weight loss diet Marisa Meltzer was a little bit prepared for this. When she started on the first draft of her new book, This Is Big, about the history of Weight Watchers and her own experience with weight loss, she broke her ankle, rendering her effectively housebound in a walk-up apartment in Brooklyn. “There’s a similar feeling,” she said, speaking in the early days of coronavirus quarantine in New York City. “And, well, I got a lot done.”As she discusses in the book, which combines her personal memoir with a biography of Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch, Meltzer has built a career reporting on health and beauty, from cold yoga to wellness retreats to what the New York Times described for one of her stories as “a ritualistic encounter with boa constrictors.” As a size 16 woman, she writes, she was used to being the heaviest person in a yoga class or on a wellness cruise in Thailand. But she also never stopped wanting to change that. So in 2017 she signed up for Weight Watchers, partly because it was one of the weight-loss systems she hadn’t tried, and partly due to a newfound fascination with Nidetch, who founded Weight Watchers in her Queens living room in 1963 and spent the rest of her life, as Meltzer cannily observes, turning what had once been a hunger for food into an appetite for her career as a successful—and thin—businesswoman.“Liberated women are fully aware of the complicated politics involved in food, fat, and their bodies,” Meltzer writes. This Is Big, published today by Little, Brown and Company, exists fully within that complication, finding in Nidetch both a genuine pioneer—a woman who built a massive, culture-defining business at a time when women couldn’t even have their own credit cards—and a representative of many ideas about weight and health that are as destructive as they are enduring. In writing the book, Meltzer said, she wanted to ask herself how to balance the knowledge that “the house always wins” when it comes to weight loss with her own desire for self-improvement: “How do you realistically live in this world?”Vanity Fair: In the book you talk about the inherent dorkiness of Weight Watchers, and some of the meetings that you go to. In the process of pitching and writing and promoting the book, have you gotten over the “Okay, I don’t really want to talk about Weight Watchers” aspect for yourself?Marisa Meltzer: I have an intense fondness for Weight Watchers now, that I don’t think that I had, or thought I would ever have. I had done it as a kid and sort of just wrote it off. I think I thought that I was more special than Weight Watchers, that I needed to go to a fancy diet doctor—the kinds of things that my job affords me, the opportunity to go to a fancy diet doctor and see the same person that Jake Gyllenhaal goes to. And so I also eventually learned that those people don’t have any kind of magic bullet or secret weight-loss advice that would work for me. And so a lot of the book is me getting over myself and my own snobbery.But I think that now when I think of Weight Watchers, I think of the kind of initial genius of Jean for this idea of community. And that’s, I think, their strong point and that’s what I got the most out of, and that’s what I think the company should probably be really celebrating, because that is what’s unique. Whether it’s in person or online.What was Weight Watchers’ response to you throughout the process of this? How eager were they for you to give it the close look that you did?I really applaud them. They were pretty open…. I’m going to be really honest—about halfway through reporting the book I did ayahuasca, and I had this big ayahuasca revelation. You could bring totems, and I brought some crystals, and I had brought a picture of Jean Nidetch and some other stuff. And one of my big things was like, “They’re just as curious about me as I am about them.” I don’t know if that’s actually true. But yeah, I imagine I must’ve been a source of some interest. And sometimes I wondered if they could go into my profile and see if I was attending meetings. But that was more the paranoia that I think any dieter has of, “Oh, you didn’t see me eating that pack of Cadbury Eggs.” Just this idea that someone’s going to see you in your weaker moments or notice if you decide to play hooky from a meeting for a week because you’re pretty sure you’ve gained or whatever.I was really fascinated by where you land in the book, kind of acknowledging the body-positivity movement and the fact that feminists aren’t supposed to diet, and if you do, you’re not supposed to talk about it, and be aware that diets don’t work, and can be really damaging. And I feel like you’ve carved out a middle ground that maybe most people fall in if we can admit it to ourselves, but it’s really hard to specify. Does that still kind of reflect where you are, that diets don’t work, but a desire for self-improvement is still valid and we maybe shouldn’t be as ashamed of it as we feel like we should be?Yeah, I really wanted to show a different way forward, because I personally felt so just stuck and stifled by this feeling, this really binary idea that either I was admitting that I hated myself and was dieting, or that I was loving myself and was rejecting dieting. And I felt like I was failing on both ends my whole life. It also makes you feel kind of furtive, like you’re either dieting but you’re furtively trying to understand that you know that dieting is kind of messed up, and kind of like the house always wins.You can’t just decide to love your body one day and just love it. Emotions don’t work that way. And so it’s like, I can try to love myself, but also I’m looking at my cellulite when I’m putting on underwear or something and being like, “Ugh.” Or someone says something kind of crappy, and I can’t just pretend like those things don’t affect me.I really was feeling like that was just—that idea, that binary idea was doing women, and men too, just a real disservice. But I wasn’t seeing anything else really proposing a different way forward. And so really what I wanted to get out of the book was, how do you realistically live in this world, knowing that loving yourself is a great thing, knowing that dieting is a losing proposition for many of us, but also wanting to look good for ourselves, wanting to be healthy, all of those things?Yeah. Well, and that’s where the wellness thing lands, right? Where you’re like, “Well, I’m not dieting, but I’m not eating five different foods.”Right. We’re just really trapped in this era of euphemisms that isn’t really helping anyone. Saying that you’re just biohacking, or intermittent fasting, or clean eating, or you have a lot of food allergies all of a sudden. People just really love to hide behind these terms, when really it’s the same old story as always.And I don’t think anyone is really helping themselves or anyone else by calling it another name. And so yeah, it’s like it’s fine, it’s okay to want to diet, or try to be healthy, or whatever, try to clean up your act in terms of food, or want to lose a few pounds. None of us live in a vacuum. These things are very common and understandable. You don’t have to necessarily make it your personal brand or talk about it on social media, but at least admit it to yourself and maybe to your close circle.Do you recognize any of our current weight-loss impulses with the Jean era of Weight Watchers? Because so much of the language that they use, and the food and everything, and the way the meetings work is so different from what anyone would think of doing now. But do you think we have some of the same impulses of wanting accountability? Are these just different words for the same impulse they had back then?I think it’s different words for the same impulses. I think that feminism has become much more mainstream, and so the idea of wanting to be a strong woman, and be a good example to your children, and how we talk about dieting around children, and all of that has really just sort of infused how we talk about dieting. But I think at the end of the day, it’s kind of the same old song as Jean’s era. You want to lose weight, for whatever reason, and the science is still the same. You have to eat less calories and you have to burn more calories than you consume.And it’s sort of different underlying consciousness, which probably makes things harder. We’ve understood now that women are worth more than just their looks, and their bodies, but there’s all this pressure to be so strong and such a badass, or to achieve so much and to be such a good example. And also I think that’s when you get just things that drive me nuts, like beautiful singers and actresses posing in bikinis and being like, “I used to hate my body, and now I realized that I’m beautiful and we’re all beautiful.” It literally makes me want to scream.“Easy for you to say, buddy”?Yeah, I’m like, “Okay, Demi Lovato.” Look, I’m sure people say very cruel things to her online all the time, but it’s like I don’t need someone whose job it is to be beautiful to reassure that I too can be beautiful. That is just, it’s such a weird, bland version of feminism. Just kind of the way that this dumb idea of self-care is so far removed from the political origins of the term.Yeah. I think the Jeans of the world are incredibly valuable, but her attitude would be so out of step with everything that we do. But do you feel like there’s a way for Weight Watchers to include Jean more?I hope that they will embrace her and tell her story, because she’s a really interesting, complicated figure. Just on a purely sort of capitalistic sense, tales of female founders and forgotten women’s origin stories are so popular, I really hope that they embrace theirs because they have a really good one. And she was a true kind of American dream story, of a lower-middle-class, working-class, Jewish, Brooklyn housewife turned millionaire. It’s pretty extraordinary. Especially given that it was a time when it was extra hard to do all of that as a woman. Your family didn’t necessarily support you. You didn’t have peers that were doing the same thing. There were no Sheryl Sandberg, Emily Weiss–types in popular culture to look up to. You still had to get your husband’s signature for credit cards. “Help wanted” ads were listed by gender. It’s pretty extraordinary what she accomplished.I don’t even know that she, herself, really understood how extraordinary her accomplishment was. And so yeah, I hope that people really embrace her. A lot of what she says sounds hilariously dated, but she was frank and single-minded in a way that I do think we could sort of use right now. There’s just so much pastel-colored, couched, easy, feminist light talk surrounding our bodies, and our health, and our weight, and womanhood, that I wouldn’t mind someone, a voice, that was a little more like a circus announcer, carnival barker in the Jean style.You say near the end of the book that the biggest revelation for you, about Jean, was just the way that she translated her appetite for one thing into another thing. Jean is such a success story, but it felt to me like you found a sadness in that, that she gave up something that she loved tremendously, for something else that she loved tremendously, but there was a loss there that she herself never would’ve talked about, but it seemed like you felt that.Yeah. It’s like any kind of weight, there’s always going to be a counterbalance. I don’t think that you can ever totally give up something and not have it reappear in some other form in your life. And so you hear about people who have gastric bypass surgery and lose a ton of weight, and they become alcoholics. If I stopped eating sugar, I would definitely become a shopping addict to make up for it or something like that. And I think, really, Jean was a pretty dramatic example of that to me. And I think that’s something that we don’t talk about or think about, this kind of desire for release and for oblivion. And it’s always going to kind of be somewhere. That kind of compulsion, there are healthy ways for it to come, but it’s going to be there. And I think that if you get rid of food as your source of oblivion, and if food is your kind of go-to, you have to realize that urge is going to find its way into your life in another place.So when you’re watching everybody do all their stress eating and panic buying right now with the coronavirus quarantine, do you think back on all of this? Do you feel like you get our impulses around food, around all this uncertainty in the world in a way you wouldn’t have before you wrote this?Oh yeah, definitely, because beyond just the anxiety and stockpiling, there’s a lot of other things at play. For example, if you’re not eating out with people, there’s a lot of weird, compulsive eating that you can do alone, or with your partner, or whatever. And so I think that there’s a lot of comfort foods that people are probably reaching to, understandably, but also it’s like, yeah, I understand why people are probably turning to some weird concoctions.Does this make it a harder environment for anyone to talk about weight loss when there’s so much other shit going on? Or do you feel like that’s always going to be there? However much the word wellness evolves over the course of this pandemic, that’s always going to be intact somehow?It’s hard to talk about anything when there is so much going on in the world that’s incredibly pressing. But yeah, weight is always going to be on our minds. I’ve gotten countless press releases about doctors being happy to weigh in about nutrition tips, or so many exercise platforms offering streaming, people joking with their husbands about the “corona 15” or whatever. Or people being like, “I’m going to use this to get ripped.” There’s a lot of also joking about how they’re going to emerge looking really fabulous from eating super clean home cooking and exercising twice a day.So yeah, there can be huge concerns in the world and people still manage to obsess about the way they look, or at least it features really strongly. Whether it’s a way to comfort yourself, or relief, or you’re going to use it as just, time is kind of like a chrysalis, or something like that.Does this experience compare at all to publishing other books, or is it totally uncharted territory?It’s really uncharted territory. And also, those books were just really different. This one is so personal, and this has been such a big project. My morale goes up and down, it’s hard. I’m very nervous and sad that I’m having to deal with this extra layer of the world and news, but I also don’t really have a choice.What are your quarantine health habits at this point?I work from home already, so it’s my sort of daily life, my life at home hasn’t changed so much, I just haven’t been able to do all the other stuff that I do and leave the house. But I have a pretty good yoga practice at a studio that I’m really loyal to, and also have begun to teach at, so I do a lot of yoga and do that at home. I can cook. Cooking is not my passion or what calms me or makes me happy. I’m okay with it, but if I had my way I would not cook very much. I’ve been doing a lot of face masks. I put on lipstick this morning because I was doing some interviews and thought it would make me feel perked up.More Great Stories From Vanity Fair— Why Meghan and Harry’s Move to California Seemed So Sudden— How Kinfolk Magazine Defined the Millennial Aesthetic…and Unraveled Behind the Scenes— The Surprising—And Surprisingly Contentious—History of Purell— 31 Great Quarantine Reads, Chosen by the Vanity Fair Staff— How Bob Dylan’s New JFK Song Helps Explain 2020— The Coronavirus Pandemic Could Change Dining as We Know It, Forever— From the Archive: How Bob Guccione Turned Graphic Porn, Muckraking Journalism, and Tabloid Headlines Into a Magazine Success StoryLooking for more? Sign up for our daily newsletter and never miss a story.