Emma Woolf: National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

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Her Campus Exeter and Mind Your Head Society have been working together to support National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. A feature event was hosting the inspirational journalist, author and TV presenter, Emma Woolf to talk about her new book, Ministry of Thin. She also reflected personally on living with eating disorder and how modern society and so ourselves are the principle perpetrators of women’s desire for body improvement.  

Without sounding trite, the talk really was a girl-power event. She was a fantastic speaker, every issue resonated with the audience whether you have had experience of an eating disorder or not. Combining her personal understanding of anorexia with her professional career as a writer provided a new and frank take on the inherent problem that society has with body-image, most importantly not in fashion terms.

Using her book Ministry of Thin, as the starting point, she illustrated the ‘Ministry’s’ Ten Commandments which are within everyone’s subconscious from birth. These are the “internal and external policemen” that we cannot avoid, they tell us that no matter our achievements or ambitions as young women, our priority must be to be thin. The basic governing principles of being a woman is to change our bodies no matter what we may sacrifice along the way. Emma drew attention to the lack of choice we have in being a member of the ‘Ministry’; we are surrounded from childhood by magazines, advertising, television programmes and other women all of which contribute to the voice inside commanding us that we could be thinner.

Emma’s talk reminded us that as women we are powerful, independent, intelligent and have every drop of potential as men but we still do not live in an equal society; forty years after the Equal Pay Act there remains, on average, a 20% pay gap in the private sector. Journalism is no exception, with 78% of all by-lines on the front pages of national newspapers being male writers. On top of combatting employment issues, we also have to live with the constant pressure we place upon ourselves and each other to look better.

It is ingrained within our environment, language and female friendships to self-criticise. The new normal is to feel apologetic and guilty about what we look like. We “wage war against our bodies” and although they may sound comical, terms such as, “cankles, bingo wings and thunder thighs” are rather sinister. They allow us to dislike instead of have pride in our own bodies. There is no doubt that for the majority of women food can be a battleground rather than a pleasure and see the thin women as those who will be most happy, sexy and thrive in the workplace. Why are we doing this and why should this be the talking point rather than our aspirations and successes?

Emma is open about her struggle with a major eating disorder for over ten years, at points weighing a shocking five stone. She told us how she is only now feeling that she has honestly come out the other side and is confident in herself once again. A major problem that she highlighted was finding role models and fellow women that she could look to as a physical inspiration. Women habitually self-deprecate and bond over common ‘flaws’ which means for those who are recovering from an eating disorder the process is that much harder. It has almost reached a point where “self-starvation is a more accomplished form of female dieting”. Surely we have reached the limits of acceptable discourse about weight and the expectations for women if the boundary between the two has faded this far.

As young, unique, clever young women with every opportunity ahead of us we should be proud and supportive of each other and seriously focus on changing our conversation from that of negative to positive, from mutually critical to complimentary. Another key point in her talk was to highlight the damage of the fashion narrative of which we are all aware. The size-zero culture should not be considered socially acceptable or aspirational, it should not be paraded on magazine covers as the ‘goal weight’. However, Emma also drew attention to the irrationality that arises when trying to have a conversation about weight in much of the Western world. To be ‘plus-size’ should be no more acceptable than size-zero, it is a scary fact that 60% of Britain’s population are overweight which must be tackled and those people who over-eat need support and care as those who under-eat. These fashion terms normalise weight irregularities and often legitimises poor health as being brave and confident.

The line between eating disorders and disordered eating is a narrow and blurred one. I would imagine that many of us have tried diets, indulged for a weekend and returned to the gym for a few power sessions before settling to the routine of 3 meals a day and every evening saying to your housemates tomorrow begins the new me. This is disordered eating, it is not unusual or particularly dangerous, in fact the problem lies in the normality of it. Anxiety, lack of control and self-inflicted pressure is present within nearly everyone. Emma discovered in writing her autobiography, An Apple a Day, she realised that she wasn’t different and this was a deep comfort to discover.

The hardest part was not the lack of eating for Emma but the re-adjustment and gaining weight, giving up the control and self-punishment and trying to look outwardly to something more. Her empathy and focus on a positive mentality which ensures we all treat our bodies and minds with respect for what they can do rather than what they look like. There is no doubt that this is not easy, but it is part of the social change in attitude that must occur if we can make eating disorders a lesser problem which is spoken about honestly and without taboo as Emma did so well.

At the end of the talk, I snuck in a couple questions:

Q. Every day there are piles of glossy, cheap magazines with weight loss tips and stories on the front covers. As part of the pressure problem for girls, how would you propose we could change that, perhaps legal reforms or campaigning? Or if it won’t go away?

A. As a feature of Supersize vs Superskinny recently I looked into ‘Pro-Ana’ websites which are horrific. In a discussion with parents we came to say that it’s as bad as child abuse. I’m hoping to get something done about it working with MPs but it’s very hard because it’s the internet. I look at these magazines in hairdressers myself! It’s a circular thing, they sell in vast quantities and Supersize is Channel 4’s longest running programme. Clearly the suppliers are providing the consumers with what they want. A lot of it is in the language of today, if we can stop making throwaway negative comments and don’t pay attention to those magazines that’s probably the first step.

Q. Plus-size model catwalks and campaigns are a new and lauded concept, do you think that is going to make a change or if it’s simply PR?

A. I really object to women’s bodies being talked about in fashion terms. It’s not any healthier for someone to be overweight than it is to be underweight. I do think that it’s good to see the clothes on a familiar shape and size, size 16 is the average UK size. But I’ve been on shoots for magazines before and even as a slim person, I can’t even fit into the samples that they provide so if that’s what being a model means it’s terrible. I don’t know, it’s difficult because somewhere like M&S is proud of promoting the normal woman and then still uses models and mannequins of a below-average size. 

Phot credits: wordpress.com, oranges and apples.com

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