I recently returned to New Zealand, the country where I grew up, and met with a childhood friend for a long overdue catch-up over coffee. The conversation turned to my doctoral research and how my recent research trip to the Midwest had gone. As I recounted my archive adventures and my delight at finding such a wealth of popular literature concerning obesity from the late 1940s, my long-time friend looked up and exclaimed: was obesity a problem in the 1950s? This is not the first time this question has been posed to me with such surprise. We can be forgiven for assuming that widespread concern for weight management is a relatively recent phenomenon with the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheets presenting obesity as a health conundrum from the late twentieth century.
Historians of fat have documented the surge in attention that obesity received after the Second World War, most prominently seen in the United States of America (USA).1 This is not to imply that obesity wasn’t a health concern in earlier decades, but by the early 1950s the American Public Health Service had announced that obesity was the leading healthcare problem in the USA (sound familiar?). The medical profession was increasingly concerned with the role obesity played in chronic disease, evident in the sharp increase of articles published on obesity during the 1950s. Chapman’s “Weight Control: A Simplified Concept” in 1951 and Bruch’s “Psychological Aspects of Reducing” in 1952 were among the most influential in shaping the message of the print press.2 Reports published in major American newspapers relayed the troubling matter of the nation’s expanding waistline with heading such as, “Overweight Persons Termed Top Health Problem in US”, “How to Stop Killing Yourself: Don’t Eat Yourself to Death,” and “Obesity Called Drag on Lifespan.”3
This increased attention on body weight issues was also mirrored in popular magazines with articles providing advice on numerous related topics, from dangerous fad diets to how to stop your child becoming a “fatty.” The Life Magazine article, “The Plague of the Overweight” is, to the modern eye, a demeaning example of how the obese and, in particular, how overweight women were represented in 1950s popular literature.4 The images portray the stigma and struggles of the fat, white, American female through the weight loss story of Dorothy Bradley, presented as a young lady limited by her overweight size and unable to conform to post-war societal norms (wear 1950s fashion, marry, and hold an acceptable job). In this weight loss story, Dorothy first loses weight through a controlled diet plan and exercise but then backslides. She is finally “triumphant” in her weight loss journey, indicated by her marriage to an attractive serviceman. What were women like Dorothy to do about their bodies in a society that viewed the fat individual as emotionally immature and lacking in self-control?
With levels of obesity reported to be high and the clinical experience proving ineffective in providing long-term weight loss, the answer for many women (and men) in a similar predicament to Dorothy was the group approach for weight management. In 1950s America, this was seen in the emergence of a grass-roots, self-help movement where fat individuals helped one another to lose weight. Groups started appearing in living rooms across North America with names such as Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS), Fatties Anonymous, Calories Anonymous, Gluttons Anonymous, Trims Club, Overeaters Anonymous, and Weight Watchers. These groups (with one exception) were founded by overweight, suburban women who desired the support and camaraderie of other women to lose weight. The number of members joining weight loss groups in the 1950s and 1960s proliferated with many of the groups opening branches across North America and throughout the world.
The 1950s “self-help movement for fatties” introduced an eclectic blend of mutual aid to popular healthcare that was inspired by 12-Step culture and mid-twentieth century psychiatry. This convergence of mutual-aid addiction management and dieting culture was enabled by two important developments in the 1940s: the reconceptualization of obesity as a psychological condition and the popularization of the 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The dual influence of predominant group therapy techniques and the 12-Step recovery program for substance addiction were interwoven with post-war weight loss groups to help members recognize they had an eating problem based on a psychological cause and, through self-reflection, take action to improve themselves.
Take Off Pounds Sensibly (affectionately referred to by members as TOPS) was one of the earliest examples of the integration of group therapy and obesity. TOPS was founded in 1948 by Esther Manz, a mother of five from Milwaukee. The group developed a program that used a combination of exuberant group practices with calculated competition and an AA styled support network. TOPS groups would choose playful names such as Wishful Shrinkers and Cheerful Cherubs, both of which were groups from the Midwest in the 1950s. The organization would have a ritualized weigh-in with reward and punishment for those who lost and gained each week, culminating with the crowning of the biggest losers as Kings and Queens in elaborate annual ceremonies. Manz described the group as an AA program for overeaters and, to her, TOPS was “organized willpower sugar-coated with fun and relaxation, and packaged in mutual understanding and common sense.”5
The Life Magazine pictorial of Dorothy presents one women’s battle against the bulge and there were countless other stories from members of 1950s weight loss groups that showed similar themes of weight stigma, loneliness, backsliding, and success in losing weight. To these overeaters, the weight loss groups founded after the Second World War offered a supportive environment and group therapy practices to help them shed the pounds and keep them off. Rather than being just another 1950s diet fad, the group approach has stood the test of time with many of today’s weight loss groups being direct descendants from the post-war, self-help movement. While American society continues to demand weight management solutions that help reduce weight stigma and harness the power of collective support, mutual-aid inspired weight loss groups will continue to hold a prominent place in modern diet culture.
Parr, Jessica. “Obesity and the Emergence of Mutual-Aid Groups for Weight Loss in the Post-War United States,” Social History of Medicine (May 2014): doi:10.1093/shm/hku020.
Rasmussen, Nicolas. “Weight Stigma, Addiction, Science, and the Medication of Fatness in Mid-twentieth Century America,” Sociology of Health and Illness 34 (2014): 880-95.
Schwartz, Hillel. Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat. New York: The Free Press, 1986.
- Peter Stearn, Fat, History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 2002). Return to text.
- A. L Chapman, “Weight Control: A Simplified Concept,” Public Health Report 66 (1951): 725-731; Hilde Bruch, “Psychological Aspects of Reducing,” Psychosomatic Medicine 14 (1952): 337-346. Return to text.
- H. Rusk, “Overweight Persons Termed Top Health Problem in US,” New York Times (November 30, 1952): 44; P. Steincrohn, “How to Stop Killing Yourself: Don’t Eat Your Way to Death,” Washington Post (July 26, 1950): B11; W, Laurence, “Obesity Called Drag on Lifespan,” New York Times (October 24, 1952): 24. Return to text.
- Anonymous, “The Plague of the Overweight,” Life Magazine (March 8, 1954): 120-123. Return to text.
- Anonymous, “TOPS, Born in Wisconsin, Depends on MD Guidance and Counsel,” Wisconsin Medical Journal (January 1958): 79. Return to text.