Emma Woolf on the ministry of thin

"Wanting to get thin is the way we keep our own potential selves in check".

"Wanting to get thin is the way we keep our own potential selves in check". Photo: Getty

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 childhood, 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 programs 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 10 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 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?

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.

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.  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 is the author of An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia. Her new book The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control came out in June 2013. Emma is a columnist for The Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and lives in London.

Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf

For help and support call 1800 334 673 or email support@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

21 comments so far

  • However the difficult thing is that losing a few kilos often does make us feel 'happier', more confident, cheerful etc. Its amazing and horrifying how one or two kilos on the scale in the morning can actually affect my mood and determine my behaviour for the rest of the day.

    Date and time
    July 18, 2013, 9:26AM
    • The rest of the day, yes, but the rest of your life? Not so much. You do get a boost but it's short-lived.

      Sir Lolsworthy
      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 10:17AM
    • YH - you're brave, and you're right. The difference 1 or 2 kg can make can change the entire way I feel about myself. Everything in my life is better if my weight is under control.

      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 11:37AM
    • I agree, YH.

      Also, Sir Lolsworthy, losing weight (and keeping it off) can increase that kind of 'happiness' long term too. I used to have trouble finding clothes I liked in shops, but after losing some weight (and three dress sizes), I'd get the most amazing high in shops to find clothes I looked good in. And this happened every time I went to the shops - that feeling never wore off.

      I will say that other expected benefits of losing weight - e.g. suddenly being more popular, being able to get started on other goals (in reality, I was using the weight excuse to procrastinate) etc. - never materialised. This is something the article talks about.

      But I would say it's perfectly reasonable to expect the benefits that can be directly linked to losing weight, such as looking better, getting more compliments, feeling better, being fitter (assuming you exercised more to lose the weight), being able to wear the clothes you want, and so on.

      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 2:26PM
  • I know its not PC to say, but at least they aren't obese. Far more women will experience an early death from being overweight rather than underweight.

    Date and time
    July 18, 2013, 10:16AM
    • Actually Sam, research studies estimate that 10 to 20% of people with anorexia will die as a direct result of the disorder, let alone the higher suicide rates for people with eating disorders when compared to that of the general population. While you are right in saying that obesity is far more prevalent, it is dangerous to underestimate the effects of being underweight

      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 12:31PM
    • Sam, if in fact you are using the terms 'underweight' to mean 'anorexic', it is actually possible to have an eating disorder and be overweight. It is basically the same as being anorexic or bulimic but because the person is overweight they are generally diagnosed as 'Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified'.
      Likewise, not all underweight people have eating disorders - some are perfectly healthy and just happen to fit into the 'underweight' category of BMI which is in fact not a terribly accurate indicator of the actual state of one's health.

      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 12:40PM
    • Nice try, dangerous trolling all the same. Sustained anorexia can leave survivors with weakened organs and bones. They may experience early onset osteoporosis and loss of fertility amongst other conditions.

      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 1:03PM
    • Congratulations, Sam. That was very restrained of you. You could have turned an article about anorexia into an opportunity to fat-shame. Oh wait. That's what you just did.

      The thing is, people like you don't care if a woman lives or dies. What you object to is an interruption to your aesthetic pleasure. Vile, shallow, pathetic.

      Old bag
      Date and time
      July 18, 2013, 1:09PM
  • What a great article. As a former anorexia sufferer, I can definitely relate to how difficult it is to navigate the complicated world of trying to work out how to have a healthy relationship with food and your body once again. One point of difference, I don't think anyone can solely blame the media but I definitely think they play a part. Sure, you can choose to not read certain magazines, etc. but when every single magazine aimed at your age group is all carrying the same message, the same pictures and the same 'thin is best' mentality, it's a bit hard to ignore or escape. It's just one more part of society telling us what we're supposed to look like and what will make us happy.

    Date and time
    July 18, 2013, 12:19PM

    More comments

    Make a comment

    You are logged in as [Logout]

    All information entered below may be published.

    Error: Please enter your screen name.

    Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

    Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

    Error: Please enter your comment.

    Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

    Post to

    You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

    Thank you

    Your comment has been submitted for approval.

    Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.