Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Emma Woolf on the ‘Ministry of Thin’

Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Emma Woolf on the ‘Ministry of Thin’

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This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness week and Mind Your Head society has put together a series of events across the week to raise awareness and to encourage positive body image.

Exeposé attended a busy talk given by The Times journalist Emma Woolf about a range of issues, from the media portrayal of anorexia to personal issues of recovery…

Emma Woolf (centre) with Matt Dean (Treasurer) and Jo Porter (President) of Mind Your Head society  Image credit: Niklas Rahmel
Emma Woolf (centre) with Matt Dean (Treasurer) and Jo Porter (President) of Mind Your Head society
Image credit: Niklas Rahmel

On Tuesday evening, Emma Woolf, co-presenter of controversial Channel 4 show Supersize vs Superskinny and Times journalist, gave a speech entitled, ‘If being thin is the answer – what is the question?’ to a packed LT2 in Queen’s Building, followed by an interactive Q and A session.

The talk was organised by Mind Your Head society for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Woolf insisted several times that she is not a campaigner and told audience members who did so “you’re braver than I am”. But her status as someone who has experienced anorexia and is now challenging falsehoods about it in the public eye was evident from the sheer size of her audience, and the many questions directed at her for help and advice after her speech.

After Jo Porter, President of Mind Your Head Society, introduced her, Woolf began her speech by pondering what aliens would make of our odd criteria for the perfect body. She proceeded to outline the ten commandments of the ‘Ministry of Thin’, taken from her book The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection got out of Control. The first commandment of the ministry being, ‘if you aren’t thin, you aren’t attractive’.

The following commandments were just as shocking and uncomfortable to listen to. Yes, the Orwellian language used to convey the seriousness of her subject matter didn’t always ring true but it certainly provided a striking start to her speech and a hard-hitting summary of her book.

Although Woolf distributed flyers promoting her two books, the other being An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia, she didn’t come across as a sales rep, but a real person, using the research and experiences from her books as mere jump-off points for the bulk of her talk.

And the research behind the books was clearly extensive. After the frightening commandments about body image that seem to be facts of life in the modern world, we were peppered with facts and statistics.

Apparently, one in six women in the US would choose to be blind rather than obese. Another survey found that 35% of men would exchange a year of their life for the perfect bodies. Again, frightening stuff.

Woolf took care to stress early in her speech that anorexia, eating disorders and concerns about body image were increasingly concerns for men, too. She told anecdotes about unexpectedly finding burly London cabbies who told her they were struggling with Bulimia. She also dealt humorously with the gender balance of the audience, initially by making the handful of guys feel welcome and later by joking men should rightly feel self-conscious in a bikini.

Woolf did admit that she was coming at the issues of body image primarily from a female angle. She whizzed through a quick-fire but passionate summary of the state of feminism, which was again impressively researched. Half of females with top careers end up earning as much as £0.5 million less than men in equivalent positions. There are only three female FTSE 100 chief executives.

Woolf also drew attention to sexism in her own industry: journalism. 83% of contributors to the Today programme are male, she said. 78% of articles on the front pages of national newspapers are written by men. The three most photographed women in recent years are 1) Kate Middleton, 2) Pippa Middleton and 3) Madeline McCann – which Woolf summarised as a famous wife, a sex symbol (Pippa’s bum having dominated the tabloid press for a long time) and a victim.

To balance out this pessimism, Woolf again showed her funny side, quipping that she wasn’t advocating ‘arm pit hair feminism’, which drew a laugh from the audience. She likes cosmetics and defends the right of women to look good, or however they want. But, for her, body image simply should not be such a ‘big deal’.

Much of Woolf’s speech grappled with the surely contradictory strengths and weaknesses of her gender, at one point saying, “How can we be so strong, and yet so idiotic?” She listed great female achievements in various fields but contrasted these with the delusional phase of ‘post-feminism’ in the 1990s, which Woolf described as a “mix of ladette, Spice Girl and housewife” – ultimately a failed attempt by women to “convince ourselves we had it all”.  She bemoaned the way friendships are effortlessly made via self-deprecating comments at lunch or in the changing room – why should shared self-loathing be a short-cut to friendship? She warned against using weight loss targets as excuses for failure, citing classic phrases such as “when I lose 10lbs I’ll get that promotion”.

Then the speech became more personal. Woolf is now in her 30s but found herself ‘caught up’ in anorexia at the age of 19. Her battle with the eating disorder has continued for ten years. Now she is healthier she doesn’t know where to look for an example of ‘normal’ eating in our confused culture.

Image credit: Niklas Rahmel
Image credit: Niklas Rahmel

Her experience of the disorder, and her experience as a woman, enabled her to be frank and honest with her opinions. Not all of her views are persuasive and some parts of her speech, such as when she despaired at the occasional idiocy of women, could be provocative, particularly if taken out of context. But the fact that she didn’t pull any punches made her a passionate and engaging speaker – and although she might not agree, it makes her seem like a campaigner with conviction.

Campaigners usually come up against opposition and it’s often emotive. Woolf explained how an article she wrote for The Guardian resulted in a Twitter backlash against her, stemming from ‘pro-fat’ groups in the US. In the article, she explained, she had been making the point that over-eating and under-eating are equally bad, and that moderation is hard for everyone. She was good at explaining the universal aspects of eating disorders throughout the evening, whether it’s niggly worries about a beer belly or anxiety at eating in public.

Woolf expressed concern at the broader culture of any media demanding pictures to portray a ‘before and after’ narrative of an eating disorder. Rightly, she pointed out that when people are ill their first thought is not to take photos just because the contrast will be so striking when they regain weight.

As she came to the end of her speech, Woolf considered the changes in her life, some of which were brought about by her decision to write ‘confessionally’ about her experiences with anorexia. She said that she loves the books “I can relate to” and tried to take this lesson into her own writing. Part of the joy of publishing works about anorexia was discovering that so many people did relate to what she had been through, and discovering that she wasn’t ‘special’. Interestingly, Woolf also revealed that her first book was a novel and she had not intended to write about her eating disorder – the novel will finally be published in the near future.

“I know it’s not easy”, she said as she began to conclude, “until more recently than I care to admit I needed to be thin”. But she added “we always fall short of external body pressures” and, in a reversal of the common saying, said, “we need to treat ourselves as we would treat others”, referring to friends often stepping in and seeing sense if they saw someone cutting out food drastically. Her message clearly resonated with the audience as she told them that she realised “I matter, and so do you”.

During the Q & A session, the audience were obviously eager to talk to Woolf and she responded with enlightening and honest answers. One question asked whether recovery ever felt final and there was a general consensus that it isn’t set in stone but Woolf said she knew a fellow writer who felt she was fully recovered.

Woolf admitted she didn’t know whether legislation was the answer to the unhelpful images on glossy magazines which sometimes act as ‘triggers’ for eating disorders but urged the audience to focus on making the changes they could in their own lives, such as cutting out bitchy comments about other women. Again powerful personal experiences stood out, as Woolf admitted she had put her family “through hell” and frankly told one audience member that there is never a way of totally making up for that.

The stand-out question was about the Channel 4 show Supersize vs Superskinny, which Woolf presents a segment for. A student asked how Woolf felt when they show thin people in their underwear on the show, which was surely similar to the ‘before and after’ culture Woolf had criticised earlier. Slightly defensively, Woolf explained the exact nature of her role, which is to present a series of films about the science and treatment of eating disorders. These films are totally separate from the ‘food clinic’ aspect of the show, in which an overweight person and underweight person swap diets to show both the error of their ways.

Woolf went on to say that “TV has an off switch, unlike the internet so if someone is watching and doesn’t like it, they should switch it off”. She said that she had recently said no to doing something for the programme on moral and ethical grounds. Quite reasonably, she eventually explained that she understood some of the images in the programme could be unhelpful for some people and that they perhaps shouldn’t watch whilst they were still “vulnerable”.

One of the final questions concerned how friends could help someone who appeared to be having problems with food. Woolf offered the simple and effective suggestion of asking them to social events that did not involve food, so they don’t feel isolated – an idea many in the crowd supported.

After the Q & A Woolf was presented with flowers by the Mind Your Head Society. The entire evening was well attended and excellently received, and Emma even had time to pose for Exeposé‘s photographer before heading for home.

On Twitter, Woolf received lots of warm praise from those who attended her speech and she thanked Exeter students for her ‘positive and upbeat welcome’.

 

 

 

 

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