I know I hadn’t done a body image/diet/health post for ages, and then three come along at once, but I read Emma Woolf’s the Ministry of Thin recently, and since I get all my reading material from the library, it’s not often I read a book when it’s still new. So I thought I’d do a review.
Emma Woolf is a Times columnist who as I understand it, mainly writes about her decade long fight with anorexia. (And also as picture helpfully points out is a tv presenter on a silly programme). She’s recovered (as much as you can be I guess) and has previously written a memoir. This book is meant to be more than that, an ‘unflinching look at how the modern obsession with weight loss, youth, beauty and perfection has got out of control’.
Let’s start with the positives. It’s fun and quick to read, and it covers a wide range of topics. The chapters are always called ministry of something… – food, fat, diets, detox, gym, fashion and beauty, sex, surgery, age, madness and success. I’m actually not hugely keen on the ‘ministry of’ thing because that implies that all these things are imposed on us intentionally, from high up, like by a minister, rather than diffusely through the society of which we are a part. Thankfully that idea that there’s a big bad someone trying to keep women down by making themselves starve themselves isn’t there in the text.
She is also an engaging writer with a strong voice, and when she discusses her experience, it rings true. When she talks about her anorexia in particular, she’s got some really interesting insights, without claiming to have all the answers. I found it really moving actually, and I felt like I understood her type of anorexia.
However, as a general look at our relationships with food, exercise and our bodies, and the role of society in that, it doesn’t work at all. Maybe if you had never read anything about these topics before you’d find it illuminating, but for me it was the same old content you can read everywhere in magazines and blogs and on the telly. There’s plenty of superficial personal opinion, but no attempt to look at all these issues in a systematic way, no real position on anything and she only just barely starts thinking about what the way forward might be in the last ten of so pages. Almost all the evidence is anecdote.
If that sounds overly harsh, it’s not specific to this book, but an issue I often have with books written by journalists, they follow the same structure and way of writing as articles, just blown up to a larger scale. But while it’s ok in a magazine to just pick individuals to represent different views, and write about your own experience and conclude with ‘I can see all sides of this, and my own opinions are contradictory too. I don’t know, it’s complicated’, when you’re going to the effort of writing a book, I expect a bit more than that, I expect you to immerse yourself in your subject, to get a bit deeper into it than the first couple of people who’ve agreed to speak to you, to think about it, to come up with some sort of conclusion. No one’s expecting anyone to have all the answers, but I do want to feel as if the author’s actually tried.
In a way, the books strength, that Emma Woolf has a really strong voice, is also its weakness, because hers (and occasionally her friends) is really the only voice you hear. There’s no attempt to understand the points of view of people not like her.
The section on fat acceptance I actually found quite offensive. She’s found an activist to speak to who gets a grand total of two sentences (literally!) to explain this complex topic. Then the next paragraph goes: but of course, she’s really obese, she must be deceiving herself when she says she’d come to love the way she looks. “I do think she’s probably in some sort of turmoil. Extremes [of weight] …usually mask quite a lot of inner distress”. Yeah, she’s fat, there’s no way she can be happy. If she claims she is, she’s obviously lying.
And that is literally it on fat acceptance, a topic you’d think was pretty crucial to this area, for the whole book. Compare those two paragraphs and that two sentence quote to three whole pages on why she doesn’t like yoga – which she seems to think is some sort of heresy.
And it’s not only the fat activists. Everyone gets it: Alexa Chung looks better clothed than naked, Woolf’s friend that’s had botox and surgery looks a bit weird, people that use fake tan look like tangerines, people following faddy diet plans are silly, don’t they know all you need is less calories and more exercise etc etc.
There’s generally a dearth of people that are doing something constructive in the book. It’s all about the problems and how awful things are, without engaging in any depth with the many people that are trying to do something about it (though there is a useful list of further resources at the end).
Oddly, controversy-courting Samantha Brick of I’m-the-most-attractive-woman-in-any-room,-men-are-falling-over-themselves-to-help-me-and-women-hate-me-cos-they’re-jealous fame gets a positive write up as a victim of patriarchy for daring to like herself. I get that confessional columnists need to help each other out, but I can think of any number of women she could have used instead who feel good about the way they look without needing to put down the rest of womankind. It’s all rather odd given that the book’s conclusion, such as it is, is that women would have it a lot easier if they stuck together.
An entertaining and quick read then, but don’t expect it to give you any answers or change your perspective.