A version of this piece was originally published in Things Worth Knowing with Farrah Storr
TW: This article contains details that could be triggering for anyone who has experienced an eating disorder. For support, visit www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
The truth is, I don’t know when it happened. Maybe somewhere between Lindy West’s book Shrill hitting stores and a size 24 Tess Holiday landing on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. All I know is that over the course of a few short years, big became beautiful, diet was a dirty word and I was left feeling like the most old fashioned woman on earth.
I was in my late 30s when this all happened. And on yet another diet. This had been my life for as far back as I can remember- an eternal cycle of exercise binges, starvation, excessive eating and then, depression when the scales didn’t budge. I have spent almost two-thirds of my life on some sort of eating regime (low-carb, zero-sugar, eating nothing but Ryvita and those plastic cheese slices that look like reconstituted Barbie) and as such have yo-yoed between sizes.
Over the course of my 43 years I have gone to extreme lengths with the intention of losing weight - using methods popularised in the 90s that would now be considered symptoms of anorexia or bullimia - all of which gave me horrific side-effects. I have a busted knee from years of over-exercising and have often wondered if my inability to get pregnant was down to stalled periods between the ages of 13 to 17, most likely caused by self-imposed starvation. I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish there were kinder footnotes to my life. But like many women my age I have spent the longest period of my life wanting to be one thing. And that thing is to be thin. When I was younger I wanted to be thin more than I wanted to be clever. I wanted to be thin more than I wanted to be a success. I wanted to be thin more than I wanted to be loved or be happy or well, you get the idea.
Of course, this is deeply unfashionable to admit. But it is true. It is why Victoria Beckham landed herself in a world of pain last week when she gave an interview to Grazia magazine in which she said: ‘It’s an old-fashioned attitude — wanting to be really thin…Women today want to look healthy and curvy.'
That this throwaway comment has become global news is itself both revealing of the culture in which we find ourselves (intolerant, capricious, quick to judge) and indicative of how quickly one generation’s view of the world can date so quickly and completely.
Women’s bodies have always found themselves at the mercy of both fashion and cultural change. In the 1920s, relative emancipation led to flat-chested, boyish bodies being all the rage. A generation later and it was the golden age of Hollywood, whose full-breasted stars set off a vogue for boobs and hips. By the 80s, fuelled by the decade’s fitness obsession, ‘strong’ athletic bodies as wielded by a minority of supermodels (Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson) were the gold standard. Whilst a recession-hit, ennui-soaked nineties drew its inspiration from the most alarming source of all-drug addiction. Xylophone torsos, sharp, angry hip bones and legs like biros practically redefined the term ‘thin’.
Beckham, like myself, was born in the 1970s, which means our adolescences were played out in both the 80s and 90s. A lot happened to bodies between 1970 and 1999. Those three decades alone encompassed America’s fitness culture, the low-fat food movement and the advent of extreme diets. Anorexia and bulimia was at an all-time high in the 70s and 80s, The Beverly Hills Diet was one of the best selling books of 1981 whilst our body idols were Jane Fonda, Princess Diana and Demi Moore - all of whom, it later transpired, had full-blown eating and/or exercise disorders at the height of their celebrity.
I was 10 when Jane Fonda’s aerobics videos made it into our family home; 13 when the supermodels arrived and 15 when heroin chic happened. I was in my early 20s when size zero was all the rage and in my late 20s when Nicole Richie (remember her?) was the IT girl of our times, despite clearly suffering from a dangerous eating disorder. Thin, or an approximation of thin (since even the supers were thin really) was the only North Star I ever knew.
As a consequence, my generation thought nothing of eating a three course meal and then declaring to the entire table that we felt fat. We were brought up to believe that calling someone skinny was a compliment and that the best side-effect of heartbreak was the accompanying weight loss. This is not to say we believed this behaviour was right. It is only to say it is all we knew. And then one day, just like that, everything we knew was wrong. And not just wrong, I should point out, but dangerous and wrong. Talk of diets and weigh-ins and wanting to drop a dress size before your holidays was met with silence or raised eyebrows. Asking someone if they had lost weight was no longer a compliment but a misguided observation. Declaring you were doing a January detox was met with cold, reproachful stares.
I realised the world had moved on without me.
A couple of things happened to me around this time which made me realised how quickly the world had moved on without me. The first was when I posted a picture of my lunch on Instagram. I was on Weight Watchers at the time and for reasons unbeknown to me now I was to eat only chicken and blueberries. I thought it was harmless enough, funny even. Until a few hours later someone alerted me to the fact an aspiring body positivity activist had reposted my picture across her social networks. Never had I seen a picture of a Tupperware box cause so much shock and outrage.
The next happened in a features meeting at work. I had commissioned a journalist to write about her drastic weight loss after a terrible divorce. The piece was excellent- nuanced, smart and filled with compassion. Or at least I thought it was. Until almost the entire room raised their hands to suggest the story was too dangerous to publish.
After that I kept quiet about bodies. If I was on a diet I kept schtum. The only women I could talk to about my weight were those older than me, and even then we spoke about it in such hushed tones it was as though we were plotting an Anthrax attack.
Don’t get me wrong, the body positivity movement has, for the large part, been a wonderful balm for women’s bodies. I was, after all, the editor who put Tess Holliday on the cover of Cosmo - all 300 pounds of her complete with zero retouching. (The decision to do this, by the way, was not to create any sort of vogue for plus size bodies. We simply wanted to show the different forms the bodies of women we admired took). I also did much to support it throughout my time at both Cosmo and ELLE where we tirelessly searched for more fully representative body shapes to fill our pages, often scouting women from the street when model agencies fell short.
The irony that I was supporting a movement I was unable to be part of was not lost on me. ‘Love your body, whatever form it takes’ was the unofficial mantra. But what happened if you felt incapable of feeling that way?
And so here is what happened, my public beliefs no longer mirrored my private ones. I gave interviews in which I proudly talked about being a size 14, whilst at fashion weeks I wept in my hotel room when it dawned on me, yet again, that I was one of the biggest editors sat on the front row. When I edited ELLE we were often sent clothes as gifts, a lovely perk of the job sure, but one filled with humiliation as I almost always had to politely return the size small they had sent me. I remember walking into a designer store to buy a suit for Milan fashion week one year and being told there was not a single trouser size in the entire country that would fit me.
I know countless women who still ‘diet’ but mask their behaviour as a food intolerance.
I have left the fashion world now. I no longer work in an office with dozens of young, beautiful colleagues. I spend more money on gardening equipment than I do on clothes but the truth is, I never stop yearning for thin. Though age and time have made me accept I will never be thin I don’t, as Beckham says, suddenly desire to be curvy. And by the way, the vogue for ‘curvy’ bodies is similarly near-impossible to replicate, since big thighs, a juicy bum and bountiful breasts rarely come with a teeny tiny waist, unless you’re a Kardashian. And those bodies are not the result of Mother Nature.
Am I dangerous for confessing this? I hope not. On balance I think it’s far more dangerous to present as being accepting of your body when the closeted truth is far darker. I know countless women who still ‘diet’ but mask their behaviour as a food intolerance instead. Exercise bingeing is still alive and well, but goes on behind closed doors with back-to-back online classes rather than public three hour gym sessions. Fasting and health cleanses are a more socially acceptable way of rebranding restricted eating. Behaviours have not changed as drastically as we would like to believe, they have just gone underground. For every unselfconscious twenty-something wielding gloriously thick thighs in a pair of cycling shorts, there is a 40-something still counting calories and dreaming of fitting into her size 28 jeans again.
True body acceptance is accepting that not all women can suddenly, or perhaps ever, accept their own bodies. Pretending we do not exist, or worse, labeling us old-fashioned for the beliefs we have been saddled with, does little to help. Our views may be old fashioned, but the price we pay for having them is far far worse.
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For support with eating disorders, please visit www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk for information and helpline numbers depending on where you are in the UK. Their helpline is open 365 days a year from 9am–midnight during the week, and 4pm–midnight on weekends and bank holidays.