THE THANKSGIVING ISSUE
The week of November 22, 2015

For modern weight watchers, selfies offer accountability and vindication

By Marisa Kabas

Kristine Strange lost 60 pounds, gained 80, lost 80, and then gained 100 more. In February 2012, she weighed 231 pounds, her heaviest yet. Once she finally committed to losing weight and keeping it off, she rejoined Weight Watchers and decided to document her journey via the program’s unofficial online support group: Instagram.

Strange had been an on-again, off-again member of Weight Watchers since she was 13. This latest go-round proved to be different. Moving her journey online, sharing every step of the process with anyone who clicked “follow,” created a level of accountability that had not existed for her before.

A lot has changed… But my love of cats remains the same ?

A photo posted by K R I S T I N E (@ilostbigandsocanyou) on

Through a mixture of before-and-after shots, current photos, pictures of Weight Watchers recipes, workout tips, and inspirational quotes, she’s racked up 109,000 followers—and new clients for the weight-loss system. “I have had hundreds and hundreds of people say that they signed up for [Weight Watchers] because of me,” Strange told the Kernel via email. Weight Watchers began in 1963 in founder Jean Nidetch’s living room. Now, more than 50 years later, it has carved out a distinct home online where members spread the Weight Watchers gospel. Through their phones and tablets, dieters have created a supportive and open community not unlike the company’s famous weekly in-person meetings. While Weight Watchers’ official Instagram account has 258,000 followers, the #weightwatchers hashtag has more than 2.3 million entries as of this writing, and others like #wwsisterhood and #wwinspiration have 679,000 and 74,000, respectively. And beyond the widespread popularity of related hashtags is the “WW” that some members have tacked onto their handles to signify that they are part of the weight-loss system turned lifestyle. Natalie, for example, is no longer just Natalie: Now she’s @nataliesWWjourney. Likewise, Lobke Meulemeester is a 34-year-old U.K. woman who goes by @lobs_ww_journey on Instagram, where you can track her powerful transition from her old weight (233 pounds) to how she looks now (174 pounds). “I decided to join Weight Watchers and incorporate WW in my username so I could find like-minded people who were on the same journey as me and followed the same plan and the other way around,” she told the Kernel via email. 

While Meulemeester was first inspired by others Instagramming their physical transformations, her followers have told her that she is the inspiring one now. She continued: “I have met some great people on Instagram who have become true supporters and friends along the way. I feel more accountable and strict if I post on Instagram…it keeps me in check as I don’t feel like I can let anyone down.”

Strange also spoke of not letting down the followers for whom she has become an unlikely weight-loss role model. “It definitely has an accountability factor where I feel I want to post on a daily basis as it is something I enjoy,” she said, “and my followers will check in on me if they see me slipping up.”

The mutually beneficial relationship happened organically. After hitting the 80-pound loss point, Strange noticed that she started to gain more followers, and it only continued to fuel her commitment to the program. She’s also not afraid to admit when she has gained a pound or two, or when she’d rather be eating a burrito—a candor that fellow dieters surely appreciate.

Weight Watchers corporate, for its part, is acutely aware of the power of Instagram for the brand. “For us, it really showcases what day-to-day life is like on Weight Watchers,” Lauren Salazar, the company’s director of social media, told the Kernel via phone. “It helps facilitate support for our members, which we think is a great use of the platform for them.”

Fifty years after its founding, Salazar said Weight Watchers has become “an inherently social brand.” Indeed, its online presence is leaps and bounds ahead of other weight-loss companies: The Jenny Craig Instagram has barely over 2,000 followers, and the Atkins Diet doesn’t even have an official account.

The popularity of the hashtags has made it easy for the Weight Watchers social media team to find their most devoted members. The team constantly fosters their massive online presence by combing through related hashtags daily, seeking out inspiring members to interact with and to feature on the official account, Salazar explained. She added that half of their Instagram content is user-generated, with vibrant and eye-catching food photos (such as, say, a berry smoothie).

Mining social media helped the brand come across a young woman named Ashley, who used Weight Watchers to shed pounds before her wedding.

“I started this for the dress,” @ashley_WW_newlywed’s profile reads, “but now this is so much more than that.”

Once the company identified Ashley as a devoted member, she received what they call a “surprise and delight” package with a personalized “#wwbride” T-shirt. It’s gestures like that that make it easy to understand why the brand has found success in the digital world. (In case you were wondering, #wwbride has more than 14,000 Instagram entries.)

Selfies may have a reputation for indulgence or vanity. Something about the #weightwatchers transformation photos, though, feels different. They aren’t the standard before-and-after pics that are now commonplace online—some of which are not even legit. Many health and fitness fiends participate in #TransformationTuesday and the like on social media, but for the many fans of Weight Watchers on Instagram, any expression of vanity seems to be eclipsed by a seemingly earnest attempt to show true progress and to inspire others to keep going. A hashtag has become another tool for achieving weight-loss goals.

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Kristine Strange and Josh Steele The Steele Project/Facebook

For Strange, the Internet even became the place where she found love. She met her boyfriend, Josh Steele, through her involvement in weight-loss communities. After being rejected by the reality show The Biggest Loser, Steele decided to document his journey online and, according to Today.com, has lost 300 pounds. They’ve each created Facebook pages of their own—Strange’s I Lost Big and So Can You boasts 60,000 fans and the Steele Project has a respectable 6,000 fans.

But even after years of dieting and calorie-counting turned into Weight Watchers and follower-counting, Strange still recognizes that the most powerful key to success is offline: “My success came from within.”

 

A version of this story was originally published on the Daily Dot on Oct. 5, 2015.

Photo via Philippe Put/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)