“Anorexia is not a choice” – Interview with Emma Woolf

Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin and is the great-grandniece of Virginia Woolf. Emma recently gave a talk at Sheffield Students’ Union as part of Off The Shelf Festival of Words 2013. We grabbed 5 minutes to ask about her mission to raise awareness of eating disorders, body image issues and the pressures we face when it comes to our appearance.

Your new book is entitled The Ministry of Thin. Can you tell us more about it?

My first book, An Apple a Day, was a personal story, about my own recovery after ten years of anorexia. My new book The Ministry of Thin is subtitled: How the pursuit of perfection got out of control, so it goes much wider. After I wrote An Apple a Day, I heard from so many readers – women and men of all ages – basically saying, ‘I feel this way too, I have the same issues’. Often it wasn’t as extreme as actual anorexia or losing 4 stone or whatever, but the point was that we are all subject to these pressures.

So partly, The Ministry of Thin comes out of that, and partly it comes out of a sense of enquiry, about where our society is heading. When you look at the position of women and the pressures placed upon us; the way that we have to look – and I don’t just mean weight and body-shape – my new book covers surgery, detox, diets, sex, fashion, shoes, hair etc. There are so many rules, all the ways we’re meant to look. We all have to be spray-tanned orange, we all have to have straight blonde hair, we all have to have our eyebrows immaculately plucked, no body hair, ridiculously high heels, perfect bodies, zero cellulite – I could go on! It’s the way it gets into every aspect of our lives. Cosmetic surgery is a sci-fi, dystopian nightmare – who knows where it will all end. What will become of people who’ve had Botox in their faces, which is poison, injected into their facial muscles, for forty years?

Sorry to rant, but that’s where it comes from. I called my book The Ministry of Thin because I was inspired by the different ministries in George Orwell’s 1984 – Peace, Truth, Propaganda etc. The Ministry of Thin is my metaphor for that internal policeman that is basically ordering us around – and it’s inside us. We’ve absorbed the message about how we should be so thoroughly that we don’t even have a choice. It’s an inner monologue of self-hatred, and it’s terribly damaging. You’re intelligent, I’m intelligent, right? We’re both too intelligent for this. Every woman I know is too intelligent for this, and yet we still try and conform.

Your first book, An Apple a Day, is a very personal memoir of your experiences of living with anorexia and your second book, The Ministry of Thin, looks at the wider societal pressures women face. How did the writing experience differ?

I guess, if I’m honest, An Apple a Day was a lot more painful. I had to go into the past, right back to the beginning of anorexia, to age 19, to having my heart massively broken and losing all that weight. It wasn’t cathartic, it wasn’t some kind of therapy, it was a deeply painful book to write. The Ministry of Thin contained more facts and figures, sociology and statistics, so there was a lot of research. I would sit complaining to my boyfriend saying ‘right, this week I have to attack the Ministry of Age’ or ‘I need to start on the Ministry of Men’ etc. because you have to have a structure writing books – the structure is one of the most important things. You can have the most amazing things to say but if it’s all over the place then the reader really doesn’t know where they are. So I had to really work on the structure and do a load of research on each area.

The Ministry of Thin presents quite a grim picture of women’s lives in the 21st century. How do you think we can shape a more positive future?

It’s not meant to be hopeless – I didn’t mean the book to be totally grim. But if I’m honest, I do think the situation for women, is grim and it’s getting grimmer. People are getting thinner, diets are getting crazier, surgery is getting more extreme, even ageing is becoming more taboo. It is grim!

But you want to know how we can improve things? Well, the reason I wrote the book, and what I love about talking to other women, is that it’s all about discussing this stuff, getting it out there. It’s about saying: ‘This is bullshit.’ What is this – that adult women are expected to look like pre-pubescent girls with no body hair? This is bullshit, that women should starve themselves until they’re skinny and weak. I think by talking about it, we spread the message and we empower ourselves. I know it’s cheesy to say it’s empowering, but it is. It is empowering when you stand up and say ‘No, we’re not accepting this.’ Men aren’t judged on how thin they are, men are judged on how much space they take up. Why should we be always, always judged on our appearance, or our weight, our hair colour, our cleavage or our age? It’s bollocks. Women are awesome, fat or thin, old or young – it shouldn’t matter whether you’re 30 or 40 or 50, or what size jeans you wear.

At Sheffield’s Centre for Medical Humanities we’re trying to bring together medicine and humanities to improve care and the experience of service users. How would you improve services for people with ED?

Make sure that everyone can access help and support early, no matter what they weigh. I know people with eating disorders who have been on waiting lists for years. I know sufferers who have been told they’re not thin enough, that their BMI is too high. They have been turned away: this is shocking.

If you have an eating disorder, you know there’s a problem. If you’re becoming anorexic, or developing bulimia, deep inside you know, and the longer it goes on, the harder it is to treat, and the more it becomes a way of life. It becomes the strongest addiction, and a habit: it becomes normal for you to restrict, or purge, or whatever. This is so dangerous.

I would implore sufferers get help early – and in terms of the treatment paradigm, we need to intervene as early as possible. It will save the NHS huge amounts of money in the long term. We’re catching people when they’re desperately ill, and then they’re having years of treatment that does not work. Why not catch them earlier? Why not educate children much younger at school? Why not allow people to have treatment before they’re five stone? It’s ludicrous. It’s like saying to people, ‘You’ve got cancer, but it’s only early stage, so we’ll wait until you’re desperately sick to treat you. Go off and starve yourself more, make yourself worse, and then we’ll treat you.’ it is not humane, and it doesn’t make clinical or financial sense.

There is some amazing research going on, though. Professor Bryan Lask’s work on the Insula is fascinating. I recently gave the BBC Radio 4’s four thought lecture (April 2013) and I talked about Professor Lask’s research into eating disorders and the brain. Anorexia is not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle, it’s not a diet. It may actually have neurobiological roots. People blame the sufferer but that’s not right – you don’t blame someone who has epilepsy or eczema, you know they didn’t bring it upon themselves. For too long, anorexia has been treated as a choice and it’s not a choice, it’s a brain disease.

In An Apple a Day you wrote that you were beginning to see what your great-uncle Leonard Woolf meant when he wrote: ‘the journey not the arrival matters”. One year on, do you see this more clearly?

I think Leonard was right – actually living is more about the experience itself than the final destination. It’s a bit like what Buddha said: ‘there is no path to happiness, happiness is the path’.

Finally, you made a pledge to get an apple tattoo when you reached a twitter following of 1000. Following the success of your books and your TV career, you now have over 3000 followers. Can we see your tattoo?

Of course! Here it is, a tiny red apple with a green leaf: my private badge of recovery from 10 years of anorexia; a memento of my first book, An Apple a Day. And a reminder that no one can live on an apple a day.


Emma Woolf is the author of An Apple a Day and The Ministry of Thin, both available on Amazon. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf