrissy D’s piece from yesterday.

Green apple.jpg

The In defence of Susie Orbach post was interesting but I found myself disagreeing with much of it and, at first, I wasn’t sure why. One thing that came across to me was that the writer perhaps doesn’t have direct experience of slimming clubs.

I have been a member of one (Slimming World), and I must say it worked for me. Yes, there are these things called “syns” and, yes, “syn” is a horrible cringeworthy term. I can’t say I’ve ever based my self worth on knowing the “syn” level of foods but I believe it’s used as a pun, to put a bit of light heartedness back into the whole diet thing.

Now, I know there are problems with slimming clubs and that these are all tied up with women’s negative self esteem and part of a wider culture that doesn’t value women who are seen as ‘fat’ (whatever ‘fat’ means). However, going to a slimming club did help me, not just to lose weight, but to feel like I was back in control. That’s no small thing and I don’t think it should be dismissed as such. Incidentally, I oscillate between wishing to be thin and enjoying my body, even loving the way it wobbles and is squishy, soft and like blancmange. Most of the time I’m happy with my fat.

However, there are three main points in yesterday’s piece that I take issue with:

“I liked that nothing was forbidden”, because if something was forbidden, you’d think “to hell with this” and not pay for another week, right?

I’d say no. If something is forbidden (by yourself or a diet plan), then you either feel wretched wanting it all the time and not having it, or you eat it then feel wretched because you’ve eaten it. Allocating a number to it gives the person control over what they eat, and takes away the deprivation feeling of most diets.

…”(the leader) didn’t like you to lose much more than a pound or two a week – anything else was too quick and unrealistic”. Uh-huh; that’s because the Weight Watchers autocrats need lifers, not defectors who are going to realise their own oppressive condition and drop out.

Again, I disagree with this. I think it’s because losing a lot of weight in a week (say over 5 or 6 lbs, like some crash diets offer) is not really healthy. For example, once you hit your target weight at Slimming World you no longer have to pay to attend the groups. I imagine the same is true at weight watchers.

If it were truly about making you healthier, and not them richer, wouldn’t they be giving this away for free? Not paying someone extremely successful to sell it?

No, because it’s a business. We live in a capitalist society and businesses want to make money. That doesn’t mean they can’t offer a healthy way to diet, as their business. If they were solely interested in money, I think they’d be encouraging us to aim for very low weights, so we would keep paying the weekly fees. But I never, ever got that feeling from the slimming clubs I attended. Members chose the weight they wanted to get to and were supported to get there. Once there, it was up to the individual what they did next. I met women at the weekly groups who had been at their target weight for a couple of years and were still going to the club. Another thing occurs to me: that for the business to be successful it has to do what it says it will to get a good reputation. It is in their interest to help their members learn healthy ways of eating and managing their weight.

As I said earlier in this piece, slimming clubs can obviously be problematic. For example, they don’t remove the feeling of guilt that’s associated with food. Indeed, I’ve seen some women at them saying they don’t deserve to have lost weight because they ate a pack of biscuits one night. However, what these clubs do offer is a controlled (by the slimmer) easy-to-understand and healthy way to lose weight. Also, I know Slimming World doesn’t let you aim for a target weight below the stated range for your height. I assume Weight Watchers doesn’t either. I’d say that’s a good thing.

Slimming clubs don’t remove our preoccupation with thinness. They profit from it. But there are better and worse ways to do that and I think, given the range of diets out there, slimming clubs can offer a supportive, safe, healthy way to control your weight if that’s what you want to do.

Saranga is a A 31 year old bisexual feminist reading many many comics. She runs New readers…start here!, where she reviews comics for people who are new to them and also Pai, where she talks about comics, feminism, BSL, comics, feminism and yet more comics. Her favourite hero is Supergirl. She is on twitter as @sarangacomics.

Picture of the top of a green apple against a blue-tinged white background by Energetic Spirit, shared under a creative commons licence.

Comments From You

Chrissy // Posted 20 February 2012 at 6:16 pm

Thanks for your response, Saranga, which I did enjoy reading and thinking about. I firmly believe that slimming clubs are, in general, a straitjacket for their members. I believe they do give them false hope to an extent, but I actually think that – more than that – they take a simple idea, complicate it by through mediation, marketing, advertising, use of contemporary moral panic, and attach virtue and morality to the act of eating, and sell it back to their customers/clients.

Thank you for writing your response, though, as it does give another side to the argument that it’s helpful for me to consider, and I am pleased you had a good experience with a slimming club.

p.s. (one last thing, I promise!) I do have a lot of experience with the diet/slimming industry and the pretty terrible effects they can and do have (on some people). But I am quite glad this wasn’t apparent in my post!

Saranga // Posted 20 February 2012 at 8:40 pm

Hi Chrissy. Thank you for the response.

I think it’s fair to say that we have had very different experiences with slimming clubs/the diet industry. Although maybe I should add that I have thought about trying other diets before, but never seriously done any, as I do believe that most ‘diets’ are detrimental to your health. But, the slimming club I joined did not feel (to me) anything like a straightjacket – instead it felt liberating, and simple. But everyone’s experiences are different and no one person’s experience is more valid than another’s. So I should probably stop arguing now!

Thanks again for the considered response, it means a lot.

Ania Ostrowska // Posted 20 February 2012 at 11:54 pm

Making profit on the society’s obsessions with thinness or, more general, fitness and health, does not need to be gender-specific and doesn’t target women only.

Gyms are notorious for punishing their members for cancelling their contracts, the practice that has been challenged only recently by a mass consumer action:

I am wondering whether it’s possible that there are ‘better’ and ‘worse’ slimming clubs (in the experience of their members), just like there are better and worse gyms?

Saranga // Posted 21 February 2012 at 8:09 am

@ania: I know that the club I went to had several different groups in my area, and each one had a different feel to it depending on who ran it. I think they are run a bit like franchises. So my guess is that there are better and worse clubs.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 21 February 2012 at 11:40 am

I think maybe there are two different issues here. One is that we live in a broader culture where women’s bodies are constantly policed and more broadly where fat people are subject to extreme criticism and even abuse because of their bodies. And, slimming clubs profit from both of these things, and in doing so, reinforce that certain bodies are more desireable, more beautiful than others.

At the same time, we also recognise that the ability to control one’s body and appearance is often a place of agency for women, which we have seen not just in Saranga’s point about how it made her feel in control over her body, but in past posts by people endorsing tattoos, piercing or body mods. This has good and bad points. For some women, it allows them to express their selves and gives them a sense of control and that can be positive. It can also have a negative turn, where, for example, anorexia for some woman is about feeling in control and, for some, is driven by that same sensation of wanting to have agency in at least one aspect of their lives.

In that context, slimming clubs for many women can be supportive environments, offering comradeship around a shared goal and contributing to that sense of personal control; although that same comradeship can be exclusive, and so some women can find them hostile and difficult to integrate into, or find that they are ideologically problematic when they can’t get behind ‘fat’ as a problem to unite about.

So, I think that slimming clubs work if you are happy to get behind their aim or to not question what it’s about beyond losing weight, but that is not to say that they don’t feed into a broader, more problematic beauty industry. At the same time, we are now back at that familiar argument about what the relationship is between individual behaviours (which can be seen as ideologically neutral) and broader culture, which can put meanings on to those behaviours that can have negative implications for ourselves and others. So, we are back at- does my BDSM support the patriarchy, or do my high heels oppress other women, etc, etc.

Saranga // Posted 21 February 2012 at 1:47 pm

@FA: Yes! Yet again I am in awe at your ability to get to the bottom of complicated (for me anyway) issues.

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