Why is Oprah still trying to sell women weight loss self help?

"How are we to believe a woman who's supposed to personify female empowerment when she supports an industry that has ...

"How are we to believe a woman who's supposed to personify female empowerment when she supports an industry that has publicly and spectacularly failed her and other women for decades?" Photo: Getty

Oprah may have made $45 million in a day when she bought a 10 per cent stake in Weight Watchers in the US, but she paid for it in credibility.

How are we to believe a woman who's supposed to personify female empowerment when she supports an industry that has publicly and spectacularly failed her and other women for decades?

From Jenny Craig to juicing diets, Oprah has tried and/or endorsed them all. Not one of her weight loss products has ever proven to be the solution she'd hoped — and promised her legions of fans — that it would be.

There's no better example of everything that's wrong with the diet industry, than Oprah. It's a business model that relies on false hope, self-loathing and very short memories.

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Even Weight Watchers appears to have realised that promising weight loss isn't a winner anymore. The partnership with Oprah is all about repositioning Weight Watchers' mission from weight loss to self help more generally.

As Weight Watchers International CEO Jim Chambers said in the press release announcing the Oprah deal, "We are expanding our purpose from focusing on weight loss alone to more broadly helping people lead a healthier, happier life".

Oprah echoed similar sentiments, telling Ellen DeGeneres "I'm excited about Weight Watchers being able to bring a healthier more holistic approach for everybody".

The shift to a broader lifestyle and self help brand has reportedly been driven by the threat posed to Weight Watchers' business model from low-cost calorie tracker apps and social media platforms where people share their stories of personal transformation, instead of attending meetings.

But it may also have to do with an ever-growing number of people calling bullshit on the weight loss industry. The evidence that weight loss dieting does not lead to long term weight loss, and is more often than not an express route to weight gain, is finally making its way into the mainstream.

And Weight Watchers' efforts to reinvent itself as a self help company isn't as big a shift as it's presented to be. After all, the weight loss and self help industries both share in a long tradition of spectacularly failing to deliver on promises.

From books on the 'science' of happiness, exhortation to be mindful, vision boards and manifesting, self help shares more in common with the weight loss industry than many of its adherents would like to admit.

Just like weight loss products, self help fads are fickle, faulty and predominantly female paths to redemption. They also have an impressive record of deflecting their own failures onto their clients. Both industries excel at convincing their customers that any failure is their own fault, rather than anything to do with the product or program that's being pushed.

Women in particular are targets for these self help prescriptions. Not unlike the diet industry, the self help industries hone in on women's insecurities.

To this extent, both are based on a 'deficit model' of womanhood: women are defined by what they are not or what they lack. To be a woman is to be broken and in need of fixing. Only by following some specific regimen — provided, of course, for a fee — can you be made whole and acceptable.

In the world of self help, larger social and political structures magically slide out of view. Don't have the corner office? It's because you're not assertive enough. Can't pay the rent? It's because you haven't pasted pictures of cash on your vision board. Feeling run down and sick? It's because you didn't have your green smoothie after your yoga class.

Forget about entrenched sexism or unequal power relations and economic structures. Any attempt to call attention to these larger structures is inevitably written off as avoiding responsibility for your own life — the answer to which lies in yet more programs of individual self-empowerment.

While there is, to a lesser degree, a self help industry aimed at men, the prescriptions doled out typically focus on getting rich or professional development. In other words, they're confined to specific areas of men's lives. The underlying model of manhood isn't in question. Rather, it's just one or two discrete spheres of life that need improvement.

Self improvement for women, in contrast, tends to be all-encompassing, focused on one's very being. Or to use a more Oprah-esque term, the body and soul.

While Weight Watchers' Oprah-led move into the self help industry is an implied admission of the failure of its weight loss products, it's a hollow victory. All Weight Watchers has done is expand the range of female insecurities that it can cultivate and exploit for profit.

Kasey Edwards is a writer and best-selling author. www.kaseyedwards.com