The Jenny Craig Weight Loss Center I knew was located in one of the blank-faced strip malls that make up a majority of the commercial architecture where I grew up. South Florida is a place where impermanence is part of the culture—the result of the collective influence of hurricanes, tourism, and retirees. This atmosphere of change persists today in storefront plastic surgery shops, where you can buy a new shape or a more expressionless face on your lunch hour.
The furnishings inside the Jenny Craig store were white, all straight lines and ninety-degree angles, a model of sterile late-1980s design. at my request, my father had brought me here, supplying both transportation and payment. Though I did learn some of my food issues from my family, I never remember my father being anything other than quietly supportive of my dieting efforts, and I never remember him making me feel badly about the money spent—or wasted—when I inevitably failed to lose weight. The woman at the reception desk was dark haired, with a mask-like smile. she handed me a few forms on a plastic clipboard, and a pen. I sat in one of the armless chairs in the waiting area and wrote out the pertinent details of my short life. I was thirteen.
There was a hopefulness to this process; I’d felt it before. It was the promise of a new start, the proverbial clean slate, like procuring new notebooks and pens at the beginning of the school year and feeling the vastness of possibility. This year I would do better, I would rise above my middle school social problems and get better grades. I would be smarter and better and happier and everything would change. This was the year. and like every diet before, this was the diet—the one that would save me. A well-trained consumer, I knew by now that I could be changed by the things I purchased, even with my father’s money. I could not be trusted to consume food, but I could consume diets. I could acquire something to make me different, better. Jenny Craig would be the answer, because all of its food came in boxes purchased at the center. It offered an endless cycle of shopping for redemption.
I followed the woman who would be my counselor back into the maze of narrow corridors and tiny rooms. she wore a white coat with all the vague confidence of a person who has no medical training whatsoever—and indeed she was not a medical professional, though she could play one here—and ushered me into a small room with a desk and a cabinet. Everything was white, reminiscent of a doctor’s office.
My counselor explained the process. First, I would diet to lose weight. Then, I would be taught to eat appropriately on my own, without the aid of all my food boxes from Jenny Craig. Finally, I would enter the “maintenance phase,” which would be the point after the loss where I would rejoin the eating world. Delicately, with care and restraint. Fact is, I could not envision a point beyond the weight loss, even then, but she sounded so hopeful and positive, I trusted that she knew what would happen. Frankly I was more interested in the diet than the future; I was more interested in penance than salvation.
The counselor led me out of the room and had me stand at the far end of the hallway. She took my picture using a Polaroid instant camera with a supernova-level flash that blasted all the image’s detail into a high-contrast haze. And I smiled, because I was a kid and I knew that when someone points a camera at you, your task is to smile.
Though I have not seen it since 1990, I remember the image with a precision that is ummatched by most of my other memories from the same time period. I remember watching my shape develop and appear from a pale square of shining film edged in white. In it, I am standing slightly off center, my back to the institutional gray wall behind me, like a suspect in a line-up. My face bears a half-formed smile, as though the shutter went too soon; my expression is nevertheless positive, hopeful, eager. The shirt I wear is by a clothing company called Ultra Pink: long sleeved, screen printed with a French-themed collage of random words and the Eiffel Tower, in purple, green, and black, dusted with sequins at points in the design deserving of extra attention. It is cut long and volumi-nous around the midsection, which is a reassurance to me, even though I have yet to reach the point at which I am regularly sized out of non-plus shops. I have paired this shirt with purple knit stirrup pants from Lerner’s, and cheap Payless ballet flats decorated with huge puffy bows that I bought with my allowance.
The Polaroid was to be my “before” picture. The counselor took it with an impressive measure of enthusiasm, with an absolute wide-eyed assurance that someday soon I would look at this picture and shake my head and say, “I cannot believe I ever looked like that!” This Polaroid was paperclipped to my file at Jenny Craig, and every time I went in for my weekly weigh-in and counseling session, I would see it there, clipped to the folder, like a piece of my soul.
I was wearing roughly a size sixteen at this time, and when placed on the scale, I weighed 168 pounds, which was recorded by the counselor as the beginning point on my weight-loss line chart. The shape of the handwritten number at the first column persists in my memory like a scar, inclining right, tidy and legible; every year in elementary school I got A’s in everything except penmanship, which often earned me a C. My handwriting was thoughtless, slovenly, unpredictable, like my body. That prim 168 represented the changes in myself I was seeking to make, to become neat, identifiable, understood, normal. We were seated on opposite sides of the cheap white desk in the counseling room, and my counselor produced a tape measure and wrapped it around my wrist: seven inches. she was impressed by the number. Does this mean I really do have big bones? she instructed me that the target weight for my height and my wrist measurement was a generous 130 pounds.
Staring at me from under the paper clip in my file was my own picture, taken minutes ago. I looked at that girl and had a brief moment in which I felt desperately sorry for her. she looked nice enough. Why did she have to be so fat? I was flooded with regret, not for the choice of diet but for the picture, for allowing this place to capture and keep me in that photograph. The Jenny Craig center had an entire wall of Polaroids, befores matched with afters, demonstrating clients’ success. The befores were so sad to me, like discarded skins. But I did not hate myself. I could not. Whether as a result of my nature or the circumstances of my life thus far, I appreciated myself, my strength and resourcefulness and intelligence. I just didn’t want to be picked on in school anymore.
We finished my consultation, and they sent me off with good wishes and an astonishing number of blue-and -white boxes of food that would comprise my diet for the foreseeable future. The boxes were an embarrassment of riches, representing a relief that I would no longer have to think about the foods I ate. everything was already decided, prepared, meted out, and I would merely follow instructions. These boxes would change me, would repair my brokenness. These things we had purchased would redefine my life and my body, reshape me into something real, something true. They would reveal the authentic body within the fat body that was crushing me.
I asked my father what he remembered of this experience. “I actually signed up with you,” he told me, “and lost a bunch of weight right away, and I remember feeling guilty because you didn’t.” Pause. “Also, I remember it was very expensive.”
For the first few weeks the line on my chart edged its way downhill and my imminent slenderness seemed as inevitable as gravity. All I needed to do was obey the rules, eat from the boxes, and keep my whims and desires bounded within Jenny’s small blue-and-white world. I was disciplined, and my body began to slide away, pound by pound, until even the clerk at the grocery store—where I selected supplemental items like romaine lettuce, red wine vinegar, and pickles—was remarking on my changing size.
After a couple months of adherence, I had lost around fifteen pounds. Then the chart’s steady downward slope leveled out. After the first week that I didn’t lose weight, my counselor was sympathetic. The second week, she attempted to explain that sometimes people losing weight will hit something called a plateau, in which their loss is stalled for a period of time. It was an apt description of the line on my chart, which had flattened out well above the alleged paradise I was hoping to reach. Her solution was to diet through the plateau, promising me that it would end and the loss would then continue.
It didn’t occur to me to question the science behind this idea, behind any of it. I was thirteen.
The only thing that had kept me loyal to Jenny’s wise counsel was my continuing weight loss. So as the weight loss stuttered to a halt, my devotion began to wane. Why eat from boxes if there is no reward and the food is terrible? and the food was terrible. I don’t know if things have changed in the interim but at the time, some of the boxed meals were practically inedible, like a vague approximation of food designed by an alien who has observed people eating but has never actually had the experience. Years later, when I taste something that reminds me of the food I ate while faithful to Jenny, the reaction is traumatic. I remember the rubbery pancakes, sickeningly sweet with artificial sugars, the pizza with the texture of plastic melted over cardboard, the brittle dehydrated pasta salad. The memory makes me nauseous and sad.
As my weight loss faltered, I began to zero in on the few Jenny Craig food items that tasted at all pleasurable to me, the most memorable of which were something called peanut butter bars, which consisted of a crumbly and dry peanut-like bar encased in a brown substance meant to evoke memories of chocolate, if not chocolate itself. It tasted better than the alternatives, almost like a treat, and I was by this time operating under a near-constant obsession with my never-fully-satisfied hunger. I would sneak extra peanut butter bars. I was meant to have one a day, for a snack, but then I started eating two, and soon it was more still. I began to crave them, likely because they were the option highest in fat and sugar.
The standard human biological response to starvation (by diet or otherwise) is a craving for sweets, as sugars are most readily processed into energy when our reserves are running low. Dieters know these cravings well. Indeed, as a child I never liked sweets or candy, and would routinely refuse birthday cake at parties in favor of the vegetable tray. I only started to seek out sugar once I began dieting.
My counselor began to get suspicious when I was telling her I needed another box of these precious peanut butter bars every week. Part of her job, arguably the most important part, was to keep track of what foods I had bought and what I reordered. She never really counseled me, in the sense that the commercials seem to describe, by patting my hand, listening to my woes, or being my confidante for half an hour once a week. She was primarily a gatekeeper. “If you’re following the plan, you should have plenty of these at home,” she scolded when I insisted I needed more bars, peering at me with undisguised annoyance.
I knew what she thought, and I knew what it meant because I had thought it too. So it’s your fault you can’t get off the plateau. My internal monologue took the shape of unspoken accusations from my Jenny Craig counselor. Here I am working for you, believing in you, and you are letting us down. You are letting everyone down, too weak to resist the slightest temptation, to follow the simplest plan. You eat from the boxes, you lose the weight, that’s how it goes. If you don’t, the failure is yours.
I stayed on the plateau for a couple weeks more before I told my father I didn’t want to go anymore, and that was that. He never pressured me to keep to it, and the grocery clerk stopped making approving comments about my body, which slowly recollected what I had lost and returned to its prior shape.
And Jenny Craig still had my photograph.