Breaking Up With Thin

  • My bathroom, 2019. I have just run a bath, but the pain of my backbones on the enamel means that I abandon the water almost immediately.

My bathroom, 2019. I have just run a bath, but the pain of my backbones on the enamel means that I abandon the water almost immediately.

I glance at my phone. A friend has just texted me in desperation. ‘PLEASE eat something.’

Apathetically, I decide to get on the scales. The old me would only ever have done this in the morning, having not eaten anything for 12 hours and having been to the bathroom first.

I look at the dial. I weigh 8st 2lb. This is 26 pounds below my usual weight of 10st. It’s model weight. Movie-star weight.

The weight that means sample sizes fit and your appearance gets the nod of approval from the fashion firmament.

But instead of feeling euphoric, it feels frightening. Like I’m spiralling out of control. I have not been to the Mayr clinic. I have not been on a diet or gone vegan or sugar-free.

Instead, I’m heartbroken, as my relationship of 26 years has withered, just like my body beneath my clothes.

1995. The fashion cupboard of a UK glossy magazine. I am an intern, sitting in a windowless 6ft by 4ft room, surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful clothes. Galliano’s exquisite gowns. Chanel’s pastel suits. But all anyone really wants is Tom Ford’s Gucci.

A month earlier, Kate Moss walked down the Gucci catwalk in midnight-blue velvet trousers and a slashed teal silk blouse to the gasps of the front row. Just weeks later, Madonna wore the same blouse to the MTV Video Music Awards.

Now, in the cupboard, I am pulling the outfit out of a FedEx box. Me. A 21-year-old woman from Birmingham. Of course I did what any self-respecting fashion-addicted intern would do. I tried it on.

And it was then, as the trousers refused to go any further than my knees, that I realised there was ‘slim’. And then there was ‘fashion slim’. The difference? About 20lb.

When I was 21, sample size was the goal. Sample size – I quickly learnt – was the size of the runway clothes. All of them hovered around size 6 to 8.

There was only one set of these outfits produced (the factories started replicating them for the stores after fashion week) and so they flitted across the globe, like rare delicate butterflies, couriered to the biggest stars and the most prestigious magazines.

All that was asked of you if you wanted to get close to these clothes was that you were thin enough to fit into them.

And so sample size meant success. Sample size meant that you got to be pictured in the right dress at the right party. Sample size meant flashbulbs and affirmation from the fashion crowd.

What sample size meant beneath it all was status. Which, as a poorly paid fashion intern, was all I ever craved.

Of course, I knew I wasn’t fat. In fact, at 5ft 10in (and a size 10-12), I had been blessed with the sort of height and long, slender limbs that most people would be happy to have. But most people didn’t work in fashion.

In the fashion world, people would do crazy things to stay sample size. At the time, the standard model diet was Marlboros and Diet Coke (this was long before ‘wellness’ was a thing), while on the magazines I worked at, disordered eating was normal.

An editor I knew lived off frozen grapes, while others indulged in the art of ‘back-loading’ – starving ourselves until the evening, when we would gorge on bar snacks and cocktails. And yet, despite all this, sample size was always just out of my reach.

Now, standing in my bathroom as a 44-year-old woman in 2019, my diminished frame would probably have fitted into that Tom Ford Gucci outfit. And yet, I felt nothing. Not success. Not a sense of accomplishment. Not anything.

Heartbreak, the sudden and cataclysmic end of my marriage, had blindsided me. Twenty-six years of love became null and void in a matter of months. My husband became a man I didn’t recognise.

It felt like the end of days. In those first few months, I existed in a torturous state of permanent anxiety, trying to hold it together for my two children. Alternating between hovering around my phone and turning it off because I couldn’t bear what it would – or wouldn’t – bring.

My heart palpated all day. The nights, full of black, swirling, fraught dreams, offered no respite. As the sun slid around the blinds, I’d wake up cold, covered in damp sweat, with my daughter nestled beside me in bed. Her presence an instant reminder of my husband’s absence.

I had what Google tells me is ‘trauma-accelerated weight loss’. My body was in a constant state of fight or flight, flooded with cortisol and adrenaline – the effect of which was to suppress appetite. Porridge felt like cement. Bread like cotton wool.

As a young fashion intern, food was loaded with guilt. Now it was loaded with pain. In three months, my skinniest jeans were baggy. My size-12 knickers slid off my hips. Bras became pointless.

Even my skin felt different, like a deflated balloon that was only loosely connected to my body.

My body acceptance had been much better since having children. It seemed, for the most part, to end the faddy eating. But it still gently hummed away in the background. Which meant that when the weight loss first happened, it was not good exactly, but a relief. I looked smaller. Diminished. I looked thin.

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This is not politically correct to say, but a part of me liked it. My frail state meant that people wanted to take care of me. My skinny wrists and protruding clavicles seemed to be the only arrow that could pierce my husband’s hardening heart.

But here was the best bit: clothes looked great. Instagram likes poured in. ‘You look incredible!’ said people I hadn’t heard from in years. The fire emoji was deployed, a lot.

As a young fashion intern, food was loaded with guilt. Now it was loaded with pain.

Many of my friends, after some alcohol, admitted they were just a teeny bit jealous. Even an old friend – who as a health writer had just written a whole run of features about body positivity – laughed and expressed envy.

I interviewed Elizabeth Hurley, who I hadn’t seen for a few years. ‘You look so skinny,’ she said. I told her why. Her eyes widened with empathy. ‘Well, at least you’re looking great!’ She’s not a fatist, she’s just a woman. Like you and me. And we say those things, don’t we?

Because our relationships with our bodies and ‘thin’ is complex. We are bought up in a world where thin equals self-control, thin equals desirable.

What does that say about our culture, that it’s when we are at our most vulnerable, our most fraught, that society deems us to be most attractive? That we are most desirable when we are contained and neat and take up less space?

Having spent my life around some of the most photographed people on the planet, I can tell you that sample size is only achievable for the few.

And, of that few, only a small proportion exist in that shape without practising such rigid self control it consumes their lives.

Where do we get this desire to be thin from? From men? From the designers who set the sample size? Or is there a darker truth that few of us are prepared to accept… that we women imprison ourselves?

Right now, the weight is going back on. Slowly, steadily. I haven’t got on the scales, because I don’t need to. I can feel it – my flesh swelling, my bones being cosseted by little cushions of essential fat.

Thin is drifting away from me, day by day. And I am OK with that, happy even. Because the further it drifts, the more it signals that the crisis is over.

The clouds are clearing and with it comes a new status quo. That my marriage is over and that my life will be very different from the one I envisaged is true. But what is also true is that my relationship with thin has finally come to an end.

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