Candida Crewe: 'I've worried about not being thin my whole life'

The Toothpick Model debate is one of extremes. So where, asks the novelist Candida Crewe, does that leave 'normal-abnormal' women like me?
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The Independent Online

J K Rowling has written on her website that she does not want her daughters, aged 12 and one, to become "empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones". Her words were part of what she admitted was something of a rant, a rant condemning waif-like models and celebrities, and a culture in which a "toothpick" appearance is rated above almost everything else.

"I'd rather," she says, "they [her daughters] were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny, a thousand things before 'thin'." Well, my hat goes off to her for speaking out so sensibly and passionately on the subject. Her rant is spot on, although as someone who is empty-headed and self-obsessed, if far from emaciated, I recognise I am on shaky and hypocritical ground. I have just written a book about my relationship with food and my weight. I have worried about not being thin my whole life and minded pathetically and desperately about being too "fat".

Is "fat", Rowling asks, "really the worst thing a human being can be? Is 'fat' worse than 'vindictive', 'jealous', 'shallow', 'vain', 'boring' or 'cruel'?" Certainly, throughout my life, an irrational, stupid part of me has always thought so. If ever my father called me "greedy" and "lazy", these words, with their combined connotations of "fat", cut so much deeper than "stubborn", "frivolous", and "bossy" ever could. Ever since I can remember, from as young as three or four, I have disliked my stomach and bum and thighs. I can distinctly recall walking to nursery on sunny days envying my own shadow, so much leaner and more beautiful than my real, manifest self. For five of my 41 years, between the ages of 23 and 28, I had anorexia and bulimia, but for me that was not the interesting part.

Throughout the other 36 I have been quite normal. In my book, I maintain that almost all women in the West, myself very much included, have a relationship with food and weight that is not straightforward, and is what I call "normal-abnormal". By this, I mean most of us are leading ordinary lives, and food and weight is not the be-all and end-all. We are holding down jobs, marriages, bringing up children, visiting friends, getting on with the business of surviving and passing the time. And yet all the while, almost all of us are hearing a continuous soundtrack in our head which is telling us what we might and might not eat and tracking the fat/thin progress of our own stomach and hips and thighs (and to a certain, lesser extent, those of our family, friends and figures in public life), and responding to that tracking accordingly. (Crudely, a pound lost makes for a better mood than a pound gained).

Each day we aim to "compensate" for what we ate the day before. Pudding last night? Better skip breakfast. Most of us can keep these banal inner negotiations to a workable minimum so they do not interfere with our day-to-day existence, as they obviously do with sufferers of anorexia, say, or those who are morbidly obese.

But they are a presence in our heads, and I defy even the sanest of women not to have a clue what I am talking about. Even that rare breed who eats like a horse and remains forever skinny (do they exist? I believe a lot of them are not eating in private) is not immune. I think of one sinewy woman I know - her thinness is due in part to a startling freneticism and unusual nervous energy - who maintains she never thinks about food or cares about her weight.

But she is being disingenuous. She cares very much that she is thin. It is how she defines herself. Her thinness has shaped her character - noisy, confident, and not a little smug - and if she were ever to put on weight, boy, she would not like it. According to a survey, 90 per cent of women in the West want to lose weight. The reason this many do is so obvious that some defensive pundits - editors of fashion magazines the most vociferous amongst them - are dismissing it as too simplistic.

In my view it is a fact: a media obsessed by anorexic models and celebrities harbours a contempt for "fat" as if it were synonymous with "evil" is responsible for women everywhere bound up in the struggle to be thin. It is a daily diet we have been force-fed for decades and it has Sunk In. Big time.

Of course, we should rise above it but it is virtually impossible to remain immune. I celebrate Rowling's denunciation of it and all that it entails, the fallout of generations of young female clones who are self-obsessed and emaciated, and yet I do wonder if such wise words coming from even such a revered and level-headed figure are going to make the blindest bit of difference. Some might say there is room for hope that the tide against the misplaced crock of gold, that of nigh-on emaciation ,in many a young female mind is abating.

Certainly, it feels vaguely heartening that gossip magazines of the Heat ilk are publishing Yukky Skinny Celeb type features. These are made up of a series of photographs of pop and film stars such as Posh in scant miniskirts or bikinis at varying levels of starvation.

We can gawp at their skin and bone, their sunken cheeks, horse-like knees, and train-track ribs. The message is that they have Gone Too Far. My fear is that the message is too little, too late. To be thin is part of our collective consciousness. I think of the intelligent, rational writer and journalist Dina Rabinovitch who has breast cancer. This week she wrote movingly of the emergence of sinister red blotches on her mastectomy scar. "The weight drops. For more than a year I've been struggling to lose that steroid-induced stone and suddenly I'm eating poppy-seed pastries with abandon but losing a pound a day. This is the real indictment of the times I have grown up in, more even than the rampaging cancer all around us. Cancer is running at one in three in the UK, one in four dying of it, but what really marks me as early 21st-century woman is this: I'm welcoming the weight loss."

It is a brave admission but the sentiments do not surprise me. I go so far in my book as to say that it is the contemporary female experience to want to be thin, one that is almost impossible to evade, even in sickness and old age. Since writing it, endless "normal" women have confided in me that they think about their weight every day. They "detox" (or, rather, starve themselves) every Monday; they eat anything and everything they want, but only one bite; they cut out whole food groups; they tell everyone they hate chocolate/ don't like puddings/feel nauseous if they eat breakfast, as a means of convincing themselves.

I have also been approached by countless parents who have begged me with the question as to what they might do with their eight/ 11/14-year-old daughters who are normal, perfect, beautiful, but for whom food is already a drama because they are under the illusion that they are fat.

I wonder, despite Rowling's attitude, whether her daughters can grow up immune to this hideous, visceral pressure to be thin. It is a strong individual who can swim against the tide, and a strong mother who can successfully deflect a child's exposure to that tide. I think of my own experience. My parents were both writers, confident, intelligent, open-minded characters whose aim was to impart their positive values to me.

My father did occasionally slip up and call me greedy, but more in a spirit of teasing, usually, than condemnation. And my mother had an 18-inch waist she liked to maintain, the maintenance of which did not pass me by. They made their mistakes, naturally enough, but I do not blame them for my concern about my weight. My mother was the model of affection and encouragement. My father was conscientious about remembering to tell me I looked pretty, even though I never did quite believe him. And still I have succumbed. I put it down to the culture in which I live.

My rational side agrees with Rowling entirely. The children I have had, the novels I have managed to complete, the daily making of the school run on time, pale beside my dubious achievements in terms of weight. Weight is so damn superficial and tedious and insignificant. Every reasonable person knows that, and yet it still plays a significant part in my inner life.

Admitting it in public recently, I received a barrage of furious emails haranguing me to think about people in the Third World, which was to miss the point. Others told me I should Get a Life, which was not just. I, like all "normal-abnormal" women who are neither obese nor anorexic, DO have a life. And yet we still worry over-much about a few extra pounds which are not unhealthy and do not have any "extra" about them.

I do not have any answers, except to say that pronouncements such as Rowling's and Yukky Skinny features in magazines have to be a force for good. With any luck their drip, drip effect may begin to sink in with creatures like myself. I hope it might mean that some time soonish many more women will, like Rowling, be able to congratulate themselves for our maternal, spiritual and intellectual achievements instead of our purely bodily ones, and reach for the sticky toffee pudding in a spirit of pure pleasure, free of guilt.

'Eating Myself' by Candida Crewe is published this week by Bloomsbury