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The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control

The Ministry of Thin: How the Pursuit of Perfection Got Out of Control - Emma Woolf (This review is of an ARC I received from a Goodreads giveaway.)

Have you ever noticed that when it comes to talking fitness, it tends to be about what men can do and what women look like?

This is a broad generalization, one I'm happy to see pushed off the table when it comes to running (which is all about how fast you can run a mile and how many you can do without stopping). But whether it's with my friends or in fitness groups, I've noticed that for women the talk is all about losing weight, losing inches, and how you look in that bikini or those jeans. With men it's about how many pushups they can do and how many pounds they can bench press.

This is the kind of thing The Ministry of Thin got me thinking about. I found it quite literally a life-changing book.

It's not perfect -- you can see that from a few of the comments I posted as I was reading. I'm genuinely concerned from some of the things Woolf says that she may not be completely free and clear of the anorexia that once dominated her life. (As she points out, "When you develop anorexia or bulimia nervosa, you cross from the normal, healthy world into this realm of madness. It is so hard to cross back.)

But in general, this book is so well-written and makes so many brilliant points about the damage done to women by internalizing unrealistic physical standards that I'm having a hard time fighting the urge to buy a crate of copies and hand them out on street corners.

This book forced me to reexamine my thinking and my habits. It refused to let me weasel away from the question of whether I exercised and watched what I ate because I wanted to be healthy or because I was trying desperately to achieve a certain physical ideal I knew was impossible.

The answer? Honestly? Both.

But Ministry helped me shift that kind of thinking. Of course I still worry about what I look like. But I've been working on not torturing myself anymore, and it's paying off in measures of sanity and happiness.

A few years ago, I put on some unhealthy weight for unhealthy reasons. I took it off over the course of many months by slooowly changing my exercise and eating habits. Very gradually, I figured out workouts and meals I could live with. I was focused on losing weight, but also on gaining health.

For the first time in my life, I did a real pushup, and then five, and then ten. (I can now do 25 in a row on a good day, but that doesn't mean I like to.)

When I was a kid, I couldn't even walk much because of exercise- and allergy-induced asthma attacks. Now I've worked up to being able to jog 6 miles at a stretch. (Notice I say "jog." I can't call what I do "running" and keep a straight face. But at least I'm out there moving and sweating a couple of times a week.)

I learned how great it feels to challenge myself, to push myself to do just a little more than I thought I could in a workout and to see that same spirit and ambition extend into other aspects of my life.

That's the good news.

The bad news is, I also stumbled into some seriously troubling patterns of thought. I don't think they ever blossomed into a full-fledged eating disorder, but I certainly had some disordered eating.

I was able to stop myself from falling over that particular cliff -- but I kept looking at it rather wistfully. Admiring the dreadful view.

Sure, I hated feeling hungry all the time. And yes, it was a drag to think about my body pretty much every minute of the day (and for "think about," read "obsess over," "feel hideously self-conscious about," and "wonder if my friends have been trying to think of a nice way of telling me how horrible I look").

But dang, it sure would be nice to look all sleek and willowy.

I am built like a little workhorse. I'm 5'3" and have almost nothing in the way of a bustline, but that's where any resemblance to a sylphlike physique ends. So far as I can tell, I strongly resemble the Russian peasantry I'm descended from.

Could I content myself with thinking, "Hey, I kick ass -- quite literally, when necessary. I'm 46 years old. I have a great family, fantastic friends, and I just signed with a literary agent. My looks don't scare people -- I even get flirted with sometimes by perfectly presentable men. So screw worrying. I have better things to do with my life than be decorative, damn it"?

Or did I keep torturing myself with comparisons between my own small but stubbornly solid body and the ridiculously slim forms of my friend, an ex-model and ex-dancer, and her equally long lithe dancer daughter -- both of whom are at least five inches taller and several pounds lighter than I am?

Again: both. I was a part-time idiot, but at least I was attempting to fight my own stupidity.

This book is excellent, but I'm not sure it would have been the life-changer it was for me if Woolf hadn't included a genuinely terrifying chapter on the Minnesota Semistarvation Experiment of 1944-45. As the author points out, there's no way this experiment could ever be allowed to proceed nowadays. It was horribly risky, and ended up deeply damaging the participants.

But the story of how 36 initially healthy men descended into mental illness over the course of several months shoved me right off of what could have been a path leading directly into the same madness.

I looked at the obsessions these men developed.

I thought of how much time and energy I was already giving to idiotic concerns about my body -- not its health, but how it compared to Hollywood ideals -- and how much worse it would get if I continued to try to lose even a few more pounds and keep them off.

I realized that I would have to cut even more calories off a reasonably (but not unreasonably) lean, clean eating day, and spend two to three hours a day working out (as opposed to the one to two I currently aim for).

And I said, "What am I DOING?"

So I decided to focus on what my body can do rather than what it looks like. My abs are not perfect, but -- want to watch me do 150 perfect bicycle crunches in a row? My thighs are not "bikini-ready," but have I mentioned they can take me up my apartment's flight of stairs at a run multiple times a day? And what about those patient, unseen lungs that don't pant for breath after that 15-step jaunt? How about a little credit for the work they do for me? Hooray for strong, reliable insides!

I haven't weighed myself for weeks now. I don't plan to except on doctor visits, and even then I'm going to try not to look.

I'd like to think I would have managed to haul myself back to a reasonably sane place without this book, but I'm honestly not sure I could have.

So, yeah. I recommend The Ministry of Thin.