Emma Woolf’s study of our obsession with being thin should serve as a wake-up call to all women
Writer and TV presenter Emma Woolf’s The Ministry of Thin is about “how the modern obsession with weight loss, youth, beauty and perfection got out of control”. Woolf sets her stall out with brio.
“Welcome to the Ministry of Thin. All members are welcome and there’s no charge – in fact you’re signed up automatically at birth.” While Woolf is not advocating obesity, she points out that “thin rules” are no longer the sole preserve of people with food disorders (Woolf detailed her own 10-year battle with anorexia in her previous book, An Apple a Day, and also in a newspaper column). Women routinely place weight loss above all other goals – in one study, one in six women would rather be blind than obese. Woolf describes the Ministry of Thin as an “internal policeman”, observing: “There is still a consensus what women should look like; a near-universal acknowledgement that a thinner body is a superior body. How can we be so strong and yet so idiotic?”
From there, Woolf (great-niece of Virginia, whom she quotes a couple of times) makes her way through the other “ministries”: food, fat, diet, fashion and beauty, gym, sex, surgery and more. The picture she paints verges on Orwellian – with everyone (but mainly women) governed and dominated by internal and external pressures to conform. Woolf studies the morality we attach to food choices, the influence of affluence, what I’d term the fiction of perfection that permeates the average female life.
Occasionally it’s as if nothing is allowed to be good news. Even the female athletes from the Olympics are fretted about as “impossibly perfect in their own way”. (Let us remind ourselves that Jessica Ennis got fit to win, not to make other women want her glutes.) Elsewhere Woolf is uncharacteristically catty about Alexa Chung: “That high fashion Alexa body – all ribs and hips, without an ounce of flab – probably works better dressed than undressed.” (Miaow!) No sign here of the Woolf wistfully imploring women in the concluding chapter: “It’s a cliche, but we are stronger when we are together.” Erm, quite.
However, such snipes are random occurrences. Woolf is robust on a range of issues, not least normal women ageing into “invisibility”, juxtaposed against the relentless “surveillance” of famous females.
Elsewhere, she rails against modern plastic surgery (“violence disguised as choice”) and the disturbing new trend for “vaginal tightening” and “labia correcting” inspired by porn. After a young male acquaintance turns out never to have had a sexual partner with pubic hair, Woolf recoils at the relentless “pornification” of the female form. “An actual woman’s body is more exciting – more challenging and erotic – than the airbrushed pornified version ever could be.”
Throughout the book, Woolf’s anorexia looms large, a veritable “dark passenger”, filtering through many issues, ranging from ageing and self-image to sex and fertility. Woolf readily admits to being full of contradictions, frequently unconfident and unsure, which (digs at Alexa aside) steers her safely away from hectoring, superior and priggish towards a more appealing, human questioning tone, that only occasionally falls down the rabbit hole of woolly and meandering. Is there much that is genuinely new in The Ministry of Thin? Perhaps not. However, Woolf’s skill in is in adding intellectual and emotional ballast to the debates that interest her. In its best moments, this book emerges as a hypnotist’s finger-click signalling women to wake up. As Woolf asks: “If being thin is the answer – what is the question?”