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Nidetch, Jean - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Jean Nidetch

weight watchers people program

Weight Watchers International


Jean Nidetch was a five-foot-seven, 214-pound over-weight housewife and mother who had tried every diet and appetite suppressant pill she could find. Then she realized that she could not stick to a diet without being able to talk to someone about it, so she invited six overweight friends to her apartment in Queens, New York. This was the informal beginning of Weight Watchers International, which became a billion-dollar business with franchises in more than 24 countries. After selling the company to H.J. Heinz Co. in 1978, Nidetch continued on as a Weight Watchers spokesperson and later as a consultant.

Personal Life

Jean Nidetch was born Jean Slutsky in Brooklyn, New York on October 12, 1923. Her father, David Slut-sky, was a taxicab driver, and her mother Mae was a manicurist. Although Jean only weighed seven pounds, three ounces at birth, she soon became an overweight child. “I don’t really remember, but I’m positive that whenever I cried, my mother gave me something to eat,” she recalled in her autobiography, The Story of Weight Watchers.

Jean was outgoing and talkative and had many friends in school, although all of them were overweight, too. She graduated from the Girls High School in Brooklyn, but her plans to finish college were cancelled when her father died in 1942. From then until 1947 she was employed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In 1947 she married Martin Nidetch, a young man from the neighborhood who had served in World War II.

Married life meant relocating to wherever her husband was employed, first to Tulsa, Oklahoma, then Warren, Pennsylvania, and finally back to Queens, New York, in 1952. During that time Nidetch first worked as a salesperson in a department store and later in the personnel department of Sylvania Electric. In 1949 the couple’s first child died shortly after birth; they had two other sons, David, born in 1952, and Richard, born in 1956. While raising her children, Nidetch was unable to work, but she managed to join several organizations. “And whatever organization I got into, I usually ended up heading it,” she wrote in her autobiography.

Nidetch continued to eat compulsively. While she tried every diet and appetite-suppressant pill she could find, by 1961 she weighed 214 pounds. Finally she went to the New York City Department of Health’s obesity clinic for treatment, where she was told to lose two pounds a week until she reached her weight goal of 142 pounds. Although she followed the diet for 10 weeks, she was unable to stop bingeing. That was when she realized she needed to talk to someone about her weight problems, and she invited six overweight friends to her apartment in Queens.

Career Details

With the help of her friends, Nidetch reached her goal of weighing 142 pounds in October 1962. She began to help others to achieve their own weight-loss goals, starting with her husband, her son David, and other family members. The group meetings became too large for the family apartment and were moved to the basement of the apartment building. Nidetch also traveled around the city visiting overweight people, many of whom were reclusive. One couple she had helped, Felice and Albert Lippert of Baldwin, New York, convinced Nidetch to give up her exhausting routine and go into business. Together, the Lipperts and Nidetch formed Weight Watchers in May 1963, and the company set up shop in a loft over a movie theater in nearby Little Neck.

The Weight Watchers program featured weekly meetings where dieters gave each other support and the group calculated how many pounds it had lost collectively. The recommended diet was essentially the same as the one Nidetch had received from the New York Department of Health. Once a person reached a weight goal, he or she was given a maintenance program to follow.

When Weight Watchers became a publicly owned corporation in 1968, it had grown to 81 franchises operating in 43 states. It also had 10 overseas franchises. By 1973, when the company celebrated its tenth anniversary, there were more than 100 franchises and more than five million people had enrolled in the weight-loss program. Nidetch organized a tenth anniversary celebration at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where some 20,000 people were entertained by Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey, and others.

While Albert Lippert handled the business aspects of Weight Watchers International, Nidetch remained the company’s spokesperson and chief public relations officer. It was her image that drew people into the Weight Watchers program. She traveled extensively and spoke in front of large audiences to deliver the Weight Watchers message. Her performances were described as loud, funny, and long. She appeared frequently on television as a guest of Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson.

Nidetch wrote a regular column in Weight Watchers Magazine, as well as books that she thought would help people to stay on a diet. In 1966 her Weight Watchers Cookbook was published. She wrote another cookbook in 1984, Weight Watchers Party and Holiday Cookbook, which was aimed at helping people maintain their diets when entertaining or celebrating the holidays. Her autobiography, The Story of Weight Watchers, appeared in 1970.

In 1978 the H.J. Heinz Co. acquired Weight Watchers International for $71.2 million. By then Weight Watchers had estimated revenues of $1 billion. One condition of the sale was that Nidetch would not go into the weight loss business on her own. Instead of being an owner, Nidetch became an employee of the company, and then a consultant. During the 1980s she traveled some 60 days a year on behalf of Weight Watchers International.

In the mid-1980s Nidetch lent her name to a line of largesize clothing through a licensing agreement with David Warren Enterprises. The first “Jean Nidetch for Claudia Cooper” line of clothing premiered in October 1984 and was in stores at the beginning of 1985. Nidetch hoped that the clothing would give larger women more of a choice when it came to their wardrobes.

As she got older, Nidetch spent less time representing Weight Watchers, which called on other celebrities to present its program to the overweight public. Throughout her career, Nidetch gave support to overweight men and women and never gained back the weight she had lost in the early 1960s.

Social and Economic Impact

Before Weight Watchers, there was very little, if any, organized help for people with weight problems. While it is hard to measure Weight Watchers’ effect on people, it is clear that the company’s weight-loss program has helped millions of people to reach their weight-loss goal and thereby improve their self-esteem. Weight Watchers is also one of the oldest and most visible self-help programs operating throughout the United States.

Chronology: Jean Nidetch

1923: Born.

1947: Married Martin Nidetch.

1963: Cofounded Weight Watchers.

1968: Weight Watchers International became a publicly owned company.

1970: Wrote The Story of Weight Watchers.

1973: Weight Watchers International celebrated its 10th anniversary.

1974: Weight Watchers camps began operating.

1978: Weight Watchers International was sold to H.J. Heinz Co. for $71.2 million.

1984: Introduced “Jean Nidetch for Claudia Cooper” line of large-size clothing.

The Weight Watchers program not only has been accepted by millions of people seeking to lose weight, but it also gained the endorsement of the medical community. The program is reasonably priced, widely available, and nutritionally sound. It offers people group support and makes them accountable for their eating habits. As people’s understanding of nutrition has changed over time, the Weight Watchers diet has also changed. But its core program remains the encouragement of balanced, nutritious eating habits that last a lifetime, as opposed to crash dieting.

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almost 7 years ago

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