Marisa Meltzer will spare you the euphemisms. She’s not curvy or plus-size. Nor is she, as one of her dates genteelly put it, “carrying extra weight.” She is fat, she says plainly, a state she describes with a mixture of resignation and grit.
Ms. Meltzer, who has dieted for most of her life, sometimes rigorously and, as often, halfheartedly, has found a kindred spirit in Jean Nidetch, the hard-driving founder of Weight Watchers, whose entrepreneurial ventures she tracks in her new book, “This Is Big.”
A fusion of memoir and biography, the book details Ms. Meltzer’s private struggles and the ways in which they intersect with those of her subject. There are readers who will recognize themselves.
The book offers, as well, an unvarnished portrait of Ms. Nidetch and her company, which, since its founding in 1963, has evolved from holding weight loss meetings in scattered outposts across the country to a streamlined organization, rebranded as WW, with a lively social media platform and its own app.
Chatting via FaceTime in her home in Brooklyn, Ms. Meltzer, who is a contributor to The New York Times, spoke bluntly about her up-and-down relationship with dieting, self-image and maintenance. This interview has been edited.
You write that you’ve been dieting most of your life. What drives you?
Dieting gives you a whole organizing principle, a kind of to-do list and a form of maintenance. It can be suffused with morality, something I sensed as a child, and it’s morality I’ve never given up. It represents forward motion. The problem for me is that when someone says, “Stop dieting and love the way you are,” I find myself asking, “What would be the forward motion there?”
When did your relationship with food begin to trouble you?
That dates from my childhood. It often took the form of rebellion against something that my parents wouldn’t approve of. They didn’t want a daughter who was fat. That fraught relationship with food lasted long after I had left the confines of my parents’ home. Eating became a way to rebel against myself.
I often think people have a similar a relationship to money. Spending impulsively can give you a similar cycle of excitement and guilt.
You’ve described eating in a way that is often furtive, self-deluding or downright irrational. Please explain.
For me, eating is about buildup and release. I’m not a drinker or a gambler or a sex addict. I’ve never had a drug problem. But I do have this very compulsive relationship to food.
It’s about wanting something like a hamburger and French fries that I would never cook for myself. I start thinking, “Will I order this, and where will I order it from?” Then, when the meal arrives, I’m not sitting around savoring it. I eat it quickly. Afterward I feel guilty for not taking the time to enjoy it. I might even throw it up and then feel guilty about that.
You turned to Weight Watchers after experimenting with various ways of breaking that pattern. Why?
The diets that have been most effective for me were probably those that involved a sort of emotional manipulation, the kind where you skipped certain meals or ate a few of the same key things every day. It wasn’t the healthiest approach. It was sort of disordered. But it sometimes worked.
What Jean understood was that there was no magic bullet, that weight loss involves a lifetime of maintenance, and that maintenance is an ongoing war with yourself. She also knew that people struggling with weight would have things to say to other people struggling. It wasn’t just a bunch of fat, lonely housewives getting together for meetings. It was people from all walks of life. What was new for me is that it created a sense of community. That was Jean’s genius.
What hit you particularly about her message?
In meetings, Jean would ask: “What hurt you? You don’t have to share it with anybody, but when you’re alone, looking at cookies, I want you to remember what hurt you.”
So, what were the things that hurt you?
My darkest moments were when people mistook me for pregnant. Few things could have made me feel worse. Still, there are so many ways I can be cruel to myself. Sometimes when I talk on the phone, I worry. I think, “Can you tell when someone is fat from their voice?”
What about your relationships with men?
I’m still pretty hurt by some of my dating experiences. I went on a date with one man that seemed pretty promising. But he told me flatly when it was over that I was too fat for a second date. There was also the time I was waiting on a street corner to meet a date from Tinder. He never showed up. I could have written him off as a jerk. But I secretly believed that he did show up, saw me from a distance and turned back.
I wish I could say I’ve gathered myself and put myself back on the market. That’s not my reality. I’m busy, but I’m also a little bit scared to go back out there.
Have you thought about embracing body positivity?
For me, that’s an emotional trap. The message that if we are smart, we will love ourselves has become this bland thing I see a lot on social media. It’s oversimplifying something that I think is really hard, adding another layer of pressure, another way for us to think that we’ve failed.
I can’t easily change the way that I feel about myself. I’ve had terrible things happen to me. For someone to tell me to love myself is as tone deaf as it is for someone to tell me to go on a diet.
You dress with flair. What is your relationship to fashion?
It can be frustrating. There are so many shops where not everything is out on display. When you ask for something in your size, you’re told, “No, we don’t have that.”
There was a woman in Italy who owned a lingerie store. She wouldn’t let me buy a pair of cotton stockings I asked for because she felt that I would not fit into them. I was too humiliated to fight with her about it. Finally, she let me buy some large socks.
Have you thought about dressing to show off your shape?
There is this idea that people who wear plus sizes should be flaunting their bodies all the time as a kind of reclamation, to prove that they’re not ashamed of themselves. That’s not me. I’m not really a body-con kind of dresser. For me, showing off my so-called curves is not the ticket to liberation.
I want people to look at me and think, “Does she own an art gallery?” I want a plus-size version of the Row. Phoebe Philo’s Céline fits me, but I can’t afford it. I want a plus-size Dries Van Noten.
Given the current focus on self-acceptance, why does fat shaming persist?
Maybe it’s a release for people who feel they have to keep their mouths shut in other ways. But they feel they have the right to talk about fat in ways that are unchanged from the 1950s or ’60s. It has something to do with health and the idea that being fat is something you could change if you wanted to. That really bothers some people who have never struggled, who think dieting is easy.
When they see a person out there who is not playing by their rules, they are offended. When they’ve put so much effort into staying slim, they may think: “I’m eating a fruit plate, and here is this woman eating a hot fudge sundae in front of me. What a pig.” I’ve been the woman eating that sundae.