Maybe we were recruited into the Ministry of Thin the day we were born female, or the day we were first dressed in pink, or realized we shouldn’t play in the mud with our brothers because pretty girls stay clean. Maybe it was when we first glanced in the mirror and felt rounded, or tubby, or wrong—more than half of 3- to 6-year-old girls say they feel “fat.” Or maybe it was the day we first picked up a razor aged 11 or 13 or 15 and began the lifelong mowing of body hair.
You may well say that you prefer to look this way—the way women are supposed to look—hairless and smooth, your skin tanned, your eyebrows neatly groomed. And I do too. But is it really a preference: Is it OK to say no? When you consider the outcry following the appearance of Julia Roberts on the red carpet with unshaven armpits (years ago now, and still notorious) it’s debatable whether choice exists any longer.
I’m not demanding that we all stop “maintaining” ourselves—grow our body hair, throw away our cosmetics, stop exercising. Just that it shouldn’t be such a massive deal when we choose not to. As women, our appearance should be a matter of preference, the way a man chooses whether to grow a beard, or not to bother about his receding hairline. We should be able to make up our minds, and I don’t believe we do. It’s not a choice when there is no choice at all.
The simplest thing, of course, would be to fight back. To stand up to the depilation dictators, to ignore all diet and detox regimes, to embrace ageing, wrinkles, and grey hair. It’s easier said than done. There are plenty of women who don’t wear makeup or dye their hair (although going grey is often seen as “brave”), but the weight issue touches almost everyone. People, especially women, are judged on their bodies. And food, far from being a source of energy and enjoyment, has become a battleground of guilt and shame and excess and starvation. Everywhere we look, success and sexiness and happiness seem to belong to the thin.
In essence, the Ministry of Thin operates from within us, consciously or not, an internal policeman who tells us that thinner is better. To revolt, you need something to revolt against, and the Ministry of Thin isn’t that clear-cut. It’s the rules, pressures, and expectations we live with, it’s the media, it’s men, and it’s other women. Hardest of all to stand up to, it’s the mirror—it’s ourselves.
We first absorb the thin rules as young girls from our mothers, sisters, and friends. In adolescence they are reinforced by magazines, boyfriends, and the world around us. By adulthood, wanting to be thinner is just another one of the curious non-essential and yet essential rules to which women adhere: just as we remove our body hair and wear makeup, we worry about our weight, we despair of our bodies, we try not to eat too much, we force ourselves to go to the gym, we feel fat, we diet. There is absolutely nothing unusual about these actions or experiences—disliking one’s body and wanting to be thinner is the new normal.
Pick up any woman’s magazine these days: Two weeks to your best-ever bikini body; How to lose weight without feeling hungry; Celebs share their diet secrets. Or listen to any conversation between teenage girls or adult women. A friend recently told me that her 7-year-old daughter’s classmates were compiling a list rating each other as “skinny, medium, or fat.” From childhood we know the rules: fat is bad, thin is good. Think of the terms we use to describe our body parts, that ever-expanding litany of hate: cankles, bingo wings, muffin tops, thunder thighs.
Just as sad as the revulsion we mentally direct at our own bodies every day is the outrage we express towards anyone who doesn’t feel it. The Ministry of Thin dictates that women should dislike themselves, or at least express proper insecurities, and we feel suspicious of anyone who doesn’t. It is a weird inversion of recent feminist advances: in the second half of the 20th century we began to find our voices, to accept our bodies, to express our sexuality, to be freer in our clothes and movements and actions. This was followed by Millennial post-feminism, where we learned to embrace our femininity, to bake cupcakes in our vintage aprons while mastering Cosmo’s sex tip of the month, and trying to convince ourselves we were “having it all.”
Now, whether we’re porn-star-waxed and Botoxed to the frozen eyebrows or not, we seem to have settled into quiet despair. For many of us, the energy, the confidence, is gone. Even if you are happy with the way you look, it’s probably safer to pretend you’re not, or at least to keep quiet about your peculiar ideas. These days we feel obliged to conform to the rule of personal body hatred.
But I refuse to believe that we’re just stupid. I don’t think we chose to make our lives so difficult; nor that we want to spend our lives feeling hungry, fat, ugly, or old. Is this all a huge conspiracy against women? Well, perhaps not, but there are serious commercial players at work here, industries which make billions from convincing us, from an early age, that we need to overhaul our appearance, lose several pounds, wax off every trace of body hair, consume only organic or diet foods, hide our flaws with expensive make-up, remodel and improve with surgery—spend more, more, more because we’re inadequate as we are. The female body is a commodity, a consumer item; we’ve become perfectible—and if we don’t make constant efforts to modify it, we’re letting ourselves go.
These vested interests include the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, health and fitness companies, fashion designers, food producers and advertisers, women’s magazines, the personal trainers and gym owners and diet gurus and cosmetic surgeons all with something to peddle. Intentionally or not, these massive corporations have created a febrile climate in which it’s normal, nay expected, for women to hate their bodies. Labiaplasty (where women undergo painful surgery in order to achieve a “designer vagina”) is on the increase, a Western form of female genital mutilation.
Of course there are countless unspoken rules to being acceptable as a woman—thou shalt not age; thou shalt not be ugly; thou shalt not be too emotionally open, nor too obviously clever—but being thin trumps them all. Wanting to lose weight is the way women identify with each other—complete strangers will bond over a buffet table with the simple phrase: “I shouldn’t, but this just looks too delicious.” Self-deprecating comments about our appearance are a shortcut to female friendship: I recently caught another woman’s eye as we both tried on jeans in a changing room. As we grimaced at our reflections she said: “I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that ice cream last night!”
Wanting to get thin is also 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 mythical 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, much more), I can tell you that getting thin doesn’t solve anything. But the fact remains: Losing weight has become for many of us the female holy grail.
Emma Woolf's The Ministry of Thin is available from Soft Skull Press.