The Vagenda

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

13 thoughts on “The Ministry of Thin

  1. While I applaud the overall sentiment of this article, I just have to ask: isn’t there an inconsistency here between the notion that there’s a pervasive cultural structure which presses upon women that thinner is better, and the idea that it’s somehow the fault of a person suffering from anorexia when they don’t avoid a trigger? While I’m keen not to take away all hope of personal resistance to these thinner=better narratives, it just seems slightly disingenuous to suggest that people who are suffering its effects in a huge way could simply avoid it.

    • Thanks Emelia. While, like you, I want to give the writer of this piece my support, as an ex-anorexic I can positively attest to the role of media representations of women in my eating disorder. Solid psychological and sociological research continues to find links between consumption of media products and eating disorders. Individuals exist within a social system, and while they have choices, the nature of those choices are conditioned and curtailed by the system. While we experience anorexia individually, it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

    • This. When I was recovering from an ugly patch of disordered eating patterns, going to the grocery store was hard because I had to stand in line next to the racks of women’s magazines screaming about JENNIFER’S BEACH BOD and CUT THESE THREE SIMPLE CARBS TO LOSE 10LBS IN ONE WEEK and I had to stand there and tell myself, DON’T look at them, just DON’T, over and over and over while the people in front of me were being served, feeling like a failure who had given up on myself and resigned myself to being forever fat because I was lazy and worthless. And of course, I was buying food at the time, so then I would feel guilty about the food I was buying… I got through it without any serious relapse, but yeah, it was pretty much a gauntlet and I hated and resented it fiercely.

  2. Dear Everyone,
    The word ‘Thin’ and the word ‘Beautiful’ are two separate words. This was not a mistake on the part of the dictionary, it was done on purpose. Please keep this in mind during your day-to-day meals, activities and operations. That is all.
    Yours Sincerely,
    The Absurd Word Nerd

    • Dear Matt,

      Words are not simply what you read in the dictionary. They change radically over time and are influenced by society, culture, and popular usage. “Savage”, “wicked” and “deadly” may all have dictionary definitions implying negative connotations but in slang terms they all mean “good”.

      Thin may not literally mean beautiful but over time, it has evolved to represent it. Words are merely semiotic, and nowadays “thin” indicates a lack of something which is better for that lack, and therein lies the danger.

      Yours sincerely,
      Another word nerd

    • It seems you misread my message. See, what I was saying is: “THIN” doesn’t mean “BEAUTIFUL”.
      I know that the subtlety of that statement may have been lost when I spelled it out explicitly, so let me reiterate – “Thin” and “Beautiful” mean different things.
      See, if they were the same thing, they would be interchangeable: such as “I prefer my steak beautiful” or “the sun is thin, today”. But they’re not interchangeable, because they mean different things. The very fact that you can be one and not the other at the same time, proves this.
      What culture believes doesn’t matter, because belief is not the same as knowledge, and public opinion is not the same as fact.
      For instance, a lot of people believe that the meaning of words changes drastically over time. This is a hilarious misunderstanding of the functions of language. See, words mean the same thing they’ve always meant, but CONTEXT changes. See, “wicked” has always meant, basically, “twisted”; “savage” has always meant something akin to “wild” & “deadly” has always meant “capable of causing death”. Something that is “twisted” used to seem evil, until we invented surfing and rollder coasters. Savage and being “wild” used to seem inhuman, until partying and illicit drugs became common knowledge. Deadly, also, was quite cruel, until people discovered horror fiction and military propaganda.
      “Words don’t change, the contexts around them change.”
      The context around the words “thin” and “beautiful” have changed. But I felt it necessary to remind those stupid few (or those like yourself that have been mislead) that when you look up the ACTUAL meaning, they both mean two different things.
      In the future, remember – I am always right. I’m the Absurd Word Nerd, and I hope you’ve learned something today.

  3. “Recovery from anorexia is probably never completely ‘over’”. I just like to take this opportunity when I see it to point out that this is not entirely true. I had and was hospitalised for severe anorexia and am what I would pretty confidently call fully recovered, so I can say with some legitimacy that the seemingly fairly prevalent belief that we’re ‘always recovering’ or will somehow always have to ‘watch out’ for anorexia, or will always secretly want to count or plan or restrict is not true for everyone.

    I think it’s very damaging for every story on anorexia to contain this idea (and the vast majority do; I was something of a connoisseur when I was ill). You can recover such that you are in that minority of women (according to surveys and such) that aren’t unhappy with their bodies, don’t think about food and dieting in an unhealthy way, and wouldn’t necessarily want to lose weight if given the option. I find my anorexic mindset hard to fathom now. On one level I remember exactly what I was thinking and feeling, but I very much have the sense that I was ‘mad’, then. My perspective was completely detached from reality and warped by starvation; I can’t relate to it any more. I sort of understand it but don’t really ‘get’ it.

    Obviously not everyone has the same experience, and mine is only one, but I just feel like it might be useful to have a dissenting opinion to counter the (what I would consider) myth that you will always be recovering from anorexia. I mean, it might be true in some sort of unhelpful analytical truth way, just by definition according to people who buy into that myth, but it’s not true in a meaningful way. It is possible to just have anorexia as a memory and get on with eating whatever the hell you would like to eat that day. I still have painful memories from that time, and going through severe mental illness is likely to change someone a bit and give them some unusual experiences, but that isn’t the same as constantly battling anorexia. That is not something you have to do.

    • Then you should tell your story. As is the nature of mental illness, those who have been treated always have a chance of relapse. Honesty on this issue helps people prepare for the road ahead.
      But at the same time, telling recovered sufferers “You’ll never be healthy again! You’re always on the verge of relapse!” is a self-fulfilling prophecy as it can cause them to question themselves. The trick is a mix. This is one girl and her story you can’t expect her to know all the answers. If you feel your position is misrepresented – then represent it yourself.
      No ONE person has ALL of the answers . . . except me, of course.

    • Since you declared yourself a “word nerd” above, can I just point out:

      girl [n] – A female child.
      woman [n] – An adult human female.

      Yeah, let’s remember that can we?

  4. Thanks for the really interesting and thought-provoking comments peeps. It’s so helpful to have feedback from readers – and I have to agree with Matt (above) this is only my story, only one person’s experience. I acknowledge that we’re all individuals, and all affected and helped and harmed by very different circumstances. The important thing is that we try to work our way back to a more healthy, normal attitude to women, and our own bodies/appetites/minds… IMHO!
    Emma xx

  5. I came across this blog quite literally while watching “Supersize vs. Superskinny” (on youtube, as I’m an American and we don’t have such lovely programming). I had no idea this fantastic blog I was falling in love with was by the same amazing woman I was watching on my screen! I think you are very brave for putting yourself out there to be judged by the public, and I use your amazing words as inspiration for my own attempt at recovery. Much love Emma!

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