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August 11, 2015

Long Before Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig: How the ‘Fat Ladies Non-Anonymous Club’ Revolutionized Weight Loss in the 1950s

“See you lighter.” This was the standard farewell used by members of Take Off Pounds Sensibly, or TOPS, a weight-loss club for women founded in 1948 by a former employee of a Milwaukee brewery. The group, described by LIFE Magazine as “a kind of Fat Ladies Non-Anonymous,” was modeled after the famous alcoholism support network in all ways but the one. “Excess weight being what it is,” LIFE explained, “it is hard to keep secret.”


At weekly meetings across the Midwest and on both coasts, TOPS members weighed in, sang songs (“Every mealtime check your eats; count the calories, dodge the sweets”) and planned low-calorie meals for the week ahead. Each woman received a stripe on her TOPS pin to acknowledge every five pounds lost.

Though the programs it inspired, in part, to a strategy of employing celebrity spokespeople, which TOPS does not pursue—TOPS continues to be a player in the weight loss world, with members losing a collective 400 tons in 2014. That's a lot of stripes.

Dancing at TOPS party ladies lose ounces whirling around. They play games which require bending.

Weight of fat is dramatized by lady with 16-pound bowling ball. She has lost 24 of her original 274 pounds.

Choosing pals to help them control their calories until the next meeting, the TOPS draw strings from a bag and then look around for matching length.

Members of the Milwaukee TOPS Club during a meeting, 1951.

Members of the Milwaukee TOPS Club, 1951.

Members of the Milwaukee TOPS Club get weighed in 1951.

Founder Manz displays TOPS pin with stripe for each 5 pounds lost, star for 25 pounds.

Members of the Milwaukee TOPS Club take measurements, 1951.

Members of the Milwaukee TOPS Club exercise together, 1951.

Members of the Milwaukee TOPS Club exchange awards, 1951.

Tempting TOPS use pal system when shopping together to make it easier to pass up pastries. One TOPS motto is "Feast your eyes and nothing more."

(Photos by Francis Miller—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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