This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World — and Me by Marisa Meltzer

This Is Big by Marisa Meltzer made me think about what the role of an editor is in a memoir. Is it to press them to explore issues they gloss over or just to edit to work for clarity? It must be difficult to edit what is a living person’s account of their own life but I keep running into memoirs that include episodes that aren’t fully explored to the detriment of the the book. That has been true of a few books I’ve read in the last year or so but really stood out in this one because the subject matter is so narrow.

This book is sort of a memoir hybrid with Meltzer exploring the history of Weight Watchers though the lens of her lifelong battle with her weight.

While she is very honest about how much she doesn’t like her body, the negative attention it attracts, her eating habits and her many attempts at weight loss she does gloss over quite a few events and issues in her life that I felt could have been explored.

For example, she drops that starting at age 15 she started routinely doing coke and meth as a diet aid for years before abruptly stopping. I feel like that could have been a memoir into itself. Where did she get the drugs? The money for drugs? Did her parents know? How did it affect other aspects of her life? She said she was able to stop easily but leaves it at that. This is a very unusual story and she doesn’t really get into it at all. She simply says that after a few years she thought she was relying too much on drugs to keep her weight down and stopped.

She doesn’t explore why exactly her parents paying for weight loss help when she is an adult. It doesn’t seem they are subsidizing other parts of her life but they have paid for thousands of dollars worth of clinics, advice and diets for her.

She mentions in passing her mom routinely skipping dinner but never really addresses that this in itself is disordered eating. Her mom is quite thin as she tells us many times but perhaps it is because she is starving herself? She also talks about her mom taking her to Weight Watchers when she was a child but brushes it off as being the eighties but really, that wasn’t terribly normal then either. It’s clear both her parents have some issues around food and weight but she doesn’t delve into it. I’m not sure if she realizes it herself.

In her section on Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue she has this reaction to Orbach’s point about compulsive eating–“compulsive eating (but really what is that phrase? One person’s compulsion is is another person’s normal behavior.”) as an adaptation to sexist pressure in contemporary society”. It’s an odd aside because while it may be routine for an individual to compulsively eat, and the author gives quite a few example of this from her own life over the course of the book, but that doesn’t make it any less compulsive.

She does touch on how little very thin women eat and how much they exercise a bit. I don’t think she quite got to the point where she realized (or if she did, she didn’t make it clear) that for them restricting and exercising is often the flip side of her issues–for them it is easier to say no to food for whatever reason when for her the issue is that she can’t stop eating even when she wants to, admitting she binge eats a lot (although she doesn’t care for that term) and that she always eats incredibly quickly. The other women seem as obsessed with food as she is but it manifests itself in the opposite way.

I’m not sure if the mash up of autobiography of Jean Nidetch and Meltzer’s own story was the best idea. Both were interesting but since Meltzer didn’t delve into what I feel was some real obvious points of interest in her own life and didn’t seem to talk to first person sources of Nidetch’s, the book seemed a little hollow to me. I would have liked to have known more about Nidetch’s decision to step down from head of Weight Watchers rather than speculation and I would have liked a more honest look at Meltzer’s issues around eating, her hardcore drug use as a child and her family. I felt like she invited us in but only opened the door a crack. Perhaps she should have just kept it at regaling us with stories of the glamorous thin people she interviewed or her own recent Weight Watchers experiences if she didn’t really want to get into details.

That said, I did enjoy the book. She is an engaging writer and I learned a lot of about Jean Nidetch who was a real unsung trailblazer. I wish the editor had taken a firmer hand and directed the narrative a bit more in either direction. I didn’t feel the book needed to end with the author skinny and married and didn’t expect it to (it didn’t) but I did expect a little more exploration into her own life and relationship with food that was only touched on shallowly.

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