Where the size-zero debate goes awry

On the face of it, the size zero debate seems to address feminist bug-bears. But, argues Laurie Penny, it just creates another set of sexist stereotypes - and obfuscates the truth about eating disorders

Laurie Penny, 7 July 2007

Angela is a size zero. Every morning she wakes up, consumes a cup of black coffee and hits the shops. Three hours pounding the linoleum in Selfridge's and Harvey Nicks with store-cards at the ready ensures that she's burning calories as well as money, as she plucks an array of tiny, expensive outfits from the rails to wear to the many exclusive parties she will be attending this summer.

Every item, of course, looks as stunning hanging from Angela's spare, emaciated form as it did on the hanger, and she returns home - stopping off at the gym on her way, of course - well pleased with the day's achievement. She eats a modest supper of steamed greens and green tea designed for the insane and the colour-blind. Ravenous with hunger, she gazes at her spindly limbs and visible ribs in the mirror with elation and a sick self-satisfaction. Angela is sick, of course, and her friends and family are concerned about her weight, whilst secretly envying her super-slim figure and fashionable lifestyle. Have you spotted the problem here yet?

Angela doesn't exist. Not only is any resemblance to real-life persons, alive or dead, purely coincidental, it's also implausible: the 'size zero' woman is a media fiction, spawned in the twisted brains of fashion editors and media scare-monkeys - and a dangerous fiction, at that. It's a fiction that perpetuates tired gender stereotypes and feeds back into the cannibalistic ethos of the fashion industry. It's a fiction that centres upon the degrading idea that women are stupid, frivolous and impressionable. And it's a fiction that undermines the seriousness of the real epidemic of eating disorders that is devastating the lives of young people across the country.

Anorexia is a complex psychological disorder, often stemming from deep, long-standing self-esteem issues and triggered by specific personal trauma

The 'size zero debate' (referring, in fact, to the American size zero which is the equivalent of a UK women's dress size four, indicating a body-mass index typical of a severely underweight young woman) has been raging since last August when two South American models, Luisel Ramos and Ana Carolina Reston died from the effects of starvation-diets designed to keep their weight horrifically low.

In response to the tragedies, Madrid Fashion Week 2006 banned models with a body-mass index lower than 18 from the catwalk, and since then many fashion houses, celebrities and designers have made statements opposing the use of unhealthily underweight models in the industry. It's a story with all the classic ingredients of a good scoop: it has the glamour of high fashion, the tantalising whiff of institutional conspiracy, and, of course, the tragically premature deaths of gorgeous young women. Conveniently, it also cries out to be illustrated with ogle-worthy shots of stick-thin, startlingly attractive, half-naked teenagers.

BMI 18, in case it hadn't occurred to the organisers of Madrid Fashion Week, is still very, very thin. A BMI of 18.5 is the lowest BMI considered even vaguely healthy by the World Health Organisation, and most women who are this size 'naturally' have a genetic inheritance either wholly or largely from East or sub-continental Asia. Very few women of Caucasian, African or Caribbean origin - who together comprise 95% of the female population of the UK - have figures 'naturally' under a BMI of 22-23. As such, the moralising tone of the media frenzy that has surrounded the recent hype over 'size zero' simply doesn't hold water: no-one is promoting a 'realistic' body-shape here. The standard of perfection is still ridiculously high, and the amounts of time, money, and masochistic effort required to attain it still daunting.

The 'size zero' myth reduces anorexia to a frivolous pique of silly little girls who aren't clever or mature enough to take proper care of themselves

Moreover, the 'size zero' myth is largely irrelevant to the vast majority of sufferers from eating disorders who are not catwalk models or fashion heiresses. The myth suggests that anorexics in particular develop the disease simply through a desire to follow fashion, because they don't know any better. Anorexia, in fact, is a far more complex psychological disorder, often stemming from deep, long-standing self-esteem issues and triggered by specific personal trauma. Moreover, it's a disease which predates the modern media machine by many centuries, with cases of anorexia reported in England as early as the 1200s.

Of course, the effect of the popular media in prompting self-comparison with super-skinny celebrities and models should not be entirely undermined: thousands of women every day embark on yo-yo diets and deny themselves favourite foods in order to look more like a perceived cultural 'ideal'. But eating disorders are infinitely more serious than that: mental illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia go far beyond simple dieting. You'll rarely find an anorexic girl primping and preening her emaciated body in front of the mirror - in fact, a diagnostic criterion of the disease is a deep loathing for one's body that expresses a more general self-loathing, whereby the sufferer cannot perceive how thin he or she really is. The average anorexic does not become so out of a simple, frivolous desire to look like a fashion model, but because he or she is deeply, cataclysmically unhappy.

Anorexia is not a fashion statement, or a lifestyle choice, but a psychological breakdown that leads to physical collapse. The 'size zero' myth crucially undermines the illness, reducing it to a frivolous pique of silly little girls who aren't clever or mature enough to take proper care of themselves. In fact, most sufferers from eating disorder are perfectly aware of what they are doing to themselves, but have lost the ability to stop - a crucial part of the pathology of the eating disorder spectrum.

These stories with gruesome 'before and after' shots of ill-looking women in their underwear send out the message: women are pieces of meat

In addition, although the media claims to be promoting a positive message, it actually further marginalises the hundreds of thousands of sufferers of eating disorders who do not have 'size zero' figures. Bulimia, for example, is a disease with a very similar pathology, but three times the prevalence of anorexia in England, and extreme sufferers are just as physically and psychologically ravaged as those who suffer from anorexia - yet many bulimics remain 'average' or 'above-average' weight until the point of collapse.

Moreover, the 'size zero' media hype focuses on a demographic of super-skinny, usually wealthy women in their teens and early twenties - forgetting that eating disorders affect women of all ages and from all social backgrounds, and that over 10% of people who die from anorexia are men. The media frenzy over 'size zero' has very little to do with raising awareness of eating disorders - it's simply another way to sell copy by trading on and perpetuating the colossal Western fixation with women's body weight.

Heat magazine recently ran a series of twelve consecutive issues with "Super-Skinny!" headlines splashed frantically across their covers, earning themselves a massive sales upsurge in the process. This rubber-necking of 'size zero' catastrophe princesses only further degrades Western cultural conceptions of femininity, to which these women incontestably contribute; moreover, it degrades the self-respect of every individual who buys the magazines.

Every newspaper rehash of the 'size-zero' non-controversy fuels our sick cultural fascination with the size and shape of women's bodies. Every time some poor aspiring young journalist is encouraged to record a voluntary self-starvation attempt in order to boost sales - Dawn Porter for the Daily Mail and Kate Spicer for The Times to name but two - and every time these stories are printed along with gruesome 'before and after' shots of ill-looking women in their underwear, the message is the same: women are pieces of meat.

On the pages of newspapers and magazines and websites across the country, women's bodies are poked, prodded, pinched and squeezed like livestock at a cattle market, their flesh weighed and labelled and laid out on the slab of media scrutiny. As if that were the only thing that mattered . The 'size zero' non-controversy is degrading to women and damaging to our cultural understanding of the real mental and physical distress undergone by sufferers of eating disorders.

About the author

Laurie Penny

Laurie Penny is 20 and lives in Oxford. She is still suffering the after-effects of having taken Germaine Greer literally as a child

Author's Articles | Author's Website

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