Oprah and WeightWatchers are hosting a conversation about diet culture. Here’s why it's causing controversy already.

Photo illustration of Oprah Winfrey and WeightWatchers logo with nutrition labels and a tape measure.
People are skeptical of Oprah Winfrey and WeightWatchers’ efforts to dismantle diet culture. (Photo illustration: Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; photos: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, Arturo Holmes/Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images)

Oprah Winfrey and WeightWatchers are reuniting to host a conversation about diet culture on May 9. The virtual event, Making the Shift: A New Way to Think About Weight, will explore “the profound impact diet culture has had on our society” and discuss ways to “reframe harmful narratives surrounding our weight and our bodies,” according to a press release.

But already, people are skeptical. That’s partly because of Winfrey’s role in two previous conversations — one on the Oprah Daily platform and the other an ABC primetime special — focused specifically on weight loss and the role of modern weight loss medications, which she revealed in December 2023 to be using herself. It’s also because of WeightWatchers’ involvement, as the brand that’s long touted the role of behavioral changes to achieve weight loss has since acquired a telehealth company to prescribe weight loss medications and manage patients through its latest GLP-1 program. Winfrey was a longtime board member of WeightWatchers, before announcing in February that they’d be cutting ties. This month marks her official exit.

WeightWatchers CEO Sima Sistani talked about her intentions for the event in a video on Instagram. “We want to create a safe space for discussion, no matter what part of the story we’ve played in,” likely alluding to conversations about the brand’s contributions to toxic diet culture. “This is an opportunity for us both [WeightWatchers] members and critics, scientists and opinion leaders, all together to have that conversation because it’s in that conversation that we can move forward together.” Actors Rebel Wilson and Amber Riley, as well as body acceptance advocate Katie Sturino, will also be participating.

So what is it about the event that’s causing controversy before it even happens? And what do experts in weight, health and diet culture have to say about it? Here, Yahoo Life breaks it down.

While some are applauding both WeightWatchers and Winfrey for having these conversations about diet culture, critics say there's a conflict of interest and even some hypocrisy in their hosting of these events. It echoes reactions to Winfrey’s previous ABC special Shame, Blame and the Weight Loss Revolution, which some said felt like an infomercial for the weight loss drugs Winfrey has said she wants to be impartial about.

The comment section of an Instagram video posted by Jen Hatmaker, an author and podcast host, who was invited to be a part of the May 9 livestreamed event, demonstrated these concerns.

“I was thinking how hard it is to stomach that Oprah is only now talking about diet culture, acceptance, etc. AFTER losing the weight using meds like Ozempic,” one commenter wrote. (Winfrey hasn’t specified which medication she takes.) “Such [a] privilege that most people don’t have access to and completely denies the point of body neutrality.”

Another, who identified themselves as a physician who treats people with eating disorders, wrote, “There is no way that a company that exists only to sell weight loss can sponsor an event like this authentically. This is marketing. … WW is trying to co-opt a really important conversation for their benefit. It’s disingenuous and gross.”

Others pointed out that these conversations have ignored issues of anti-fat bias and weight stigma.

“Even with the lip service to change from WW, Oprah, and Ozempic — it still feels a little hollow when their end goal is still ‘lose weight.’ There is still a really clear conflation of health with weight from all of these platforms, which is still perpetuating the same shame, just subtly,” a comment on Hatmaker’s same video reads.

Dr. Mara Gordon, family physician and contributing writer for NPR, shared her thoughts on this issue. “Certainly, GLP-1 medications helped some of Oprah's guests with their diabetes and changed the way the world treated them, but the real problem behind their suffering isn't entirely medical. The problem is fat phobia,” Gordon wrote. “[Winfrey] doesn’t stop to ask if maybe fat phobia is the problem, not fat people.”

Dr. Melanie Jay, director of NYU Langone’s Comprehensive Program on Obesity, tells Yahoo Life that the conversation about weight and diet culture is complicated. WeightWatchers’ investment in diet programs doesn’t make it any easier.

“It’s hard to separate weight loss for health versus living up to the social ideals of thinness,” she says. “And the social desire for thinness still drives much of the business in the diet industry. So I can see why people think it’s controversial that a company that benefits from the diet culture is talking about the ill effects of obesity stigma.”

Nevertheless, Jay recognizes the need for these conversations as rates of obesity climb.

“We need all doctors and specialists, as well as other health care team members including dietitians, nurses, pharmacists, community health workers, health coaches to work together to make sure to support everyone who wants and needs treatment gets it,” she says. “This requires innovation in the health care sector as well as in our communities.”

There are “unethical for-profit companies” cashing in on this, Jay says. However, she adds: “WW is one of the longest standing and most scientifically studied lifestyle-based commercial weight management programs. The CEO has recognized the need to talk more about obesity stigma and figure out ways that the company can prevent being part of toxic diet culture and body shaming.”

Christine Byrne, a dietitian who specializes in disordered eating and owner of Ruby Oak Nutrition, tells Yahoo Life that the focus on weight and appearance needs to shift.

“The issue with the current conversation about weight and health, which Oprah and WW are both a part of, is that it seems to be pushing thinness at all costs,” she says. “Weight loss is difficult and complicated, and there are so many ways to improve your health without changing your weight.”

As for Winfrey’s involvement, however, both experts acknowledge that she too suffers from weight stigma. “I don't think it's fair to paint Oprah as a villain in this current conversation about weight and health,” says Byrne. “She's a woman who lives in a marginalized body, and she's experienced plenty of stigma and criticism over the years because of her weight and her identity. She's a victim of our culture's obsession with thinness, just like anyone else.”