The Ministry of Thin by Emma Woolf

12th Jul 2013

The Ministry of Thin by Emma Woolf

Women are targeted with the message hourly (or so it feels) from several different sources. So Emma Woolf’s new book The Ministry of Thin offers a good interruption to these scheduled broadcasts.

A bit of background: Woolf is a columnist for the The Times and had experience as a beauty journalist prior to that. She has also appeared in the media as a representative for survivors of eating disorders and her first book, An Apple A Day, described her experience of anorexia. (She’s also Virginia Woolf’s great-niece).

It’s not a feminist blockbuster, but it proves a good critical introduction to body image anxiety.Her second book, which focuses on contemporary pressures on self-image, takes the reader through contemporary trends and behaviours that have sprung up around food, fitness, fashion, sex, success and ageing.

It covers each ‘ministry’ with personal anecdotes, recent research, lifestyle trends and media coverage to ask what worries us and how to bring common sense back to body image anxiety.

The book’s written in a journalistic style, covering each topic in half a dozen ‘bloggy’ sections that are easy to read but still pithy and intelligent. She’s got a great eye for a quote, citing tweets as well as recent writing by blogs such as The Vagenda.

The books feels really contemporary – published last month, it manages to reference the front covers that followed the death of Reeva Steenkamp in February.

Woolf writes about her own anxiety with frankness, which feels engaging and is not often done so well in lifestyle journalism. But occasionally Woolf’s hyper-critical voice has been allowed to sneak out between her more sensible observations.

For instance, in her chapter on sex she remarks summarily that, ‘as we’ve seen, it’s sexy to eat but not sexy to be fat’. Moments like this jolt with the book’s overall message of body acceptance.

In the same vein, she says she’s researched the fat acceptance movement but admits she’s not persuaded by its message. Constant references to the beauty industry and celebrities stake the book out as a mainstream response to its subject – more radical feminists should look away now.

That said, Woolf’s approach is keen-eyed and (gently) critical. As a former sufferer of eating disorders, Woolf notices every knock her self-esteem takes, and reveals just how often we’re confronted with bad messages about how we look.

Her reference to a now-‘internet famous’ critical reading of Fifty Shades of Grey (that suggests the leading characters have sadomasochistic tendencies towards food as well as towards sex) is a notable example of her eye for detail when it comes to pop culture.

Woolf seems to hesitate to advise anything at the end of the book, but what little conclusion she gives us – that accepting how you look can be difficult and complex – feels frank and hard-learned.

The writing in The Ministry of Thin is personal and intelligent and, though it’s not a feminist blockbuster, proves a good critical introduction to body image anxiety.

Published by Summersdale, it’s available in paperback now from Foyles, Amazon, and your local independent bookshop. A Kindle edition is also available.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Any women who feels like most days are ‘fat’ days.

Other recommended reading: For more information about Woolf’s experience of anorexia, read An Apple a Day. For more a more strident feminist take on the issue, there’s Susie Orbach‘s now-infamous Fat is a Feminist Issue.

For more about fat acceptance and activism, try writers Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, or our quick and dirty intro to fat activism, which has reading recommendations galore.

Ellie Broughton