Why is thinness the ultimate female ambition?

Healthier role model? Actress Christina Hendricks (REUTERS)

Personally, I loathed being thin. I felt weak, absent and terrified;
vulnerable, knock-downable, unsexed; childlike, yet painfully elderly. My
unpadded bottom hurt when I sat; my jutting hip bones caught on doorframes
and furniture. Merely lying down was painful. My appetite vanished and with
it my appetite for life.

And so I rebuilt myself – slowly, sensibly – with good fats, slow-releasing
carbs and mountains of protein. I counted calories for the first time in my
life – to put weight on – and started my days with 700-calorie Mr Strong
breakfasts. The occasions when I could finally manage a whole pizza or a
plate of fragrant curry were red-letter days, celebrated with male allies.
It took work, and time; but every pound felt like a victory.

Fifteen months on, I am doubtless a little overweight, rounded by festive
carousing. However, I regard such changes with objective interest: rear a
little plumper, thighs more Amazonian, face entering its late Elvis mode. I
am genuinely happier being in ostensibly “worse” shape. I prefer my body
contoured. I relish being strong, powerful, able to carry suitcases for
tourists and lift prams up steps. I like filling my clothes, not having them
hang limply off me. I feel adult, nourished, myself.

I have absolutely no desire to resemble a stick-thin supermodel, or emaciated
Angelina Jolie. I want to look healthy, à la Sophie Dahl when she was
neither teen-plump nor model-scrawny; ravishingly curvaceous, even, like
Monica Bellucci or Christina Hendricks; and be Kate Winslet-like in my
ability to hoist Richard Branson’s (reluctant) mother over my shoulder and
rescue her from the flames.

No other woman I have talked to about this could begin to understand this
welcoming of weight. “What do you mean you want to put it back on?” they
asked in horror. “You’ve got what we all long for.” A brilliant friend
confided that her guiltiest secret was feeling joy after she was in a car
crash because she had “never been more thin”.

Candida Crewe’s 2007 memoir, Eating Myself, argued that the author’s “normal
abnormality” regarding food – read (barely) functional anorexia – is the
“everywoman disease”. I attacked it in print at the time for perpetuating
the stereotype that thinness is all women care about. Now, I feel forced to
concede that, never having dieted, not knowing my current weight and
harbouring no sexual feelings about chocolate, it is I who am the (healthy)
freak.

Anorexia seemed still happily rare in the prelapsarian Eighties in which I
grew up, although my psychiatrist father was treating cases. There was one
girl in my state school sixth form with an eating disorder she had picked up
at boarding school, who managed to inflict her “eating’s cheating” mantra
upon one other.

Apostle of thinness: Wallis Simpson (REX)

Only at Oxford did I begin to appreciate the scale of the problem, learning
that freighted term “body image”. I remember sitting in the obligatory group
therapy circle, feeling as if I was struggling with a foreign language as so
many bright, beautiful girls confessed to hating their bodies. I felt
astounded, incredulous, giddied.

Later, one member arranged an experiment in which we were to eat biscuits in
front of a mirror for half an hour, and write down how we felt. I did it,
didn’t get it, felt a tad bored. Later, one of the other participants had to
be hurried away by ambulance, spurred into a meltdown that required
psychiatric help. Again, I was shocked. No one else seemed surprised. It was
regrettable, but we had clearly been playing with fire.

Some 90 per cent of adult women are said to experience body image anxiety,
from negative thoughts to full-blown self-loathing. A few years ago, I was
asked to comment on research that suggested millions of women suffer from
such negative self-image that they may feel too inhibited to attend work, or
leave the house. The survey by YouGov for Tesco, suggested that as many as
8.3 million (more than one in three) women have cancelled social engagements
on account of appearance anxiety, with employers estimated to lose £114.4 
million a year to self-disgusted absenteeism.

A third of women questioned could not bear to purchase clothing in the correct
size; almost two-thirds avoided their own reflections. Over a third had
rejected sex due to body horror, while just under half avoid exercise in
public believing this inappropriate for a woman over a size 14 (the UK
average being a 16). We were, it appeared, in the grip of a
self-consciousness epidemic transforming British womanhood into a collection
of work-shy agoraphobics. If this self-hatred is a negative influence on
adult women, then it is even more terrifying among girls. Thinness rather
than good grades would appear to be the universal pre-pubescent goal, “fat”
the ultimate playground insult. Girls as young as five now routinely worry
about their weight, said a parliamentary report last year, while half of
14-year-old girls have been on a diet to change their body shape.

The number of pre-teen children treated in hospital for eating disorders has
tripled in four years, according to NHS figures. There were more than 6,500
children and teenagers treated in hospital in 2010‑11 for conditions such as
anorexia, compared with 1,718 in 2007-08. The figures include 443 who
received treatment before the age of 13 – a more than threefold rise. Among
them were 79 children less than 10 when starting treatment, 56 aged five or
under – anorexic behaviour picked up as toddlers.

For all our education, and opportunities that would make our grandmothers
green with envy, thinness would appear to be the ultimate female ambition.
Somehow, women and weight issues have become equated: not only is fat a
feminist issue – as psychologist and campaigner Susie Orbach taught us in
her seminal 1978 study – it is a more fundamentally female one. This leaves
me – what? – insufficiently female? It is an accusation that has been
levelled.

An ex-lover’s woman friends professed to hate me because I don’t much like
pudding, something they took to be a mark of smug superiority (it isn’t – I
will eat any amount of cheese). I once wrote an article revealing that I do
not like chocolate – cue an avalanche of hate mail telling me I had
“betrayed the sisterhood” and “obviously detest women”. Recently, I admitted
to a friend that I had hit someone over the head with a loaf of bread: “You
eat bread?” she goggled.

In this context, the ultimate taboo is – like me – to admit zero angst about
consumption. Women who eat too much, women who eat too little, women who eat
only during months in which an “r” appears – all this is considered par for
the course. It is me – the woman who eats for nourishment and pleasure – who
is considered the pervert .

In the wake of January, none of us is a stranger to the current crop of whacko
regimes – 5:2, 4:3, new Atkins, old Atkins, Dukan, raw food, green juicing,
no sugar, paleo, blood group, or my current favourite, the werewolf diet, in
which acolytes eat according to lunar cycles. Meanwhile, the “bikini
bridge”, that little indentation beside the sacrum, has replaced the “thigh
gap” as index of approved skinniness, despite having started as a BuzzFeed
parody of a cultural fixation.

Celebrity magazines sell on the back of who has put on weight and who has shed
it (typically, the very same “slebs” figure in both categories on a complex
alternating schedule); starlet and paparazzi careers are born and made on
the fat-thin cycle and its oscillation between “good” and “bad”. If the
pressure is there for E-listers, for A-listers it is off the scale. As Tina
Fey joked at the recent Golden Globes ceremony: “Matthew McConaughey did
amazing work this year. For his role in Dallas Buyers Club, he lost 45lb, or
what actresses call ‘being in a movie’.” Lena Dunham, creator of hit US
comedy Girls, is the exception to this skeletal sorority, and, by God, don’t
we get to hear about it.

Add to this our (justifiable) anxiety regarding obesity, and our collective
thinness infatuation reaches fever pitch. Still, as experts are beginning to
reach consensus, the obesity crisis may be a product of our thinness mania,
and the diet industry that creates and supplies its confused appetites. Diet
foods and lunatic regimes ultimately make us gain more weight, as eating
becomes disordered, swinging between binge and purge; dieting being
self-defeating in a way that “normal” eating is not. By eating normally, I’m
the same dress size as I was when I hit puberty – not thin, but not fat.

I would like to say that I see some hope, but I don’t, not without a
collective decision to fight for it. To be sure, we have the various Dove
campaigns and 2013’s exhortations to be “Fit Not Thin”. However, this very
phrase conjures the winner of two Olympic gold medals Rebecca Adlington
weeping over comparisons between her body and that of a model in last year’s
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! We were told the Olympics would inspire
women to see their bodies differently, but even among its champions the goal
is to belittle ourselves.

Patriarchy ghettoised women by defining them as being about the body only:
hysterics whose sole modes of expression were to ingest and expel. At the
moment when we are finally wrestling free of its stranglehold, women are
being frogmarched straight back into the same impasse. Worse, we are doing
this to ourselves, self-harming physically and psychologically.

It is time we stopped reducing ourselves. Time we remembered that a body is
more than stomach, hips and thighs. It is heart, lungs, and brain.
Personally, I will continue embodying rebellion. I shall put on weight when
I overdo the food and drink, and I shall lose it again when life calms down.
This is the normal, human way of things. And if this makes me less of a
woman, then I’ll settle for “human being”.