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Friday, January 9, 2009

Fat Ladies Anonymous

Posted By on Fri, Jan 9, 2009 at 9:47 PM

68bf/1241751060-helenputnam.png In these enlightened times, it would be hard to imagine anyone calling a group “Fat Ladies Anonymous” — but that was indeed the name of a women’s club that formed here back in 1953.

The founder was a woman named Helen Putnam (left), and yes, she was rather large. Newspaper stories about her organization, which employed such oh-so-clever headlines as “Women’s Group Here Carries Plenty of Weight” and “Club Gets Fatter,” said that Helen weighed 350 pounds and organized a club of other women like herself to help each other lose weight. “Being overweight is an emotional problem like alcoholism,” she told reporters. “Sometimes you need someone to talk to when you’re about to eat what you know you shouldn’t.”

So Fat Girls (later Ladies) Anonymous was born, though I can’t really explain the “anonymous” part of their name, since the members made no attempt to conceal their identities. The newspapers listed their names, ran their photos, and even published their addresses. In case you’re curious, some of the other “girls” who were original members included Mrs. J.F. Martin of 255 Merton, Mrs. W.H. Rouse of 2723 Fizer, and Mrs. Billie Ware of 3334 Tutwiler. Know any of them?

The group first held their weekly meetings at Putnam’s home at 1772 Tutwiler, but in a few months had grown so large — no pun intended — that they acquired their own clubhouse, at 1369 Madison. Each week they would discuss their weight-reduction plans and enjoy refreshments, which consisted of water, toothpicks, and paper napkins. I am not making that up.

Putnam herself must have been quite a character. “I had always done a little singing and dancing,” she told reporters, “to the amusement of some and the amazement of others,” so she sang and danced on television shows here and in New Orleans. She became quite a popular entertainer at various clubs around town, I recall, and traveled across the country to “beat the drum” (as she put it) for her club, which eventually had 400 members and a chapter in Manchester, England.

Fat Ladies Anonymous got involved in a number of civic ventures around town, including the Happy Acres Home for children with severe developmental problems, which was operated by the Duration Club. By 1959, though, membership had dropped to just nine women, and the club soon folded altogether. Putnam died in 1983, and the Fat Ladies Anonymous clubhouse on Madison was demolished to make way for a Circle K.

It’s safe to say that the women, despite their charitable endeavors, never got the respect they deserved. Newspaper articles, in particular, were downright cruel. A January 5, 1959, Commercial Appeal story observed, “It may be one of the smallest Memphis clubs as far as enrollment goes, but it probably has more bounce to the ounce than any other.” Noting that “only eight diehards remain” out of the original 400 members, the article actually described the remaining members as “the residue, all 1,628 pounds of it.” Unbelievable.

PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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