Hermione Eyre: Women are too savvy to be fooled by size 'zero'

It is easy to blame fashion trends and actresses for eating disorders. The causes are more deep-seated

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High street shops are stocking clothes so small they are labelled size "zero", it emerged last week. Cue great concern from the British Dietetics Association, which thinks that the tiny size is something young women, already bombarded with images of glamorous stick-thin actresses and models, "may start trying to achieve". And cue horror from commentators such as former Cosmopolitan editor Marcelle D'Argy Smith, who said this represented "the death of the grown up woman".

I can't share her alarm, myself. I find the whole idea that women's pretty little heads are about to be scrambled by the arrival of size "zero" rather noxious. Women shoppers are more savvy than that. They know that the size "zero" comes from the American scale of sizing and that it is therefore not five whole sizes smaller than a UK 10. It is, in fact, equivalent to a British size four. All the "US size zero" clothes I have seen in shops in this country have also had, in parallel, on the label "UK size four", just to make this plain.

Now, size four has long been available in the UK, but when you rename it "zero" you suddenly have a headline-grabber - a size that seems to connote nothingness and invisibility, as if the woman wearing it has dieted herself out of existence. Are British women really going to start deleting themselves like this? This idea is far more dramatic and compelling than the truth - that size four is available in Topshop's special "Petite" range, that is marketed to 12-14 year old girls, and that it accounts for just 2 per cent of sales in the Petite range.

We seem addicted to the idea that women are nervous, unstable creatures who, if presented with a new label size, will start starving themselves to fit into it. The news that the Hollywood actress Eva Longoria takes an even smaller size - "double zero" - has been taken as further proof that women in this country are about to down utensils and admit nil by mouth.

Women are much less suggestible than that. Yes, many do have eating disorders, but this has more to do with deep-seated psychological causes than something they read in a magazine. Yes, women internalise pain and are far more likely to do harm to themselves than to someone else - but they are not so doltish and impressionable that they set off on a crusade of over-exercise because they hear that a woman in LA is spending four hours a day at the gym. Granted, this kind of information can be a trigger to an underlying problem, but it is not in itself a reason to become anorexic.

I know because I have had plenty of experience of friends with eating disorders. It is a distressing condition to see first hand. While I was at university, I regularly felt almost sub-female because I was the only one round the dinner table who was actually ordering food while everyone else was waving the waiter away, crunching the ice in their drink as if it were a delicious snack and lying through their teeth about the enormous amount they had eaten at lunch.

But that kind of behaviour died away when they got older and realised there was no way you could starve yourself and hold down a good job, go out in the evenings or do anything worthwhile: my friends, thank heaven, chose life rather than a state of emaciated inertia. This is the route most women follow, but the media fixation with the ones who don't - the LA models whose lives are so abnormal that they can spend a large percentage of their time lifting dumbbells - reinforces the image of women as victims, as freaks, as slaves to vanity.

We are taught from an early age to believe that women are like this. Just look at the story of Cinderella. The ugly sisters are so desperate to fit their feet into the slipper that they saw off their own toes and hack their heels into bloody stumps. This is the kind of freak show that we seem to believe says something intrinsic about the state of femininity. But in real life, women are far from like this. They are much too generous in the way they live - supporting families and friends - to spend all their energy thinking about themselves and their figures.

The women who put their lives on hold to fit into a size four or a size zero are absolute anomalies. They are either ill, or famous (and possibly both). My friends and I have a sure-fire way of spotting a celebrity. If you see someone in a bar whom you think you recognise ("Could that be Anna Friel sitting on the banquette over there?"), you then size them up. Are they more petite than is natural? Are they slimmer than everyone else in the joint? If so, they probably are the famous person you took them for. If there's a natural spread about the thighs, a whisper of bulkiness in the hips, chances are they are simply a lookalike.

It is easy to blame fashion trends and actresses for eating disorders. In truth, the causes are more deep-seated and more disturbing: the fact that girls are still brought up to believe that what they look like is more important than what they have to say; the fact that they live in a culture that values its women so little they are still paid 20 per cent less than men for the same work; the way women's reproductive choices are still patrolled by male-run institutions such as the Catholic Church.

There are plenty of real causes of female desperation out there. A new label on an old pair of denim jeans isn't going to tip us over the edge: please, give us that much credit.

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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