Yo-Yo No Mas: Oprah & The Weight Wars

  • by January 28, 2016
Wednesday night, I spent an hour online with my new BFF, Oprah.

Well, actually, she was connecting personally with me and the thousands of others listening in on the call that Weight Watchers orchestrated for members.

Never mind the rest of the masses. For her part, O rocked enough of that signature comic, raised-and-lowered, stretched-out-syllable-delivery (“Uh-MAYZ-ing!) to offer not only the inside story on her humiliating yo-yo dieting thought process: “Should I do the CLEANSE? Then after the CLEANSE, I eat a meal and immediately gain four pounds….So then I think I should have done GREEN DRINKS,  or PROTEIN SHAKES, or maybe NO CARBS, or PALEO, so then I think about BACON…”

In one of many great lines about being “obsessed” with food, she admitted that she had been “controlled by the potato for 50 years.”

And we got lots of other personal nuggets, and inside-the-program-jokes about points. She told a long story about having company at her house over the holidays, including Gayle King, her real-life BFF, who is also on the program. Oprah had brought in three chefs, including one to make pastry. (“I make no apologies for having chefs.  I worked really hard for that,” she said.)



Anyway, the chef made homemade Cronuts every morning. Gayle decided to devour one for breakfast, leaving herself with only “seven points for the rest of the day.”

The experience was just like being in on some of the best moments of O’s talk show; it confirmed the power of sharing stories, and Oprah’s mastery for both building community and making each person feel heard. Even with the somewhat hokey set-up, she proved to be an EQ genius, a personal connection magnet. (And magnate.)

At the same time, over the years, we’ve all watched Winfrey’s painfully public weight fluctuations. Who can forget that image of skinny mini-Oprah pulling a Radio Flyer wagon full of fat onto her talk show stage? She later admitted that the designer jeans she'd worn then didn’t fit her even hours later.

So addressing the elephant in the room, the “Why is this time different from all other diet times?” question, was key.  She explained that this was not a not a “diet.” Instead, she had now made the shift to “this is the way I want to live forever. I can trust the points system.”  Now down 26 pounds, she said she was in it for “the long haul.”

Which was the best answer she could muster, while also relying on that unfortunate word “journey.”

But it only underlined to her fellow overeaters that keeping it under control is never easy, even if you can afford chefs and trainers. “If trainers could lose the weight for you, I wouldn’t be on this call,” Oprah said.

And while some of the questioners on the line seemed overly prepared and/or scripted, she acknowledged the importance of having a “safe, non-judgmental” place to talk with others about weight stuff.  She called the Weight Watchers Connect app (through which the call was generated) a “social media snark-free zone.”

She certainly knows about snark.

Last October, Oprah shocked lots of people with the announcement that she was buying 10% of the struggling Weight Watchers business, and would become a member, an endorser, and also sit on the board.

In all of her well-documented dieting, she had never mentioned Weight Watchers before. And in fact, she admitted that she had resisted it all these years because she didn’t want to have to weigh in and count points. Many of her fans seemed to think that at 61 (she turns 62 on Friday, she noted on the call), the self-made billionaire talk show magnate/actress/social activist had achieved some sort of peace with herself, including the overweight part.

Or at least, that’s what most people who aren’t as rich or famous might think.

Last December, Oprah appeared in her first WW commercial. Shot close-up in her sunny backyard, sitting under trees, gesticulating with her arms, (with her Apple watch and many bangle bracelets glinting on her arm) she waxed philosophical: “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.”  

She used her serious voice. It felt honest and soul-baring to me. She then talked about not recognizing yourself in the mirror, “getting lost, buried in the weight that you carry.” She ended with “Let’s do this together.”

The spot set off a social media fire storm. Some people were very touched and cried, but more were outraged.  “Being thin should not define your self worth” one offended mom scolded her. Others, who had modeled their own careers on hers, didn’t want to hear that their glorious mentor felt  “lost” or  “buried.”  

How weight-ist and looks-ist to admit what she did!

Oprah responded to those criticisms on the call.  She said that no one “who has been through it, standing in the closet with three different sizes to try on on the floor,” who “can’t zip up their pants” would be offended.

She seemed to be establishing a baseline; the follow-up ads have been more specific and relatable. But she said on the call that she has always just talked about “her own truth.”

The latest video, in which she rhapsodizes over being able to eat a slice of sprouted, whole-wheat bread every morning with breakfast (with avocado slices and maybe an egg) resonated. Lots of dieters go to sleep dreaming of breakfast.

But more importantly, a variation on that line, in a single tweet — “Eat bread. Lose weight. Whaaatttt?” released hours ahead of the live online call,  made the stock go crazy.  In one hour, it had risen  (like freshly baked bread) nearly 16%  By the next day, it reached  $14.07, a 23% increase. According to USA Today, that single tweet netted her somewhere around $19 million

Did anyone figure that with Oprah’s buy-in of a small percentage of the almost moribund Weight Watchers (like every other weight-loss company, it’s feeling the competition of free online services and apps) , that she would get way richer, with the stock becoming exquisitely sensitive to each of her tweets and pounds lost?  

Food obsessives tend to lie about their weight. But in Oprah’s case, any misinformation could actually become subject to securities fraud. Even seeing her in a dressing room, shopping, could amount to insider information.

That’s heavy — but no matter. She  no longer has a daily show to do, and now by taking her weight loss public, Oprah is unburdened. She’s able to come clean about her  deepest, darkest eating secrets, and in the process is helping others.

Oprah has indeed brought new life to Weight Watchers,  a business that for the last 50 years has been based on the quaint notion of getting together and talking.  

It will no doubt work in the short term. It already has. But for the company’s fortunes to weigh so heavily on one celebrity’s success is tricky. What happens when Oprah  gets to maintenance, or inevitably, gains some weight back?

That’s a lot for one woman to carry. It’s not that easy for one former obsessive eater, no matter how brilliant or magnetic, to save an entire corporations’ bacon.

9 comments about "Yo-Yo No Mas: Oprah & The Weight Wars".
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  1. Don Perman from self, January 29, 2016 at 7:29 a.m.

    From the terrific headline to witty, wide-ranging analysis, this was another marvelous column. Nice work.

  2. Jeff Sawyer from GH, January 29, 2016 at 8:53 a.m.

    "addressing the elephant in the room" – yikes! Great piece.

  3. Jane Farrell from Freelance, January 29, 2016 at 10:04 a.m.

    For close to the past 30 years, I've been listening to Oprah urge us to be "your best self," and I am damn tired of it. Over and over again, she has promised her fans that she has finally found the best way to lose weight, and over and over again those methods have failed. She has also said that she has come to terms with her weight, but now we can see that's just not true. 


    She is a phenomenon - on the Forbes Richest People list, she is the only woman billionaire who earned her money rather than inheriting it - and yet it's clear that despite her power and influence the weight issue will always be with her.


    It's an interesting commentary on how important weight is for women at every level. (Warren Buffett doesn't seem to be watching his waistline.) Rather than embrace yet another weight-loss method, I would like to hear her talk about the systemic ills that cause women to be so concerned about their weight, as well as ways to cope with that. But that isn't a quick fix, and she is interested only in quick fixes.


    I guess she's interested in money, too - I can think of nothing else that would persuade her to become part of an old-line organization like Weight Watchers. Maybe she always will have a compulsion to be involved in something public.


    I just wish she would stop trying to sell fairy tales with happy endings. 


  4. Howard Barrett from MARKETING INITIATIVES, January 29, 2016 at 10:13 a.m.

    Great piece. Very timely.
    Evryone ahas an opinion on this.That's what makes it a good read.
    Based on your reader comments-the opinions vary....but-if anyone can pull this iff, I believe she can. Try to name other public figures-whether from the Broadcast/Media world or not, who have as strong a trusted following/brand,as Oprah.
    High risk for her, perhaps- but high risk for Weight Watchers as well ! New brand image will affect ALL of their businesses- CPG/clinics/Magazine,....
    It goes both ways.

  5. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., January 29, 2016 at 11:20 a.m.

    Terrific analysis, Barbara. I think Oprah and WW are a perfect match. Her presence, her struggles, her voice lend an authenticity that will attract a legion of followers.

    Her brand is one of the most powerful in the world, and using it for good is great. And for her, profitable. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  6. Carri Bugbee from Big Deal Digital, January 29, 2016 at 3:51 p.m.

    Excellent piece, Barbara! Smart analysis; you said what many of us were already thinking, but so much more eloquently. 

    Like others, I thought perhaps Oprah had moved past the weight-loss yo yo phase of her life—at least publicly. But since she obviously doesn't need the money (and didn't need to prove anything by investing in WW), I think she has a real passion for wanting to figure out the weight loss "solution" and help others do the same.

    I certainly understand why it galls people that she is talking about weight loss, yet again. I get why people are disappointed that it doesn't seem like she is putting the same effort (at this very moment, anyway) into self-acceptance. I also know that we have more scientific evidence than ever before to indicate that being overweight (even just an extra 20-30 pounds) can have a big impact on health and longevity, so I don't fault Oprah for continuing to seek—and offer–a viable option for weight loss.

    She knows it's a big, public risk. She could just enjoy her billions (and her morning toast) without putting her reputation and money on the line. I hope that she, and the millions who join her, are successful.

  7. Barbara Lippert from, January 29, 2016 at 4:45 p.m.

    Then there's the other recidivist in her 60s who is looking great lately, (lost 100 pound, maybe?)Kirstie Alley. Talk about a wrinkle in time-- in her spot for Jenny Craig, she walks back on the Cheers set and serves beer to her two old friends. It's her third go round with Jenny, I think. She was quoted in the press as saying, "I gain weight easily and I lose easily." That struck me as odd-- who loses easily? 

  8. Jim English from The Met Museum, January 29, 2016 at 11:50 p.m.

    As you once wrote,  Barbara, regarding a Weight Watchers TV campaign,  "Because obesity is so unhealthy, disdain for it is one of the last acceptable prejudices in our culture."

  9. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, February 1, 2016 at 7:10 p.m.

    another great entry....the campaign is just average....but having the average words voiced by Oprah, it becomes important...i wish her good luck...i am typing this from my closet with all of my jeans that dont fit strewn around me...maybe i should start counting points

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