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.

Like Avon and Tupperware, Weight Watchers drew on established networks of female sociability

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 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 1990s marked a new visual age for slimming, with the spread of fitness videos and the rise of online diet clubs

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

This article was first published in the May 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine