Have you ever heard of Jean Nidetch? You may not recognize the name, but you would immediately recognize the name of the business she started in the 1960s and built into a global organization. I recently read that Jean had died. The legacy that she left was the business she started and grew into a worldwide organization — Weight Watchers International.
Jean was born in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1923. Her mother was a manicurist and her father was a cab driver. As a child, she had a compulsive eating problem. In 1947, she married Mortimer Nidetch. Like the typical American family, Jean and Mortimer had two children. Their lives seemed to be going fine until she ran into a neighbor one day in 1961.
Jean had made a trip to the supermarket to pick up some groceries. At that time, she was a 214-pound housewife with a 44-inch waist. As soon as her neighbor saw her, the neighbor said, “Oh, Jean, you look so good! When are you due?” Jean was shocked by the comment and didn’t know what to say. Over the years she had attempted to lose weight, but had always gained the weight back.
Jean immediately went on a diet, but like all of her previous diets, she failed. Her favorite dessert was Mallomars — chocolate covered marshmallow cookies. She was in the habit of hiding Mallomars in a hamper and, at night, she would duck into the bathroom and gorge on them.
Frustrated and defeated, Jean felt that the only way she was ever going to make any progress was to reach out to her friends for support. She invited six of her friends to her house, all of whom were overweight women. They all agreed to go on a diet together and pledged that they would help each other get through the moments of doubt, anxiety, and hunger. They decided to meet on a regular basis and agreed that they would bring some of their overweight friends to the meetings for additional support. Within two months, 40 women were attending the meetings.
Jean’s goal was to lose 72 pounds. She met her goal in October 1962, when she weighed in at 142 pounds. After that, she never allowed her weight to exceed 142 pounds.
After successfully reaching her goal, Jean decided that her mission in life was to help as many people as possible lose weight. On May 15, 1963, with the help of her husband and an overweight couple she had helped, Jean opened her new business, which she named Weight Watchers. The first location of the business was in a loft above a movie theater in Little Neck, New Jersey.
Jean had high hopes for Weight Watchers’ first meeting. She was hoping that 50 people would attend, but 400 showed up. In a book she published in 2010, The Jean Nidetch Story: An Autobiography, she wrote:
At that first gathering … I told my story, and the beautiful thing was that people really listened. And then they began talking and contributing one at a time.
One woman stood up and said, “I’m a schoolteacher and I’ve been teaching for years. I have to say this. Seven years ago, I watched one of my students throw away half a doughnut into a wastebasket. It happened at school at the end of our noon recess, and from noon until three that afternoon, I couldn’t stop thinking about that half doughnut. After I dismissed the class at three o’clock, I immediately closed the door and reached down into the wastebasket, pulled out the doughnut, and ate it…. It’s troubled me for years…. And I’ve never been able to tell anyone about eating that doughnut until now.”
Jean wrote, “At that moment, all of us in that room became her allies.” The same thing happened with all the other people who showed up at Jean’s meetings. They shared their stories and supported each other.
Weight Watchers grew quickly, with franchises opening throughout the United States and the world. In 1973, when the company celebrated its 10th anniversary, 16,000 people showed up at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the occasion.
In 1978, Weight Watchers was sold to the H. J. Heinz Company for $71.2 million. Jean continued to work for the company and was in charge of public relations until 1984. Years later, in an interview with USA Today, Jean discussed one of the secrets she discovered during the early years of Weight Watchers. Here’s what she said:
Thin people release a fork and they chew the food with the fork on the table. They chew their food slowly. They look around at each other or the wall or a picture. They listen to the music. They sit back and take a breath. They do something other than concentrate on shoving the food into their body.
Overweight people never let go of their fork. They hold it when they are talking. They hold it when they are chewing. I discovered that is one of the secrets. Let go of the instrument that made you fat.
Earlier this year, on April 29, Jean died at the age of 91. At the time of her death, she was living in a retirement home in Parkland, Florida. During her golden years, she continued to offer encouragement to people who were overweight. She enjoyed repeating, “If you want to lose weight, you will. You can. You are capable. It takes a desire, and sometimes it’s rather uncomfortable to get it done. It costs time and money. If you really want to do it, and you know it’s your desire and you’re capable of it, you will. It’s that simple.”
After I heard about Jean’s death, I read several articles about her life and what she had accomplished. Jean was probably the only person who could have built Weight Watchers from scratch into the most recognized and respected weight-loss program in the world. Why? Because she had a unique ability to connect with and bond with people. She had the natural ability to deeply and profoundly alter the way people thought and felt about themselves and the world around them.
To Jean, losing weight wasn’t about food, or the system and techniques that were incorporated into the Weight Watchers’ diet. To her, losing weight was about developing the awareness, skills, and ability to deal with emotional issues, such as boredom, loneliness, disappointment, anger, and even joy. It was also about building self-esteem and self-confidence in people. But that could only be done by getting people to connect with and develop a personal bond with each other.
In our modern world, most people have forgotten how to really bond and connect with other people. They no longer communicate face to face with others for extended periods of time. Instead, they use more “efficient” ways to communicate, such as Facebook, Twitter, texting, and email. What these people don’t realize is that they cannot deeply and profoundly bond and connect with others unless they communicate with them on a truly human level — with their eyes, ears, voice, touch, experiences, wisdom, body language, and undivided attention.
We could all benefit greatly if we put into practice what came naturally to Jean Nidetch.