The biggest loser

I joined Jenny Craig to do research for my novel. Instead I came face to face with all of my prejudices against the obese.

Published June 14, 2005 5:29PM (EDT)

I first joined Jenny Craig to become a better writer. At least that's what I told myself in the spring of 2003 when, in an effort to reach a new spiritual state of pennilessness, I was drafting a novel. My heroine was a suburban mom, her hands full with an array of psychic, gay children. Though increasingly pudgy due to a harrowing string-cheese addiction, she worked as a diet counselor at the fictitious "Right-for-Me Weight Loss Center." How neatly mortifying, I thought: a chubby diet expert. She might as well have been a vegetarian werewolf, compelled to ravage endive.

My attempts to render the supportive yet bitchy atmosphere of my imagined diet center, however, were ringing false. ("Have you been completely honest with us, Myrna? It says here you've been limiting yourself to six popcorn kernels, popped, for your daily snack.") I grew blocked, writing less each day, too easily diverted by pizza and life's rich pageant of dust. To get off my impasse'd ass, I decided I better check out a real diet center, maybe even go undercover as a client, assuming I could pass as fat.

At 6 feet, I'd never been more than fattish. I had my own weight-management system based on sound principles of nutrition and terror: If the scale edged toward 190, my fear of becoming obese -- which, to my neurotic mind, meant slothful and repulsive in a Jabba the Hutt way -- would kick in. I'd panic and buy celery-flavored rice cakes and rice-cake-flavored celery, and, as somber as Sean Penn, inscribe the words "Workout Log" in a notebook and systematically shrivel my pillowy self into a leaner, meaner 175-pound throw cushion.

I'd been too preoccupied with dust that spring to hop on a scale, but I was pretty sure I was at least semi-pillowy.

First I considered Weight Watchers, but then I remembered my mother's lurid experiences at Weight Watcher group meetings circa 1973, where she was forced to fondle a pound of pig fat to visualize her weekly goal. I recalled her weighing fish fillets, squinting at a tiny wobbly scale; measuring apples with a measuring tape to ensure they were "small"; collecting recipe cards for pukey delicacies like Fluffy Mackerel Pudding; chewing every bite about 1,000 times as I stared at her suddenly cowlike jaw. Though I suspected Weight Watchers had evolved, this all seemed too exacting -- and the Duchess of York's desperate attempts to make the algebraic "points system" sound like jolly fun in her TV commercials didn't help.

So when I passed a poster inviting me to "Lose 16 pounds for $16 -- with personal counseling" in the window of my local Jenny Craig in New York City, that sounded promising. Back then, before Kirstie "Fat Actress" Alley's Rabelaisian endorsements made Jenny Craig hard to ignore, I knew nothing about the company, except that it had reportedly offered Monica Lewinsky $10,000 for every pound she lost. That suggested poor judgment, but, on the plus side, I doubted anyone perkily named Jenny would try to scare me straight with pig fat.

That first day is a blur. I recall pastel chairs. Gigantic daffodil posters. A phallic object that stood about 3 feet high, printed with the words "You Can Do It!" Forms that required me to "honestly" check off my reasons for joining. I wavered between "a desire to be attractive" and "a desire to regain control." (A desire to stop receiving online personals responses from overweight people who sell themselves as "famine-resistant" and consider you a match was not an option.)

The woman who took me through my free consultation had a used-car-salesman aggression and seemed eager to sign me up for life. "For you," she said, "I'd recommend the Platinum Membership, which offers unlimited support during the maintenance phase." I needed unlimited support? Hadn't she noticed that I was merely pillowy, not fat?

"I only want the $16 thing," I gasped assertively and escaped her clutches.

I arrived early for my first weekly appointment with my personal diet counselor, Melinda, whom I'd yet to glimpse. I was meditating on a before-and-after poster -- a photo of a glum blob clutching a birthday cake, while her thinner Jennified self leaped in joy ("Results not typical") -- when a voice called my name.

"Hello, I'm Melinda," said a smiling Latina woman, her hair pulled back into a severe ponytail. She led me to the weigh-in room, a stark, daffodil-less closet dominated by a digital doctor's scale, and hinted that I'd want to empty my pockets and remove my shoes.

"Belt, too?" I begged.

"OK, but that's it," she said with a brisk efficiency, undercut, I thought, by a certain sadness. Or was it cynicism?

The news was disturbing -- 192 pounds -- but Melinda seemed unscandalized. Clearly, I could pass for fat. She propped me up beside the "I Can Do It!" totem pole, and snapped my "before" Polaroid (I look desperate to please), then ushered me into her office, and laid down the law. I was eligible for 1,700 calories a day: Three meals, three snacks. My weight-loss goal: 1-2 pounds a week. As a neophyte, I would begin with the prepared menus. She unfolded one, tantalizing me with my debut breakfast: Jenny's French Toast. The bulk of this menu would consist of Jenny's other delicious frozen entrees, cereals, soups, and so on. "That part'll cost you about $90 a week," Melinda said (or far less than I spent on takeout.). The rest, a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables, I would market myself, and variously steam, chop and disguise. I was urged to exercise more, possibly strutting to Jenny's CD, "Walk Your Way to a New You." I said I'd stick to the gym.

It seemed totally doable. As she updated my file, I should have been taking mental notes like a good undercover writer, but it must be mentioned that I was in a state of mild shock throughout this interview. Melinda, you see, was more of a "before" than an "after," herself. Much more.

My Jenny Craig diet counselor was, not to put too fine a point on it, obese.

For research purposes, this should have thrilled me. My fictional diet counselor was chubby. The real one was extra-extra-chubby. But at first, I just found it unnerving. The truth is, I wasn't merely afraid of getting obese and lazy myself, I was afraid of anyone obese. The corpulent triggered scorn and even queasiness in me, which only made me feel like an asshole.

I'd always assumed my knee-jerk sizism had a lot to do with my obese older brother who, as an obstreperous teen, had smothered me under the guise of "wrestling." Had trodden on my ukulele. Guzzled entire cartons of milk in one tip (disgusting!). Sloppily rode his bicycle into walls ("I was distracted by the pedals!"). And just generally offended my discipline-nerd sensibilities. I was the sort of obsessive grind who would swing on a swing set before every exam, chanting, "100 percent!" to psych myself up. No wonder he wanted to suffocate me.

I'd avoided the overweight at school and, later, at work (awfully easy during the years I worked among the competitively scrawny magazine editors at Condé Nast). The obese, I felt -- with the exception of Buddha and Aretha Franklin -- simply weren't giving 100 percent. Losers, you know.

Though Jenny Craig (located, incidentally, right next to a McDonald's) was an incredibly friendly place and no one stepped on my ukulele, it pushed all my sizeist buttons. Melinda, I soon discovered, wasn't the only overweight employee  there was always a lot of untamed flesh in view. I began to wonder if my novel's plump diet expert was the rule, not the exception. Still, determined to see this through and authenticate my book, I buckled down to waste away the Jenny way.

I made it through week 1, growing addicted to the moment each morning when I previewed that day's lovably dictatorial menu. I suffered through Jenny's unnaturally orange Cheese Curls and her clammy Swedish Meatballs, only to be rewarded by the surprisingly ungruesome Jenny's Turkey Dinner. I drank the equivalent of Lake Erie in water, forgot about salt, rediscovered the slightly soapy deliciousness of fresh spinach. I worked out regularly, eager to impress Melinda with my progress (I'd always been a suck-up). Seven days later, I emerged five pounds lighter.

"Men always take it off faster," shrugged Melinda. (Had she just winked at me?) "So how was your week? Any parties? Business lunches? Drink things?"

"Uh ... no." I'd been prepared to confront my 192-ness, but not my recent social and professional isolation. Besides, I'd been too busy indoctrinating myself into the Jenny ethos to rave on. "How about you?" I shot back.

"Oh, my boyfriend and I had some crazy times this weekend," she said, updating my file with curiosity-arousing jottings. "You know."

Actually, I didn't. Melinda had a boyfriend, with whom she had crazy times. Which one of us was the loser?

At first, I told none of my friends about this adventure. They were all either zealous runners, hip-hop aerobicists, suspected anorexics, or diet elitists who had black bags from The Zone delivered to their front door every morning. When, one by one, I sprang my news on them, I enjoyed their shock that a seemingly trim me was apparently just just well-camouflaged and trying to lose weight. And, moreover, that I'd chosen such an uncool method. Oh, it's just research, I assured them, and quickly lightened the mood with stories of my "obese diet counselor, Melinda."

"Really?" they'd say. "Like Chris Farley obese?"

"Well, not quite."

"And they let her keep her job?"

"Oh, they're all kinda overweight at Jenny."

It made a decent anecdote.

But as I bonded with Melinda, discovering her sly humor and the comfort of her professional indifference to my fat, I felt guilty about anecdotalizing her. The fact is, I liked her more than some of my so-called friends. Her office had become a refuge from the "Logan's Run"-ish pressures of the New York media. I was allowed to sag there. Fuck up. Like the week I forgot to drink Lake Erie and accidentally ate an entire Southern barbecue buffet. She was realistic about losing weight, spared me the New Age baloney ("I think we'll skip the affirmations, OK with you?") and subtly revealed that she knew the Swedish Meatballs sucked and prodded me toward the Meatloaf (on which we agreed to disagree). She was, not to put too fine a point on it, cool.

Once I reached my halfway point, Melinda eased me into cooking for myself a few times a week. The combination of Jenny's zealotry and Melinda's anti-zealotry worked. I was down to 174 pounds after nine weeks, and free to go.

I'd been taking notes for my novel all along. "Melinda withdrawn today; unfocused, yet ponytail still tight," says one. I detailed the food storage room, with its vaguely socialist shelves of one-brand-only packages; scribbled down one old woman's demands to be weighed naked or not at all. But instead of making me more confident that I could write a good novel, the experience exposed a bigger problem. It wasn't just my account of the Right-for-You Diet Center that was hollow and cartoonish, but the entire book. I'd never got past stereotypes.

Flash-forward to 2005: I'd abandoned fiction but finished another book, though not without battles with sloth and pizza. Pillowiness impending again, I decided to return to Melinda, this time without the elaborate rationalizations. I just wanted to lose about 14 pounds.

The daffodil posters had been replaced with giant blow-ups of new spokesperson Kirstie Alley, and her Top 10 Ways to Lose Weight. (Number 6, "Get a few friends and do Jenny together," sounded very gang-bang to me.) Melinda welcomed me back in her warm yet knowing way. She'd clearly lost about 40 pounds, but thankfully was still the same mildly cynical, winky person.

Three years later, I'd overcome some of my stereotypes. Become more aware that I've spent decades blaming all overweight people for the frustrations I endured growing up with my ukelele-stomping brother. (Hardly their fault.) I saw fat less emotionally, too. Grasped that it's not, in itself, proof of sloth, but for me, more mundanely, just what happens when I eat more than I move -- which all sounds very tidy, when life is not. That's the tricky part.

As I returned to the front desk to collect my week's food, a rather distraught, pear-shaped older woman came in from the street. She told the Jenny Craig women, who obviously knew her, that her husband had died. Colon cancer. There was a lot of hushed commiseration. "I just want the individual chocolate cake," she said and proceeded to sit and gnaw away at the little cocoa clump, smearing icing down her chin.

It was a bit gross, but I understood.

By Dale Hrabi

Dale Hrabi is a regular contributor to Elle and Radar. He lives in New York City.

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