Whether the Fat is Beautiful brigade like it or not, the truth is that far more women than men are discontented with their shape and weight, often to the point of obsession, some to the point of mutilation (enduring liposuction, intestinal stapling and similar repellent treatments); a few to the point of starvation. Linda Huett, general manager of Weight Watchers UK, says she has never met a woman who was perfectly content with her body, and lest you think she has an axe to grind let me add that I haven't either.
Ms Huett believes not that Weight Watchers has created this discontent, but that the image projected by magazines, advertisements and the cinema is invariably one of slimness. In any case, she says, clothes look better on thin women. More important, being fat is bad for your self-esteem and bad for your health.
We are talking in my flat. Ms Huett has drunk one cup of coffee, milk no sugar; no biscuits, no nibbles. On the table between us lies a pile of glossy magazines; Kate Moss, naked, leans forward on the cover of one; a fine-boned young beauty stares haughtily out from another.
Ms Huett herself is not the arrow-narrow figure I had feared. "A lot of people have this image of me as a sylph-like creature but I don't aim at that. I have no desire to go through the agony and abuse it would take." At 5ft 6in she weighs ten stone something, wears at least size 14, and regards herself as normal, average size for her age and height. She is, in other words, anonymous in a crowd: something she longed during her fat years to achieve.
"l was seriously unhappy when I weighed 15 stone and now, after 11 years of not being 15 stone I can tell you that I am happier with normality. I had dieted on and off for the best part of 20 years. Now I'm not obsessed with my weight any more, that has given me freedom."
Linda Huett was born fiftysomething years ago in Duluth, Minnesota, population 100,000, typical small-town America, set in beautiful and rugged countryside with harsh winters and hot summers. Her father was a steamship captain on Lake Superior. His job kept him away from home for nine months of the year so Linda, one of three sisters, grew up in a very female household.
Her history is one many women share. "I was very thin as a child until suddenly one day I stopped climbing trees and discovered hamburgers and milk-shakes and dates - boys, that is - all at the same time. I learnt very quickly that you suffer for your weight if you're out of the ordinary."
From being chubby she grew plump; from plump she went on to become large. "I got to university in 1962 when thin was very much the vogue - those were the Jackie Kennedy years - and I tried hard to diet. I tried all kinds of diets, like the grapefruit diet and the high-protein diet, which were very hard on the system and can't have done me a lot of good. I discovered that it was very easy for me to lose weight and just as easy to put it back on."
Linda went to university in Minnesota and then took a postgraduate degree at Yale, where she met her husband, who was on a Mellon Fellowship. In 1979, at the end of his three years, they married and she followed him back to England. She took a further degree at the London College of Distributive Trades and, still dieting, started a management career with Heal's. After the birth of twin daughters in 1982 her weight ballooned by three and a half stone and she was unable to lose it all. By this time she was general manager of the Guildford branch of Heal's, where being fat did not appear to be a professional disadvantage.
However, she says: "It's very rare for a fat woman to be promoted, just as there are hardly any fat people prominent in the media, on television or in magazines - anywhere you might see images of desirable women. The fat are almost invisible. They do notexist. Even fat men are rare on television, although overweight is much more acceptable in men. But for women? Sure, being fat's a disadvantage!"
It was at this point that Linda Huett discovered Weight Watchers. "At Heal's one of the display girls was wearing smaller and smaller jeans, and I asked her one day how she did it. She told me about Weight Watchers. I joined them in September 1983 and byJanuary 1984 I had lost two stone."
To hear her talk you would think it was like finding God: "Weight Watchers gets people away from the idea that food is the enemy. Food is good, it's one of the great joys in life, but it shouldn't be a constant obsession. Weight Watchers gave me back my normality. They gave me stability. They also removed the idea that there is moral virtue in being slim while over-eating is something bad you must be blamed for."
By the time she reached her goal weight, Ms Huett was a convert. Her faith in the Weight Watchers method and philosophy was so great that she became first a tutor, then a training manager and in 1990, national operations manager, by which time she had left Heal's far behind. Early last year she was made general manager for the entire UK operation; today she burns with missionary zeal.
"Fat people are often asked: `How could you let yourself get this way?'which produces self-disgust. Weight Watchers takes the angst and the obsession out of dieting and replaces it with normal balanced healthy eating."
For Linda Huett at least, the regime has worked. But isn't it irresponsible for such a powerful and widespread organisation (37 million people have joined worldwide since 1963; there are currently half a million UK members attending 4,500 meetings a week) to condone the idea that everyone must conform to society's norm? An ample, curvaceous body implies warmth, comfort, generosity, gusto, enjoyment, appetite, plenitude, solidity - aren't all these good qualities? Why should our society be tyrannised by an ideal of slimness that is unattainable by 75 per cent of the population?
"Being overweight," Linda Huett says, "affects mobility, the quality of life and above all health, which is the main reason why people should retrain their eating habits. If you accept a body/mass index of 20-25 as normal, a BMI of 30 is obese and creates medical problems, while anyone who has a BMI of 40 is dangerously obese, as well as being an object of disgust to many people. I maintain that the grossly obese are no more normal than the waifs we call supermodels.
"Whatever people may say, extreme overweight is very seldom due to genetic problems. Nearly always, it is because these people abuse food by overeating. We must encourage people who weigh 16, 18, 20 stone or more to reduce. Being that fat has real drawbacks. You may not be able to fit into a seat at the theatre or on a bus. Some women come to our classes after their children have said they don't want to be met from school, and they realise it is because they are ashamed of having such a fat mother.
"We live in a society which urges us all the time to consume. America is wall-to-wall eating; there is no activity during which it's unacceptable to eat. We snack all the time; our meals are bigger. In addition, we have become much more sedentary. Because of cars we don't walk as much as we used to. Our favourite pastimes - watching TV, listening to music, reading - are all done sitting down. You see why obesity is an ever-growing problem."
But don't most people overeat to disguise the lack of something else in their lives: of love, of an engrossing and rewarding occupation, of attention or success, companionship or happiness? Because food makes up for all the other things they have not got?
"Yes, people often overeat because they are displacing some other unhappiness. Some people use food as compensation, having been taught to do so from earliest childhood by mothers who fed them to shut them up or divert them, mothers who substituted food for love or used food to buy love: `If you don't eat up the good food I've cooked you don't love me.' Some of these issues are very deep and complicated, but we make people feel better by helping them to achieve one goal: that of a proper, normal, h ealthy weight. If they can succeed in that they are better equipped and may acquire the confidence to tackle their underlying problems.
"Fad foods or pill-taking never work in the long term. We wean people off impossible methods on to a method that will work if they stick at it." Ms Huett picks up a magazine and points to the fashion photographs. "Most models are genetic freaks. It is not normal to be six foot tall and weigh eight stone, with the narrow rib-cage of a child and legs 12 inches longer than most women's. It's an accident of heredity. But the role models upon whom women base their fantasy image have been getting taller and t hinner over the last two to three decades. Marilyn Monroe was a size 16 and a big girl. Not many size 16s will be her shape but she was womanly, curvaceous; what made her special was being perfectly proportioned.
Few young women can ignore the pressure to be thin, although the sort of thinness they feel is expected of them means a diet regime that can amount to near-starvation. "Anorexia is different. Anorexia is not about dieting but about control: control over your own body first of all, but also control of the attention and anxiety of everyone around you. Weight Watchers doesn't claim to be able to resolve the extreme cases like bulimics or anorexics.
"Whether we like it or not, people are judged by the way they look. You don't have to be young and beautiful, but promotion, approval, popularity, even invisibility is easier if you are a normal size. That's why so many people are starting 1995 on a diet."
Hunter Davies is on holiday.Reuse content