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“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.”
Esther Manz conceived of TOPS while sitting around her kitchen table with some friends. The key to the group’s success, they believed, would be just that: power in numbers. As with Alcoholics Anonymous’ sponsor system, TOPS members had a “pal system” wherein randomly assigned partners would offer moral support “when the urge for a bonbon seems irresistible.”
Manz may not have been a dietician, but her hunch was supported by science. Dr. Frederick Stare, who founded the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health and was considered the leading dietician in the country, spoke to LIFE about group therapy as the best possible way to lose weight. More than six decades later, this approach continues to be backed by new research.
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, like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, may have greater name recognition in 2015—thanks, 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.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.