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When America’s First Family of Fitness Duped the Country with Its Bogus Weight-Loss Device

Without a doubt, many of the products sold by Joe Weider, his brother Ben and his wife Betty were totally reputable. But in the 1970s, their mail-order ‘Body Shaper’ landed them in considerable hot water

Canadian muscle man Joe Weider — who spent the late 1930s and early 1940s shattering powerlifting records all across his home country, and who also placed highly in several bodybuilding competitions into the 1950s — was also an entrepreneurial genius who may have leveraged his fitness successes better than anyone before or after him. Case in point: Prior to the conclusion of the 1940s, Weider was already selling nutritional supplements, publishing magazines devoted to physical development and, alongside his brother Ben, had founded what would become the most influential governing body in the history of bodybuilding: the International Federation of Bodybuilders, eventually renamed as the International Federation of Bodybuilding & Fitness. 

Speaking of Weider family business, after an ugly divorce from his first wife, Weider hastily married Betty Brosmer, a famous pin-up girl, in 1961. Four years later, the Weiders created what remains the most influential bodybuilding show in the world — the Mr. Olympia competition. Shortly thereafter, they began to focus far more attention on the female demographic, introducing a line of bustline exercisers and other gadgets intended to promote a slim, buxom figure to women under the Betty Weider’s Body Persuasion product line. This was also around the same time the Weider Body Shaper emerged.

Betty Brosmer in the late 1950s

Unlike Weider’s previous products — especially his dumbbells and barbells — it felt shady from the jump. Namely, the original advertisements for the Body Shaper consisted of a series of dubious weight-loss claims from alleged users, packaged with a vague description of the style of exercise involved, but no actual images depicting the product being used.

The ads were so obfuscating that even people who were still somehow convinced to order the Body Shaper were clueless as to what they’d ultimately be receiving. Angry customers who thought they were ordering a classic body shaper or waist trainer wrote to their local newspapers to voice their complaints and warn others. “Weider International in Woodland Hills, California sent me some rope-and-pulley gadget called a ‘Total Body Shaper,’” one customer lamented to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I sent it back because I ordered a 5-minute Waist Shaper. Now they won’t return my $10.98. What is this company doing?”

Somehow, though, the Weiders managed to sustain Body Shaper sales from late 1972 well into 1974 without ever disclosing an image of what their rope-and-pulley gadget actually looked like. However, before the year was out, they certainly managed to acquire a very good look at what a court summons looked like.

In May 1974, Los Angeles Superior Court named Joe and Betty Weider as defendants in a lawsuit alleging false advertising in the before-and-after photos used in their Total Body Shaper ads. “Their claim that proven results are verified by thousands [of customers] that appears in several of the advertisements is false in that no such proof exists,” Deputy District Attorney Gilbert Garcette told the Los Angeles Times.

The District Attorney’s Office even provided bullet points of the “false factors” within the Weider’s advertising:

  • Most photographs have been altered or made to show apparent weight loss through the use of lighting, facial expression, clothing, posture or camera angle.
  • The persons photographed often are professional models, not regular customers as claimed.
  • Other models shown in the advertisements have included the daughter of the photographer, the Weider firm’s controller, general manager and other employees or spouses of employees, including Betty Weider herself.
  • Persons listed in the advertising text as “experts” thought they were endorsing a program of diet and exercise rather than just the use of the device.
  • So-called “unsolicited” letters actually had been solicited by the defendants through a contest which offered a $1,000 prize for the best entry.
The classic Weider before-and-after photo lineup

Seemingly as a result of being hit with this lawsuit, the advertising for the Body Shaper began to display the actual product being purchased — a doorway-mounted pulley system that could simultaneously work the arms and legs — along with still images of the Body Shaper in use. The ads also began to recommend using the Body Shaper Pro during multiple five-minute training sessions each day. 

Ironically, within those very same advertisements, expansive sections were dedicated to explaining why fad dieting was detrimental, and not conducive to long-term weight loss. (The Weiders’ dubious dietary suggestion? “No rigid dieting. We suggest you temporarily eat 20 percent less until you reach your normal weight — without giving up any of the foods you love. Eat ice cream, cake, pasta, whatever!”)

Images of the Body Shaper finally appear in print

Body Shaper advertisements that appeared even later in 1975 contained other pernicious elements. Ben Weider’s own face appeared in one ad, identifying him as the president of the International Federation of Bodybuilders. The tacit implication was that the Body Shaper was an adequate bodybuilding tool, when neither Weider nor any of the bodybuilders on his roster would ever have been caught dead strapped into a Body Shaper unless they were receiving a large endorsement check for their troubles. 

In January 1976, the ruling of the Los Angeles Superior Court finally slapped the Weiders back to reality. The Court ordered them to issue a refund of $10.50 to each of the nearly 100,000 Californians who had purchased the Body Shaper Pro. The crux of the lawsuit had been the heavy implication that just five minutes of daily exercise was enough to achieve significant weight loss. Since five minutes of jogging is often insufficient to burn so much as 50 calories for many people, it would be impossible to believe that five minutes spent on the floor with arms and legs flailing in the air would be adequate to make a respectable caloric dent.

With their product irreparably damaged by the lawsuit, the Weiders began unloading their remaining Body Shapers in 1977 for the deeply discounted price of two bucks.

Body Shaper closeout ad from 1977

Despite the setback caused by the Body Shaper fiasco, it was impossible for the Weider brand to sustain any long-term damage when its portfolio of products included Muscle & Fitness magazine, Shape magazine and Mr. Olympia, the prestige of which would soon be magnified tenfold thanks to its immortalization in the 1980 landmark documentary Pumping Iron starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Ultimately, it appears as if such unqualified successes provided Joe and the rest of the Weider family with a belief in their own invincibility, and they soon found themselves in hot water with the U.S. government yet again in the mid-1980s for marketing and selling their Anabolic Mega Pak product as a steroid replacement alternative. 

As a man who built a fitness empire atop his brawny back, it would seem that Joe Weider literally believed himself to be too big to fail, even though all of the evidence suggests that he was always far too big to escape notice.