The Ministry of Thin

Aged 3 years old, this photograph shows the last time I ate ice cream without feeling guilty

As my second book The Ministry of Thin comes out this month, the question I keep being asked is this: what does a ‘recovered anorexic’ have to tell us about body image and feminism? 

Quite a lot actually. I believe that, as women, our desire for thin is getting way out of control. I believe that many women who do not have an actual eating disorder have profoundly disordered eating; diets such as 5:2 are normalising deeply abnormal habits. You may scoff (as I do) at the crazy tongue-patchers, drip dieters, intermittent fasters. But no matter how feisty or feminist you think you are, I bet you’d like to lose weight.  

This is what I call The Ministry of Thin – the internal and external policeman which, from chilhood, tells us that for girls and women, thinner is better, prettier, happier, sexier. My starting point is not that all diets are bad, nor that all body-dissatisfaction is misplaced. My aim is not to dissuade anyone from losing weight or exercising if they need to. I’ve never blamed the media or others for my eating disorder, and I literally come out in hives when sufferers talk about being ‘triggered’. (You’re responsible for the programmes you watch and the magazines you read. If something triggers you, don’t watch/read/listen to it.)

Recovery from anorexia is probably never completely ‘over’. Physically, I am ‘recovered’ - for the first time in ten years I have a healthy BMI - but I’m aware that it’s something I will work at for the rest of my life. But having recently rejoined the so-called ‘normal’ world, I’m fascinated by our seemingly obsessive body-narrative. Look at the daily comments we make about ourselves and others – ‘You look amazing, have you lost weight?’; ‘OMG those jeans are so slimming!’; ‘If you see me going near a carb today, shoot me!’ 

Wanting to get thin is the way we keep our own potential selves in check: ‘When I lose ten pounds…’ It’s our excuse for failure in relationships or at work; it’s that dress which is two sizes too small which we’ll wear when we reach our goal weight. As someone who has reached that goal weight, dropped those ten pounds (and much more) I can tell you that getting thin doesn’t solve anything. But the fact remains: losing weight has become the female holy grail. How can we be so strong and yet so idiotic? Why do we allow the thin-rules to brainwash us; what is the desire to lose weight really about?

Of course there are still women out there who eat, dress and express themselves with absolute confidence and who never think about their weight – mad props to them. But countless surveys have shown that the average women places losing weight above career goals, health or relationships; we believe our lives would improve if we could shift the extra pounds or stones. Self-deprecating comments about our appearance are a shortcut to female friendship, and we’re often suspicious of anyone who actually likes the way they look.

Our perspectives vary, from those who would simply like to be more toned and a few pounds lighter, to those who avoid looking at themselves in the mirror or never walk around in front of their partner naked, or those who actively hate their bodies, or binge-eat or starve in secret. The majority of us, sane, independent, confident women like you and me, don’t want to be part of it. We’re well aware of the paradox of being caught up in the collective pursuit of thin while seeing it for what it is.

We are independent in so many ways – fearless, feminist, fierce in standing up for ourselves and others. We’re in charge of our careers, our fertility, our money; we own property, we vote and govern countries and write books and films, we win Olympic medals and Nobel prizes, we bring up our families with or without men. And yet… there is still a consensus on what women should look like; a near-universal acknowledgement that a thinner body is a superior body. 

So when those interviewers ask me why I’m writing about the pursuit of thin, the subtext is obvious: surely, as a former anorexic, this is the worst thing you could possibly do? 

But that’s precisely the point. For me, women’s attitudes to eating, hunger and their bodies are fascinating and confusing in equal measure. I find myself simultaneously involved and alienated, both a participant and an outsider. Of course I understand what women mean when they talk about food and weight; when they refer to being good (dieting), or feeling guilty (greedy), or treating themselves (cake). I get it when women talk about disliking specific parts of their bodies. But it’s hard too, emerging from a decade of severe food restriction, to look around me for examples of how to eat normally, and how to love and live with and accept myself, only to find that the majority of women are struggling with these issues too. Rationally, we must know that getting thinner won’t necessarily make us happier or more fulfilled – and yet we never give up trying.

For so long I thought that anorexia was different. For so long I wondered how most women can diet and exercise and not develop a full-blown eating disorder, whereas I started losing weight and exercising excessively and got sucked into the spiral of anorexia. When I see the girls in the office tucking into chocolate brownies for someone’s birthday, moments after announcing their new diet regime, I wonder if eating disorders and disordered eating are actually part of the same spectrum; whether self-starvation is simply a more extreme form of female dieting. I see a lot of anxiety about weight around me; I hear a lot of guilt about food. Sometimes it seems that ‘normal’ dieting and anorexia are worlds apart, sometimes they seem very close.

For nearly three years I’ve written a weekly column in The Times, charting the ups and downs in my personal journey. In 2012 I wrote An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia. I should clarify: I don’t think my experiences make me special. In fact, part of the joy of An Apple a Day was the realisation that I’m not that different at all. So many ‘normal’ readers (both male and female) contact me to say, I feel this way too. Most of them do not have an actual eating disorder; they simply recognise that they have disordered eating patterns, feel guilty about their hunger, unhappy with their bodies or out of control around food.

In writing about anorexia I have paid a high personal cost (as anyone who chooses to write ‘confessionally’ will know) and I’m frequently accused of narcissism. While filming Supersize vs Superskinny I was called ‘too thin’ and ‘too fat’, a fraud and a bore… I actually, wonderfully, liberatingly, no longer care! 

The truth is, I’m not the only woman who has starved herself skinny, or tried to. I’m one of many who has felt guilty or greedy or worthless, who has calculated what they will and will not eat; who has struggled with control and self-control, and wondered ‘if I eat whenever I’m hungry, will I ever be able to stop?’ 

The Ministry of Thin is not about me, it’s about us. I remember what Doris Lessing wrote in The Golden Notebook, that ‘writing about oneself, one is writing about others’. And that has proved to be true. 

Emma Woolf’s new book The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control is out now  

An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia

Follow Emma on Twitter @EJWoolf