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 roll your eyes (as I do) at the crazy tongue-patchers, drip dieters, intermittent fasters. You may laugh at the Werewolf or Vampire or Caveman devotees. But no matter how feisty or feminist you think you are, I bet you’d like to lose weight.
So what is The Ministry of Thin—where does your title come from?
I called my book The Ministry of Thin because I was inspired by the different ministries in George Orwell’s novel 1984—Peace, Truth, Propaganda etc. The Ministry of Thin is a metaphor for the inner policeman inside most women that orders us around, that undermines us, and tells us that thinner is better, prettier, happier, sexier. The policeman is a bully, fueling this inner monologue of self-hatred, and it’s terribly damaging.We’ve absorbed the message about how we should be thin and we don’t even have a choice. Every woman I know is too intelligent for this, and yet we still try and conform.
Your first book was called An Apple a Day. Can you tell us more about it?
My first book, An Apple a Day, was a personal story, about my own recovery after 10 years of anorexia. My new book The Ministry of Thin is subtitled: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control, so it goes much wider. After I wrote An Apple a Day, I heard from so many readers—women and men of all ages—basically saying, ‘I feel this way too, I have the same issues.’ Often it wasn’t as extreme as actual anorexia or losing 50 pounds or whatever, but the point was that we are all subject to these pressures.
So partly, The Ministry of Thin comes out of that, and partly it comes out of a sense of enquiry about where our society is heading. When you look at the position of women and the pressures placed upon us; the way that we have to look—and I don’t just mean weight and body-shape—my new book covers surgery, detox, diets, sex, fashion, shoes, hair etc. There are so many rules, all the ways we’re meant to look. We all have to be spray-tanned orange, we all have to have straight blonde hair, we all have to have our eyebrows immaculately plucked, no body hair, ridiculously high heels, perfect bodies, zero cellulite—I could go on! It’s the way it gets into every aspect of our lives. Cosmetic surgery is a sci-fi, dystopian nightmare—who knows where it will all end. What will become of people who’ve had Botox (a deadly poison and paralysant) injected into their facial muscles for 40 years?
But what about feminism: surely as women in 2014 we’re independent, in control of our own lives?
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.
Are you fully recovered from the eating disorder now?
Recovery from anorexia is probably never completely ‘over.’ Physically, I am ‘recovered’—for the first time in 10 years I have a normal Body Mass Index—and it feels wonderful to be healthy again. However, 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!’
Wait, why are so many women (and men) totally obsessed with losing weight?
Wanting to get thin is the way we keep our own potential selves in check: ‘when I lose 10 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 10 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?
Do you think that the situation is really that hopeless—are all women doomed?
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.
But why are you writing about the pursuit of thin? 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 three years I wrote 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 recognize that they have disordered eating patterns, feel guilty about their hunger, unhappy with their bodies or out of control around food.
The Ministry of Thin presents a grim picture of women’s lives in the 21st century. How do you think we can shape a more positive future?
It’s not meant to be hopeless—I didn’t mean the book to be totally grim. But if I’m honest, I do think the situation for women, is grim and it’s getting grimmer. People are getting thinner, diets are getting crazier, surgery is getting more extreme, even aging is becoming more taboo.
But you ask how we can improve things? Well, the reason I wrote the book, and what I love about talking to other women, is that it’s all about discussing this stuff, getting it out there. It’s about saying: ‘This is bullshit.’ What is this— that adult women are expected to look like pre-pubescent girls with no body hair? This is bullshit, that women should starve themselves until they’re skinny and weak. I think by talking about it, we spread the message and we empower ourselves. I know the word empowering is cheesy…but it is empowering when you stand up and say ‘No, we’re not accepting this.’ Men aren’t judged on how thin they are, men are judged on how much space they take up. Why should we be always, always judged on our appearance, or our weight, our hair colour, our cleavage or our age? It’s bollocks. Women are awesome, fat or thin, old or young—it shouldn’t matter whether you’re 30 or 40 or 50, or what size jeans you wear.
Why are you writing about your own experiences? Who cares?
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.
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?’
Was it worth it?
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, a narcissist and a bore…I actually, wonderfully, liberatingly, no longer care!
Your great-aunt Virginia Woolf also suffered from mental illness. If she were alive today, what would she say about her own experiences?
Virginia suffered repeated nervous breakdowns throughout her life, and eventually committed suicide in 1941. I would have loved to meet her and my great-uncle Leonard Woolf: they were both very fine writers. But I’d ask her about her life, not her illness! I’d want to know what literary London was like in the 1920s, what it was like to have T.S. Eliot round for tea, and to publish The Waste Land; I’d ask about all those extraordinary people she knew: D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Maynard Keynes, Katherine Mansfield. I would want to talk to Virginia about the Woolf family, about her novels, about the Bloomsbury Group, not her ‘madness.’
EMMA WOOLF is the great-niece of Virginia Woolf. She is a columnist for The Times and The Daily Beast and also writes for The Independent, The Mail on Sunday, Harper’s Bazaar, and more. Emma’s first book, An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia, was shortlisted for the Beat Award for Recovery Inspiration. She lives in London, and is available through Counterpoint Press. Emma’s new book The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control published this month. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf