Foolish females

Eating Myself

Candida Crewe <em>Bloomsbury, 241pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0747577552

Food and fat, fat and food. Us foolish females are obsessed with the subject, are we not? And yet we apparently labour under a vast collec- tive delusion. Diets don't work, men like women with a bit of flesh on them, you wouldn't catch a bloke calorie-counting a bar of Green & Black's, and so on.

However, that's not quite the whole story. Women are not complete idiots, after all. Obesity is an official government concern and we really are getting fatter, because we eat more and exercise less. Reasonable slimness bespeaks vitality, health, pleasure and pride in the physical aspects of oneself. It means shopping for clothes that make the most of one's good points and disguise the bad, and enjoying the effect that has on one's chosen audience. And yes, it just so happens that since time immemorial the male of the species has enjoyed the sight of a waist that is in reasonable proportion to bust and hips. So trying to tell us that it's all in our heads is actually the final insult. In a society that places a premium on the visual and the physical, we are pathologised for caring about the same.

Yet it's within the context of this supposed shared female madness that Candida Crewe places her memoir-in-food, the story of her struggle to eat "normally" and to give up wanting to be thin (that being not where true "self-respect" lies, as she ends up concluding). In an attempt to be more than merely memoir, Eating Myself also tries hard to be a tale of Everywoman's dysfunctional relationship with food. "Everywhere I go," Crewe writes, "I am listening to women who speak of diets, feeling fat, loathing their very flesh; who voice consummate anxiety at not being thin, even when they are . . . The abnormal is normal, and the extremes - namely anorexia, bulimia and compulsive over-eating - no longer really extremes, just a variant of that all-too normal."

If, however, you are not prepared to accept your relative nuttiness just because you prefer being a size 10 to a size 12, that's quite all right. Anyone with an interest in the field of fat (and to be fair, that's most women) will find Crewe's memoir readable, sometimes poignant, brave and candid. Personal memoirs are interesting, I suspect, precisely because they are personal, rather than susceptible to universal application, and this one is no exception.

Crewe eschews psychological interpretations of her condition but, despite this, her book does rather invite them. Consider the ingredients of this particular dish. First, take two brilliant, glamorous and often absent parents: Quentin Crewe, who suffered from muscular dystrophy and is famous for crossing the Sahara's Empty Quarter in a wheelchair (with a little help from his Old Etonian assistants), and who is loved by all for his wit, charm and general ineffable cool; and Mama, to whom the book is dedicated, who is beautiful, stylish, travels a lot for work, has an 18-inch waist and makes fabulous English puddings. To the mix add divorce and a series of substandard boarding schools, at all of which Candida is miserable and desperately homesick. Stir in a father whom she worships but who proves hard to please (it seems she's not quite clever enough for him, and also fails to be beautiful). Unsurprisingly, the chubby child grows steadily fatter, while her mother persists in being as skinny as a rake and wearing great clothes. It's enough to give anyone a complex.

So, at 23, poor Crewe suffers from catastrophically low self-esteem, weighs in at ten stone something and promptly develops an eating disorder, which she strug-gles with throughout her twenties. Then she meets her lovely-sounding husband, Donovan, has three little boys and gets happy. She also, ahem, gets a new slender figure (girls will want details: she's 5ft 6ins and weighs 8st 13lbs). I hate to be glib, but can the giving-up-wanting-to-be-thin business be in any way connected to her no longer being fat? Now you are slim, Candida, make fashion your friend. Any woman who confesses to loathing the sight of her naked legs so much that she wears thick black tights year-round, has visited the hairdresser only once in her life and doesn't bother to wear a bra (heaven forfend) needs a serious make-over. You get down to Topshop and Zara, girl.

The thing is, I've been there. I really have. I've been screwed up, and had an eating disorder, and been utterly obsessed, and I know the difference between all that and your common-or-garden wanting to lose a few pounds. Eating Myself isn't a story about Everywoman, but it is a scrupulously honest and touching account of how one woman learned to stop worrying and love herself.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Wealth and terror