Sam Cowen who was being interviewed by The Star in Rosebank, Johannesburg.
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Picture: Boxer Ngwenya
Sam Cowen who was being interviewed by The Star in Rosebank, Johannesburg. 290616 Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

Radio and TV host Samantha Cowen breaks silence on her long-secret addictions to liquor, food in honest memoir

Weight Watchers was my first proper, real, official attempt to lose weight. And it really is official, I must tell you.

First you find a group near you. Then you join up. The group leader weighs you, and then you calculate your goal weight – or rather, they calculate your goal weight. And then you get a whole lot of literature and a book of points.

The points book is your food bible. Each and every food under the sun has an allocation of points. I marvelled at this. How did they work this out? There are so many foods! And so many permutations of these foods!

Take milk, for example: they had points for full cream and skimmed and semi-skimmed and low fat and fat free, and all of those were different. And milk was an easy one – you should have seen the bread.

A full page was devoted to bread. There was white bread and brown bread and wholegrain bread and rye bread and low-GI bread and berlinerbrot, which is a type of rye but not exactly the same as the other rye, and there was high-fibre bread and bread rolls, white and brown and big and small.

I was allowed 24 points a day, which is quite a lot if you learn all the foods and eat a lot of low-fat stuff.

There were only two drawbacks to Weight Watchers. One was that you could use all your points for a day if you ate three slices of pizza, and the other was the weigh-in.

The weigh-in was the dread of my week.

This was the reminder that someone besides you really was watching your weight. I would arrive every Wednesday at 1pm at the Sandton library, which is where my group would meet, and all of us members would dutifully stand in line waiting for the news of whether or not we had succeeded in our weight-loss goal for the week.

You cannot fudge the issue at Weight Watchers. (Well, at Weight Watchers there shouldn’t be any fudge at all really.)

Not only is it a public weigh-in, but they record your results in your little book and you get a stamp. A stamp. Like the ones you got in school if your handwriting was especially neat or if the teacher had run out of gold stars.

And if you missed a weigh-in it would show because you wouldn’t have a dated stamp. It would show that you had bunked.

Our group leader was very strict. She was like a gym teacher, very cheerful and full of life and absolutely terrifying. I once played a whole hockey match at school with a sprained ankle because I was too afraid to tell the sports mistress.

Some people looked forward to the weigh-in. The rest of us hated those people. They were the type of people who, at school, would put their hands up to clean the blackboard or ask for more paper during an exam.

“I’ve been so good this week,” they would say excitedly. Did you help an old lady across a road or give money to an animal shelter? I would want to ask.

Because that’s what being so good should be about. But when you’re fat, overweight or just “carrying a few extra kilograms”, your definitions of such terms as “good” and “bad” narrow to how closely or how loosely you have stuck to your points that week.

Being “good” means you didn’t look right or left in the checkout aisle full of chocolates at Woolworths.

Being “bad” meant you’d eaten enough pizza to use up the points of three people.There were some tricks to the weigh-in.

If I was going to cheat during the week – and I was, I knew I was – I would do it on weigh-in day after the weigh in. Then I knew I would have a full six days to “lose the evidence” and more until the next opportunity for public humiliation.

I hasten to say, though, that there was no deliberate attempt made to humiliate us.

No one shouted out, “Ha, you’re up. You great big pork pie!” But as one person stepped on the scale and either fist-pumped the air or withered like a dry leaf in a flame, we all knew, and the news would make its way down the line.

“Shame, she’s put on 200g.” “Ah no, man! And she was doing so well…” “Yeah, she says she doesn’t know what happened.”

We would all nod sadly. There was nothing worse than not knowing what happened.

Another trick was to eat and drink nothing that day.

From sun-up, I would behave as though I was about to have an operation under general anaesthetic: nil by mouth from 10 the night before.

Also, no gym in the morning, or any form of strenuous activity, in case I “retained water”. You could pick up a fair bit on the scale from water retention.

I know because it was your ace in the hole if you had overindulged that week. Especially if you were a woman.

“Sam, you’re up a bit.” “I know, Nicky,” I’d whisper – she was my group leader – eyes darting around to see whether anyone was listening. “But I’m expecting my period.”

“Ah,” she’d nod understandingly. “That makes sense. So it will be better next week.”

I’d agree enthusiastically, go and have my weekly ice cream and eat like a Spartan for the next week to make that statement a reality.

You had to make a note of when you used that excuse though, because it was only taken as valid one week in four. And, of course, only for girls.

The other place you could buy yourself some wiggle room was with your shoes. For reasons of hygiene, I think (I never asked), you had to weigh in wearing your shoes. If you forgot and wore boots you were lost. A pair of boots would send your measurement sky-rocketing and Nicky didn’t give you any leeway on shoes.

She said, quite rightly, that you should weigh in the same clothes and shoes each week and, funnily enough, a lot of us did.

Anyone seeing us on a weekly basis would have thought we all had our own individual uniforms.

A clever girl used to keep in her bag those silly little slippers they give you for free at a spa when you go for a massage, and if she had eaten past her points limit during the week, she would slip off her real shoes and weigh in in those.

Nicky would frown but she would let it slide. And of course in winter you’d weigh more in a sweater, so we would all stand there in our shirt sleeves shivering with cold.

A week could be made or broken on that weigh-in. I used to sit next to a very charming gay couple during meetings. I think that was the other reason I tried Weight Watchers first – because of the meetings. I was an old hat at those.

I’d had a few years of sitting with like-minded souls, bonded together in a common understanding of our own weakness. I slid into that unspoken camaraderie with ease. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, if you’re drunk or high or fat, there’s a group. Go to it.

The couple lived together. They gymmed together. It was a match made in heaven.

They readily agreed that moving in together had made them just a little too comfortable around the buffet table, but they would lose the weight and it would be yet another thing they would do together.

And it was all going swimmingly until the day one of them dropped a kilogram more than the other.

“I don’t understand,” said the other, his voice tremulous.

“We’ve eaten everything the same; we do the same routine at gym… What’s happened?”

“Cheer up,” said the champion, trying to be helpful. “Maybe next week you’ll catch up!”

The rest of us winced.The first leapt up and grabbed his wallet and keys. “You always have to be the overachiever in this relationship.”

He burst into tears and ran out, his partner following anxiously behind. Awkward.

I wish Weight Watchers had worked for me. Or that I had worked for Weight Watchers. But it wasn’t them; it was me.

I got obsessed with the points system to the point of neurosis.

This is an extract from From Whiskey to Water by Samantha Cowen, published by MF Books, available at www.loot.co.za