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13 June 2018

I lived through “heroin chic” and fetishised skinniness – I’m not sure how to feel about that now

On that album cover we look like the epitome of hunger, but we also look hip, and we knew it. 

By Tracey Thorn

The opening lines of the new Florence and the Machine single, “Hunger”, made me shiver. “At 17 I started to starve myself,” she sings. I’d watched my girls like a hawk as they picked their way through those teenage years, looking out for any sign, any clue that they might be starving themselves. So many do. Mine dodged that particular bullet, but not all our daughters did.

As mothers we dreaded it. We’d look out for any weight loss or pallor, meanwhile never mentioning our own weight or uttering the curse word “diet”. One of my girls models, and she’d come home from catwalk castings noting that the jobs went to girls who looked to be unwell, while she – slim but not snappable like a wishbone – was not quite thin enough.

Florence’s lyric offers a brilliant insight into the notion of hunger, what it means and where it comes from – “At 17 I started to starve myself/I thought that love was a kind of emptiness/And at least I understood then the hunger I felt/And I didn’t have to call it loneliness.” The idea that physically starving offers a kind of rationale for internal emptiness makes sense to me, although Lord knows, I’m no expert. But the song reminded me too of Sleater-Kinney’s “Modern Girl” from 2005: “My baby loves me, I’m so hungry/Hunger makes me a modern girl.”

Part of being honest about life as a woman nowadays is to do with talking about hunger. See also Roxane Gay’s memoir, entitled Hunger: a Memoir of (My) Body, in which she describes her deliberate gaining of weight as a protective act, to turn her body into one not considered desirable, and therefore, potentially, less at risk.

A survey last week claimed 87 per cent of women feel “wracked with guilt” after eating, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, to scoff or hang my head. I don’t feel wracked with guilt, but I do monitor my calories. Am I a bit ashamed to admit that? Yes. Do I think it means I’m doing feminism wrong? I don’t know. I’m ambivalent about it, as about most things. And so I eat salads, and talk about being healthy, and it’s fine, the doctor is pleased with me. Good girl.

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Me and my friends, we hate our stomachs even though we know there’s nothing wrong with our stomachs. We’re proud of what our bellies have achieved, and yet we miss the hip-skimming jeans we used to wear. We hate the idea of conforming to an unrealistic body shape and would like to be a few pounds lighter.

A friend shows me an old photo of herself on a beach in a bikini in her twenties and we gasp at how hot she looks, and quote Nora Ephron at each other: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.” We laugh because it’s true and also sad. I don’t need to lose weight, I know that. And yet I am slightly addicted to the weight I have always been, and cling to it even as my body rebels.

Terry Gross interviewed me recently for NPR’s Fresh Air, and talked admiringly of the front cover photo of Amplified Heart, an Everything but the Girl album from 24 years ago. Ben and I are in a state of semi-undress, mooching and pouting, and painfully rock’n’roll skinny. I agreed with her that the photo is deliberately sexy, but admit that in retrospect I can only see, as in the video for “Missing”, two people who look ill, and who are perhaps capitalising on the fashionability of their unexpected new bodies. Ben had lost four stone during his illness, and I too was the lowest weight I’ve ever been.

We were photographed during that period by Juergen Teller, and by Corinne Day, who’d done the famous shoots of Kate Moss for The Face and Vogue, inventing what would become known as “heroin chic”. On that album cover we both look like the epitome of hunger, but we also look hip, and we knew it. We were fascinated, and showing off, and people liked it. It was REAL, that’s true, but I don’t know whether to feel guilty now for fetishising skinniness. Bodies are so complicated. We all have a hunger. 

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This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?