After the South American models Luisel Ramos and Carolina Reston starved themselves to death last year to try to reach size ‘zero’, the fashion world promised to be more responsible. It hung its head in shame, and even chivvied some size-12 girls on to the catwalk for London Fashion Week last month. So I imagine that most people think that the whole zero fad has finally faded away, and that teenage girls like me and my school-friends have developed healthier role models and a happier relationship with our food. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint any Spectator-reading parents, but in my experience it’s worse than ever.
My school is deeply ordinary — a fee-paying school but not one of the famous ones, not particularly posh or expensive. It contains 600 girls from 8 to 18 years old, a minority of them boarders, in a nice provincial town. The teaching is good and I think we’re generally the kind of sensible kids who work hard and do fairly well — but there’s no unusual pressure put on us to ‘achieve’. Even so, the obsession with being a size zero is still sweeping through ‘St Thinian’s’ like a virus. And if it’s happening at my school, it’s bound to be the same in other similar establishments.
Let me explain. Last month I gave up chocolate for Lent, but my friend gave up not just chocolate but anything containing sugar. Can you imagine what that means? It’s nearly impossible to cut out sugar altogether, unless you just eat lettuce for over a month. Which is what she did. She wouldn’t even touch fruit, and she wasn’t alone. Many of the other girls decided to copy her example in the desperate hope that it might bring them closer to their goal of being a size zero. This was in addition to their usual regime of regularly missing meals and calorie-counting every last mouthful.
Of course, not every girl is affected by the size-zero virus. It seems to take hold at about the age of 15, when GCSEs begin, and I would estimate that it’s only about a fifth of each year that is seriously obsessed at any one time. The rest of us just worry endlessly about being fat and seesaw between detoxing and pigging out. The signs of a proper, full-blown size-zero infection are easy to spot. They include having a jug of water and nothing else for breakfast, always going into tea to see what cakes are on offer and then sitting down to watch hungrily as other people eat them, spending hours analysing every aspect of the appearance of celebrities, models and television stars and never taking any exercise except dance class because that is held in a room of wall-to-wall mirrors and allows you to scrutinise your body for the last few pounds of remaining fat. Swimming is completely off-limits for fear it might make you muscular. It’s not a healthy look that the size-zero girls are after, remember — the aim is simply to be as tiny as possible. When my headmistress arrived at our school a few years ago, doughnuts and hot chocolate were laid on for the prefects’ weekly meeting. Now she provides plain biscuits, fruit juice and hot water — at the sixth-formers’ request.
Is it anorexia nervosa that’s epidemic at St Thinian’s? I don’t think so, because none of my friends seem dangerously thin just yet, and they don’t suffer from the classic signs of anorexia: hair-loss, fatigue or dehydration. But even if it’s not a lethal disease, it’s still upsetting, because in their desperate attempt to be very thin, the girls with the virus seem to want to shrink not just their dress size but their whole world. They lose interest in everything apart from themselves and their appearance. They don’t want to talk about books or films, go for walks or even to shop. They have one focus in life: being a zero. I don’t think this phenomenon is just a normal part of being a teenage girl, either — after all, the government is so worried about it that it has, for the first time, agreed to fund a large-scale research project into why British girls are suffering from eating disorders.
So what’s the cause of this fixation? Well, from what I can see, despite all the worrying about super-skinny catwalk models, the major influence on the weight-obsessed girls I know isn’t high fashion but rather the glossy magazines that the fashion industry inspires — Heat, Closer and perhaps Glamour. It is not a skinny model in Vogue who persuades the girls at my school to follow in their footsteps, it’s ‘ordinary’ women like Wayne Rooney’s girlfriend, Coleen, and her latest all-powerful, cellulite-busting yo-yo diet; also the endless stories of ‘real-life’ people who lost lots of weight and lost it fast. These are our heroes. Though we’re all relatively bright girls at a decent school, our role models aren’t professional lawyers, politicians or novelists, they are first and foremost thin women. We all love watching Sex and the City, but I’ve noticed that despite the fact that so many of us want successful professional careers, we would all rather be Carrie, with her minuscule waist, than Miranda, the less glamorous friend who is a partner at a law firm, has a baby and a fantastic apartment.
I’d like to talk the size-zero girls out of their fixation but, as far as is possible, they’ll keep their hobby to themselves, and none of them would dream of confiding in their parents or their boyfriend. Boys our age seem totally oblivious to female psychology and, anyway, what girl would ever admit to starving themselves for a boy’s benefit? Admitting to dieting is as uncool as admitting to revising for exams, because the whole point is to be effortlessly thin. Actually, I don’t think the size-zero thing is for the boys’ benefit anyway. Girls at my school don’t have posters of boy bands and male heart-throbs plastered on their bedroom walls anymore — they have pictures of their favourite female celebrities and many more of themselves.
The fact that the drive to be thin kicks in at exactly the same time as GCSEs begin does makes me wonder whether obsessive dieting is just one more thing for us to work at and be competitive about — qualities that the culture of a high-performing single-sex school actively promotes. As one recovering size-zero addict in my year put it, ‘I’ve always been really good at things at school but I’ve never found anything that I was best at. I’ve got quite a competitive nature and when I saw all these skinny famous people, a part of me thought, “Maybe this is something I can be best at.”’ I suppose if you think of it the right way, reducing your weight is a bit like completing exam coursework: girls set themselves target weights, measurements or dress sizes, and feel great satisfaction when these goals are achieved, as if they’ve had a good mark.
It’s hard to say whether the school authorities notice and what action they would take in the event of noticing — we already have regular talks from eating-disorder counsellors. And what can they do? Even the most obsessive 20 per cent of us aren’t dangerously underweight, and the teachers are more concerned about the effects of smoking and drinking. But what if the size-zero virus does have a long-term effect on health? What if it is contagious? Should we really be so laid back about it becoming an accepted part of school life?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 24, 2007