Jean Nidetch (born 1927) was an overweight homemaker and mother who became a slim, successful businessperson by co-founding Weight Watchers International. Through her personal struggle to lose weight, Nidetch developed a program that worked for her and millions of other people around the world. As she described it in her autobiography,"Weight Watchers does not simply give you a method of losing weight. What it is, is a new way of life."
Jean (Slutsky) Nidetch was born on October 12, 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, David Slutsky, was a cab driver and her mother, Mae (Rodin) Slutsky, was a manicurist. Nidetch graduated from Girls High School in Brooklyn and received a partial scholarship to Long Island University. However, she could not accept the scholarship because the family did not have the rest of the money for tuition. Instead, Nidetch took a business administration course at City College of New York. She had only just begun college when her father died in February of 1942.
Due to this unfortunate turn of events, Nidetch had to quit school and get a full-time job. Her first job was with the Mullin Furniture Company in Jamaica, New York, where she earned ten dollars a week. She later worked for Man O'War Publishing Company producing tip sheets for horse players. This job soon ended because of New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's campaign against horse racing. Nidetch then found a job at the Internal Revenue Service.
While working at the IRS, Nidetch began dating a young man from the neighborhood named Marty Nidetch. The couple dated for two years and then married on April 20, 1947. Marty was employed as a blouse salesman and soon after their marriage he transferred to Tulsa, Oklahoma to work as a credit manager. They stayed there for less than a year when Marty was promoted to manager of a store in Warren, Pennsylvania. At first Nidetch helped her husband at his new store. Then she found her own job in the payroll department at Sylvania Electric. In her autobiography, The Story of Weight Watchers, Nidetch described herself at this point in her life as an overweight woman, married to an overweight husband, surrounded by overweight friends. While living in Warren, Nidetch gave birth to their first child, who did not survive infancy. In 1952 she had her second child, David. In February of the same year the family decided to move back to New York to be closer to their families. Marty became a bus driver to support his family. In 1956 the couple welcomed their second son, Richard. During this period, Nidetch was a homemaker, but she devoted much of her time to various organizations and charities. These activities helped her develop her personal and communication skills, which would later benefit her as a spokes-person for Weight Watchers.
Nidetch had been overweight most of her childhood and adult life. She had tried various diets, doctors, and medications to lose weight, but none were successful over the long run. In 1961 Nidetch described herself as "desperate" in her struggle to lose weight, so she went to the New York City Department of Health Obesity Clinic. There she was given a strict diet to follow. While she had some success with the diet, she found herself still cheating and eating foods that she was not allowed to have. Nidetch did not feel comfortable discussing her misbehaviors with the woman who ran the clinic because she had never been overweight and could not truly understand why someone on a diet would cheat. Instead Nidetch decided to invite six overweight friends to her house to share the new diet and her secrets. The original group of six agreed to try the diet and meet weekly to talk about their successes and struggles. From the first meeting, Nidetch suggested that the other women consult their doctors before starting the diet. This rule stayed with Nidetch throughout the development of Weight Watchers. Since she was not a trained dietician, Nidetch did not want to be responsible for other people's health decisions. From the beginning, she saw her role as an emotional leader rather than a medical expert. As she explained in her autobiography, The Story of Weight Watchers, "Compulsive eating is an emotional problem and we use an emotional approach to its solution. To me, this is just plain common sense."
The group of six quickly grew as friends were invited to the weekly gatherings. Nidetch was a remarkable motivator, an articulate public speaker, and a real life example for the other participants. Her popularity soared because of this. By word-of-mouth, Nidetch was building a large clientele. Soon she was organizing biweekly meetings for hundreds of women, as well as making personal visits to people who could not come to her meetings. While the actual diet remained unchanged, Nidetch improved upon the organization of the program over time. For example, she developed a reward system whereby program participants would earn a gold pin for losing ten pounds and then add a diamond chip for each ten pounds after that. To help cover the costs, members started to pay 25 cents a week to attend meetings.
By October 1962 Nidetch had reached her personal goal of losing 72 pounds. She never gained the weight back. From that point on she began to refer to herself proudly as a "formerly fat child" or a "formerly fat housewife." She then reached out to help her family. By following the same diet and attending meetings, Marty Nidetch also lost 70 pounds and Nidetch's mother lost 57. Among her many clients, Nidetch met Felice and Al Lippert and had helped them and their friends successfully through the weight loss program. Al Lippert was a successful businessman in the clothing industry. He soon convinced Nidetch to turn her program into a business. On May 15, 1963, with Lippert's financial backing and expertise, Weight Watchers was born. Nidetch and Lippert rented an old movie theater to hold meetings and began to charge a modest fee of two dollars a week to cover expenses, the same price as a movie. As the program grew, Nidetch and Lippert hired ex-participants as lecturers and opened offices in other locations in New York. They carefully selected lecturers who still remembered what it was like to be overweight and could sympathize with and support program participants.
Eventually the business became a partnership between the Nidetches and the Lipperts. Jean focused more on lecturing and let the others handle more of the business decisions. Weight Watchers extended beyond the state of New York when Felice Lippert's sister opened the first franchise in Providence, Rhode Island. Since then, Weight Watchers branches have opened all over the United States, Canada, and Europe. In February 1967 Al Lippert decided to work for Weight Watchers full time and helped it grow into an international organization. Lippert oversaw the sales of branded products, such as cookbooks, videotapes, and low fat foods, as well as a syndicated television program called Weight Watchers Forum. In September 1968 Weight Watchers became a publicly held corporation with 81 franchises in 43 states and 10 overseas locations. Nidetch moved to Brentwood, California, but still traveled extensively to support the new company. She appeared on numerous radio and television programs, such as Good Morning America, The Today Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and The Tonight Show. She also wrote a monthly column for Weight Watchers Magazine that was syndicated to over 300 newspapers worldwide. In 1966 Nidetch published her first book, Weight Watchers Cookbook, which she followed with Weight Watchers Party and Holiday Cookbook in 1984, and Quick and Easy Menu Cookbook in 1988 for Weight Watcher's 25th anniversary. In 1970 she also published her autobiography, The Story of Weight Watchers.
When Weight Watchers celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1973, Nidetch decided to step down as company president. However, she continued to work as a consultant. In 1978 Al Lippert negotiated the sale of Weight Watchers to the H.J. Heinz Company. Heinz paid $24 a share for a total of $71.2 million. Nidetch received over seven million for her share of the company. As part of the sales agreement, Nidetch could not start another weight loss business, but she stayed employed at Weight Watchers. In the 1980s Nidetch put her name on a line of clothing designed especially for larger women.
In 1981 Nidetch moved back to New York to be closer to her grandchildren. Ten years later she moved to Las Vegas and continued to travel as a consultant for Weight Watchers. Nidetch was elected to membership in the Horatio Alger Association, an organization that recognizes people from disadvantaged backgrounds who become successful. She also made a public commitment to self-improvement and higher education with the Jean Nidetch Foundation for economically disadvantaged teenagers who wanted to continue their education and scholarship programs at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Nevada Las Vegas. In May of 1993 the University of Nevada Las Vegas awarded Nidetch an honorary doctorate degree. In 1994 they established the Jean Nidetch Women's Center, a facility to help older and nontraditional students obtain a college education.
Since the Heinz takeover, Weight Watchers has changed its food plan to reflect nutritional changes over time as well as the changing lifestyles of consumers. In 1978 Weight Watchers added an exercise plan to the program. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Weight Watchers' market share was threatened by competitors. Other weight loss programs and companies began selling food products to consumers trying to lose weight. Weight Watchers was able to meet this challenge by continuing to recognize the needs of its consumers. For example, it developed special meetings for teenagers and workplace meetings to more easily fit people's busy schedules. Weight Watchers also changed its marketing strategies. It focused more on program participants and their need to avoid regaining weight once they reached their target goal. In 1997 the company received a large marketing boost when the Duchess of York agreed to be a spokesperson for Weight Watchers.
Although Nidetch is now retired, the company that she co-founded is continuing to grow. It was worth 28 million when sold to Heinz in 1978 and had grown to 42 million by 1998. By the year 2000 there were over 25 million Weight Watchers members in 29 countries.
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