BBC History Magazine

70 How slimming clubs have promoted weight loss and friendship over the decades

- ILLUSTRATI­ON BY ELEANOR SHAKESPEAR­E

Since they emerged in the 1940s, slimming clubs have provided emotional succour, drawn criticism from feminists and attempted to reinvent themselves as purveyors of wellness – all proof, writes Katrina Moseley, that there’s a lot more to the history of dieting than weight loss

On 16 September 1967, a local paper in Surrey ran a weight-loss story about a woman named Stephanie Vaughan. Having struggled with her body weight as a child and adolescent, Stephanie had grown “fatter and more hopeless about her weight problem until, at 21, she reached 14½ stone”. She had tried everything in her willpower to diet. She had even taken a course of slimming pills, which left her feeling “terrible”. But recently, reported the newspaper, something dramatic had happened. Stephanie had discovered a new slimming method called Weight Watchers: “an organisati­on, recently introduced to this country from America, which helps fatties through group therapy – a kind of ‘eaters anonymous’.”

The article in the Surrey Comet went on to record Stephanie’s remarkable success with Weight Watchers. She had started going once a week to a meeting in a small village hall in Datchet, where a new branch of the company had just been formed. Although she had already slimmed down to 13 stone, she hoped to stay for five further months to lose more weight. The journalist concluded that Stephanie felt better in herself and found it easier to resist sweet temptation­s. Where once she had been a “fat girl”, “too big to go out and buy pretty, off-the-peg clothing”, she had started “taking an interest in fashions, now there is a chance of finding something to fit”.

This newspaper story captures an important moment in the late 1960s, when new dieting methods were emerging in Britain. And although today we are very familiar with the idea of slimming clubs, their history is largely overlooked. How did the idea of “group-supported” weight loss first catch on?

Clubbing together

Slimming clubs have a long social history dating back to postwar America. The first of these groups, the non-profit organisati­on “Taking Off Pounds Sensibly”, was establishe­d in Milwaukee in 1948, and similar companies followed in the 1950s. In 1963, a savvy businesswo­man named Jean Nidetch establishe­d Weight Watchers Inc. in New York, charging members a weekly attendance fee for the guidance that she provided. This model proved wildly successful, and four years later, an American woman named Bernice Weston bought an exclusive franchise to operate Weight Watchers in Britain.

Weston’s story is recorded colourfull­y in her autobiogra­phy, A Weight Off My Mind. Aged 27 in 1966, she stumbled upon a session of Weight Watchers while on holiday in Miami with her English husband. Having yo-yo dieted throughout her life, she vowed to give the group method a go. Although her first encounter was an unpromisin­g one (“[We] actually arrived… clutching hamburgers dripping with ketchup and relish and drinking triple thick milk shakes”), her dedication soon melted away the unwanted pounds. She returned to England several months later to spread the word about Weight Watchers from her home in Surrey.

Neverthele­ss, success was not immediate. Weston struggled to drum up business at first, attracting just three women to her initial UK meeting in March 1967. In the autumn of that year, she organised a “fashion show” for former Weight Watchers at a department store in Kingston-upon-Thames. The models had all slimmed down with the support of the organisati­on, and Weston arranged to have “huge blow ups done of their ‘before’ pictures” for the purposes of promotion.

During this early phase, Weston trained each new “lecturer” herself. “Lecturers” were former members of Weight Watchers: women who had successful­ly lost weight on the programme and wanted to set up a new class in a nearby area. Once training was complete, these women called on friends to take part in their classes. Like other American imports

LIKE AVON AND TUPPERWARE, WEIGHT WATCHERS DREW ON ESTABLISHE­D NETWORKS OF FEMALE SOCIABILIT­Y

such as Avon and Tupperware, Weight Watchers drew on establishe­d networks of female sociabilit­y and provided new, income-generating opportunit­ies for women.

Over time, the success of Weight Watchers paved the way for the emergence of homegrown groups in Britain. Silhouette Slimming was establishe­d in Northampto­nshire in 1968. And a year later, a woman named Margaret Bramwell establishe­d J&M Slimming World in a church hall in Derbyshire. By 1975 there were around 570 branches of Weight Watchers across the UK and more than a thousand different classes of Silhouette Slimming Club Ltd.

Pulling them in

By the early 1980s, the strength of the slimming-club industry was plain to see. Talking to researcher­s in that decade, one woman commented: “I recently had a market research job to find off the streets of Nottingham 10 women who had ever been members of a well-known slimming club and interview them. Impossible task? On the face of it, yes, to get 10 at random like that. It took me just three hours – I was amazed. At that rate I could have gone on pulling them in all day!”

The success of these clubs helped their female founders rise to prominence, too. Rosemary Conley, who left school at the age of 15 and entered secretaria­l work, found huge success with a chain of slimming clubs in Leicesters­hire in the early 1970s. By the late 1980s, she was living in an 18-room mansion in the countrysid­e: all off the back of the slimming industry. By 1991, with book contracts and television deals, she was earning more than £1m a year.

We can add Conley to a long line of enterprisi­ng women – Helena Rubenstein, Madam CJ Walker, Elizabeth Arden and Anita Roddick – who harnessed the power of female consumptio­n patterns across the 20th century to make large fortunes for themselves. Identifyin­g a gap in the market for innovation, these women helped to transform the masculine face of entreprene­urial leadership for good.

One of the reasons why slimming clubs were so successful in this period is that they meant more to women than weight loss. Instead, they were spaces of female “homosocial­ity”, where friendship­s were formed and women could share their problems and secrets – rather like the pubs that men gathered in to drink and socialise across the early 20th century. In the early days, eager to protect these female-only spaces, some slimming clubs even went as far as to exclude men. Rosemary Conley recalled that her own classes were targeted at “women, absolutely women. And if men had wanted to come, you’d have said no.”

Keep Fit classes were another space that fostered female friendship­s in this period, and they shared many similariti­es with slimming clubs. Formed into an associatio­n in 1956 by the exercise guru Eileen Fowler, they grew to prominence in the late 1950s, gaining publicity from Fowler’s motivation­al appearance­s on BBC radio and television. A suggestion to insert “ladies” into the title of the Swindon Keep Fit branch was approved unanimousl­y upon its founding in the mid-1960s.

Mate not plate

In the 1970s, all slimming clubs followed a simple business format. Each club generated revenue through monthly membership and weekly attendance fees. Classes took place in hired spaces, typically village halls, and in return for their money, members received a

mixture of dieting resources: tailored food plans, calorie informatio­n guides, a weekly “weigh-in” and the emotional support of fellow slimmers.

This last factor – emotional support – was crucial. According to Bernice Weston, slimming clubs were places where private problems were shared and unpackaged as a group: “We would discuss why we ate, and frequently we found that we were unhappy at home… All kinds of problems were revealed when a member confessed to cheating: perhaps a woman would admit she was facing a divorce or that a parent was dying, and as usual food became her only solace.”

In the early days, Weston would even hand out fridge stickers saying things like “Who are you angry with?” explaining “when you are angry with someone, the first thing you do is go straight to the fridge”. To protect against evening blowouts, another sign cautioned women to “reach for their mate, not their plate”. Its tagline? “Make love, not midnight snacks.”

Talking therapies

Though these examples may seem comical, the unique culture of slimming clubs could serve an important function for women. The Slimnastic­s classes founded in Richmond in the 1960s combined fitness and healthy eating advice with talking therapy. As one of the group’s founding members, Diana Lamplugh, later explained, Slimnastic­s paired together women with similar personal problems: “This has happened for instance with two mothers whose babies died in cot deaths, another where, sadly, two elderly mothers share the horror of having their sons commit suicide.” By encouragin­g open communicat­ion, these clubs pre-empted later cultural concerns with stress management and emotional well-being.

The reasons for attending a slimming club were not always this profound. Many women maintained a light-hearted attitude to participat­ion, viewing their weekly meeting as a welcome opportunit­y to meet with friends, or to escape domestic drudgery.

Interviewe­d for a study on food in the early 1980s, a housewife from the north of England admitted that her own slimming club journey had been a farcical one: “Me and my friend used to go to the slimming club on a Thursday night with about 90p. We used to come out of there, go to the pub and have some fish and chips on the way home and slim the rest of the week!” This, she explained, was her “night out”. It was something that she looked forward to because her husband always insisted on staying in.

At the other extreme, some women found the experience of attending a slimming club

stressful and anxiety-inducing. In 1985, at the age of 21, Jackie Long joined a weight-loss club with friends in her local town of Congleton in Cheshire. When interviewe­d later in life, she recalled that meetings could be “a bit cringewort­hy”. The class leader “would actually go around the room, and she would ask everybody what they’d lost or maintained or put on… To the point where I can remember feeling quite sort of sick, hoping that I’d lost.”

Although slimming clubs constructe­d weight loss as a positive process, aspects of the dieting experience could clearly be psychologi­cally damaging. And the women’s liberation movement provided a new framework for feminist women to express these concerns. Although the movement itself dated back to the late 1960s, critiques of the dieting industry found fuller expression towards the end of the 1970s, with the publicatio­n of Susie Orbach’s book

Fat is a Feminist Issue (1978).

This seminal book on dieting linked issues of disordered eating to patriarcha­l power structures. For Orbach, a British psychoanal­yst, ideals of thinness were transmitte­d unconsciou­sly to girls from an early age. Rather than reproducin­g such beauty ideals, it was the task of modern feminists to outroot them as part of a broader effort to combat the sexual objectific­ation of the female body.

A recipe for outrage

By the early 1980s, these ideas had trickled down into the radical feminist press. Trouble and Strife magazine, launched in 1983, featured an article on the “politics of slimming” in its opening issue. “One thing sticks in my mind,” observed the author. “[T]he descriptio­n in Slimmer magazine of this year’s Golden Slimmer of the Year who is transforme­d by her diet ‘from a lump of lard in the corner into a winner’.” The “hatred” (a word used in the article) of this descriptio­n made her reel.

By the 1980s, the arguments of the American body positivity movement – which asserted that all people deserved to have a positive body image, regardless of societal expectatio­n – were becoming evident in Britain. Nancy Roberts’ exercise classes were launched in London in 1982, “aimed not at weight loss but at encouragin­g big women to enjoy their bodies”, according to an article in 1983. And later in the decade, the London Fat Women’s Group took to BBC television to create a programme that would “challenge the slim ideal presented by the media”.

Many of the women involved in such groups had themselves attended slimming clubs in the past. “After years of dieting,” observed the Radio Times in 1989, “they are trying to come to terms with how they are and want to challenge the oppression they face.” Through activities of this kind, larger women shaped a more cynical view of the dieting industry through the 1990s and into the 21st century.

This brings us up to the present day. What do slimming clubs look like now, in the 2020s? The messages expounded by dieting clubs have of course changed shape over time, in line with broader cultural shifts. In the 1960s, there was a lot of talk of beauty, clothes-sizing and appearance. But nowadays, there is much more of an emphasis on health. This was reflected clearly in 2018, when Weight Watchers re-branded itself “WW”, adopting the new tagline “Wellness that Works”. And rather than being the sole preserve of women, men are now welcomed into slimming clubs – with more attending than ever before.

The techniques adopted by dieting clubs have also evolved in recent decades, owing to the rise of new technologi­es. The 1990s marked a new visual age for slimming, with the spread of fitness videos and television features. Then came the rise of the online diet club – a model that has proven particular­ly useful in recent months. Even prior to the pandemic, Slimming World had establishe­d an online platform for itself, allowing members to meet virtually and track their weight-loss journey through mobile apps.

Slimming clubs offer us a rich history of contradict­ions. Whether we side more with the arguments of the women’s liberation movement, or more with the notion that “beauty is power” is perhaps a moot point. For all of these themes – body politics, sexual oppression, female agency, and female power – figure somewhere along the way.

Katrina Moseley is a social historian of modern Britain. She received her doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 2020, specialisi­ng in the history of food and body weight. @trina_moseley THE 1990S MARKED A NEW VISUAL AGE FOR SLIMMING, WITH THE SPREAD OF FITNESS VIDEOS AND THE RISE OF ONLINE DIET CLUBS

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A member of TOPS, America’s first slimming club, uses a 16lb bowling ball to demonstrat­e how much weight she has lost, 1951
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Bernice Weston in 1991. The founder of the British arm of Weight Watchers realised that slimming clubs were as much about emotional support as dieting
#JGCF Qf VJG cWTXG Bernice Weston in 1991. The founder of the British arm of Weight Watchers realised that slimming clubs were as much about emotional support as dieting
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Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch pictured in 1967 with an image of herself pre-weight loss. Her model of charging slimmers a weekly attendance fee proved wildly successful
Before and after Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch pictured in 1967 with an image of herself pre-weight loss. Her model of charging slimmers a weekly attendance fee proved wildly successful
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The British T8 tness instructor 'ileen (owler leads an eZercise class for bus[ housewiXes in 19 . The postwar period saw a surge in interest in womenos tness s and weight loss
)GV V SWicM The British T8 tness instructor 'ileen (owler leads an eZercise class for bus[ housewiXes in 19 . The postwar period saw a surge in interest in womenos tness s and weight loss
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In her 1978 book Fat Is a Feminist Issue, the psychoanal­yst Susie Orbach (pictured) drew a straight line between “disordered eating” and patriarcha­l power structures. Soon, her misgivings about slimming were being championed in the feminist press
At war with the patriarchy In her 1978 book Fat Is a Feminist Issue, the psychoanal­yst Susie Orbach (pictured) drew a straight line between “disordered eating” and patriarcha­l power structures. Soon, her misgivings about slimming were being championed in the feminist press
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Pageant of shame? Activists attempt to disrupt the Miss World beauty contest, London, 1970. By now, a new wave of feminists were railing at the objectific­ation of the female body
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The Penguin handbook Slimnastic­s (1971) offered women advice on fitness and healthy eating
dlexible advice The Penguin handbook Slimnastic­s (1971) offered women advice on fitness and healthy eating

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