Bullies called me 'starvation on stilts', recalls JO ELVIN
Bullies called me ‘starvation on stilts’… and it’s as wounding as being fat shamed: Ex-fashion magazine editor JO ELVIN issues a deeply personal plea for us all to stop obsessing about body shapes
One day a friend of mine came bounding up to me, jubilant, because her older brother had coined a nickname for me that she found hilarious and was keen to get spread around — ‘starvation on stilts’, remembers JO ELVIN
When I was about 14, I read an article in one of my mum’s magazines that really affected me. It was all about how men hated skinny women and loved ‘real women’s bodies’.
I remember a beautiful, voluptuous celebrity who was interviewed for the piece saying: ‘No man wants to cuddle up to a bag of bones.’
This was Australia in the 1980s where, apparently, the most crucial question regarding a woman’s body was whether or not men liked it.
I internalised this along with the rest of the feature’s message because it made sense to me — it really chimed with the multiple versions of the same thing I was hearing at school.
Skinny was the goal but, all my friends agreed, ‘not as skinny as you, Joanne, I’d hate that’. Yes, I was ‘ugly skinny’, apparently.
One day a friend of mine came bounding up to me, jubilant, because her older brother had coined a nickname for me that she found hilarious and was keen to get spread around — ‘starvation on stilts’. It is no exaggeration to say that my ‘ugly, scrawny, bony, twig-like’ body was the subject of discussion every single day — among classmates and children at school who didn’t even know me.
On more than one occasion, the teachers would join in.
I don’t think they meant any harm with comments such as, ‘Joanne, don’t turn sideways, because then I can’t see you’, but it had the effect of egging on the children with even nastier jibes.
The one morbidly obese girl in my year endured regular bullying and body-shaming, too, and I really felt for her. But even she loudly joined in, agreeing she’d take her shape over mine, any day of the week.
To be clear, I wasn’t dieting or depriving myself of any food. Quite the opposite. A genetic quirk among the women on my mother’s side, apparently: all born to go forth and gangle through puberty, thinner than rakes.
Jo poses with pal Maureen in Sydney in the late-1990s in a recently reshared Instagram picture
I can’t remember my clothing size at this age exactly but, at around 7st and already 5ft 6in tall, I was always on the ‘very underweight’ end of the BMI scale.
Doctors routinely told me I needed to gain weight and, believe me, the constant teasing was all the motivation I needed.
There was not a burger, malted milkshake or bowl of spaghetti I ever denied myself. ‘Where do you put it?’ they’d all ask.
Yet, still, I retained a shape akin to a praying mantis.
It was probably just about OK for my mum in the 1960s, when Twiggy’s look was the toast of Britain and Australia. In fact, in some of my more tearful moments about the bullying, she’d even hunt out some of those David Bailey photos to show me that my pipe-cleaner legs were just like the superstar model’s.
But this was no comfort for a 1980s teen, dealing with a whole new beauty standard to measure myself against. Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson were among the new wave of glamazonian supermodels — all athletic with toned limbs and ample busts.
I thought about all this recently when I read an interview Victoria Beckham gave to Grazia magazine.
‘It’s an old-fashioned attitude, wanting to be thin,’ she said. ‘I think women today want to look healthy and curvy. They want to have some boobs — and a bum.’
I was dismayed. Because this dreadful, pointless misogyny of freely discussing and categorising all women’s bodies as either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ still rampages unchecked.
As I discovered at a tender age, being thin gives you no free pass in this respect.
I’m well accustomed to being told I am ‘too’ thin. That I look ‘unhealthy’ or I’d be so much prettier with ‘a bit of meat’ on my bones.
I guess I just didn’t see it coming from the woman once dubbed ‘Skeletal Spice’ — that’s a slur up there with ‘starvation on stilts’, and it used to anger me on her behalf any time I read it.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not meant as a takedown of Victoria. I think her comments expose her own personal body-shaming wounds.
In a culture where we’re slaves to the idea that slim is best, I suspect her whole ‘skinny is so old-fashioned’ sentiment was supposed to make her more relatable, to reassure any doubters that all sizes are welcome in her boutiques.
Because she and I will both be familiar with another classic body prejudice that gets bandied around: that we thin women are a bunch of smug cows constantly looking down our noses at anyone bigger.
I can still burn with rage thinking of Rebel Wilson’s ‘Fat Amy’ character in the film Pitch Perfect. She calls herself Fat Amy so that ‘you twig b*****s can’t say it first’.
The insulting joke running through the film is that Fat Amy is very popular with the boys. Imagine! Men liking a bigger woman! Just too funny! When Fat Amy ultimately bonds with the ‘twig b*****s’, she concludes it’s because yes, they are skinny, but they have ‘fat hearts’.
This whole ‘female empowerment’ movie reduced us all to our particular body shape: big women are ugly but nice. Small women are desirable but mean.
I’m utterly exhausted by it all. Women’s bodies have always been something everyone feels entitled to discuss, assess, judge: fat, thin and everything in between. We’ve never been allowed simply to exist without having our frames policed.
Today, I don’t flinch as much as I used to if someone sees me in a dress and immediately says: ‘Oh my god, look how skinny your legs are!’ Although the day I was crossing a busy London street and a man pointed and yelled ‘chicken legs!’ was a real low.
A colleague once sidled up to me and said: ‘Jo, I know you’re skinny but you look anorexic in those trousers.’ I wasn’t able to hide my hurt or shock, and she quickly added: ‘I mean that as a good thing!’ It breaks my heart that anyone could believe this is a compliment.
If you’re someone currently trying to shift a few pounds, I can understand if you just cannot relate to this. But my point is that almost every one of us, of any shape and weight, has an inner voice telling us our body needs to change. And I’m done.
And before you say it, yes, I was a women’s magazine editor for many years, launching the hugely successful Glamour magazine in 2001, as well as editing the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine until earlier this year.
I was very accustomed to having criticisms levelled our way, and I can say with sincerity that we did prioritise body inclusivity.
We also pressured model agencies to give us a more diverse size range of models, and fashion designers to stop making every sample a size zero.
But I also realise now that I still largely missed the point, which is this: that chanting supposedly positive statements, such as ‘every body is a beach body’ keeps us stuck in the same, damaging conversation. It shouldn’t need to be said.
Even recent body-positive movements can have the unwitting consequence of simply reframing which physical standards are deemed right or wrong. Shouting that a thin model looks ‘unhealthy’ or ‘awful’ is just as cruel as making a bigger woman feel bad about her body.
Recently, Stylist magazine featured one of those right-on ‘body empowerment specials’ that are routine for glossy print magazines, keen to reassure more Instagram-obsessed and woke audiences that they’re still worth picking up.
As a magazine editor, I’ve done them, too, congratulating myself on the positive message of representing different shapes.
But maybe, if we didn’t constantly fill our media with topics such as Stylist’s ‘asking 100 women how they feel about their bodies’, it wouldn’t be a thing that we feel we need to think about, obsess about or beat ourselves up about.
Furthermore, I’m not sure the problem is about a lack of diverse body types any more. You have only to look at a newsstand to find every shape and size, from Victoria Beckham to singer Lizzo, represented on magazine covers.
Even the most stubbornly sizeist companies, such as Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch, have realised that to be perceived in this way is just backward and bad for business. That is progress.
But we won’t be any mentally healthier as a society if we don’t make this last revolutionary change: getting over our compulsion to want to discuss and compare bodies.
It was becoming a mother to my daughter, nearly 17 years ago, that made me realise just how much the issue dominates even casual conversations — particularly among women.
I remember watching The X Factor with some friends when my daughter was only eight. I was struck by how every female performer that came on inspired comments from my assembled friends about their bodies — who was big, who was small, who looked incredible, who looked terrible and who had just been in some magazine discussing her fad diet.
I was floored once, when discussing Strictly with a gay friend who would consider himself very right-on, that when he couldn’t remember one contestant’s name, he said: ‘You know, the dumpy one’.
It’s relentless, it’s powerful and it batters the mental health of every woman of every shape and size.
I can still get a cold kick in the pit of my gut if I suddenly remember ‘starvation on stilts’. I was 32 before I stopped wearing clothes that were two sizes too big for me — a bizarre attempt to look fuller of frame.
So, here’s my mad idea: let women’s bodies just be, without any comment whatsoever.
Don’t ask celebrities such as Victoria which body shape is the right one. Don’t ask them if they’re happier being bigger or smaller. Is weight really such a universal, failsafe indicator of happiness? This thin woman can assure you, no.
And don’t get me started on all the faux outrage about supposed ‘good or bad examples to women’.
Good grief, when I think of the lather people get into if a store uses a big-ish mannequin, or a magazine puts a size 18 woman on their cover. ‘THIS IS A BAD EXAMPLE TO WOMEN!’ comes the outcry.
What we should really be furious about is how patronising and infantalising this argument is.
When GQ magazine puts James Corden on the cover, no one rages about his less-than-svelte physique being ‘a bad example to men’.
Or has rakish actor Adrien Brody ever been held up as an unrealistically thin standard for men?
It’s never assumed that men are so malleable as to think a picture of a body is in any way a rule about how we should all look.
Victoria Beckham is thin. Lizzo is not. And neither of them is ‘representing’ anything other than their good self.
I dream of a world where celebrities don’t feel as though they need to pick a side when it comes to discussing body shapes. It would be nice if magazines stopped even asking those questions.
I know why they do — because it makes it predictably easy to have your interview with the celebrity talked about more widely, in newspapers, on social media and on television.
And we — particularly women — eat it right up. We’re all drunk on this poison, often barely noticing we’ve made a casual comment about who’s gained or lost weight.
I realise this is asking a lot — like trying to change the course of a cruise ship with a piece of string.
But change always has to start somewhere. So could we at least begin to try? Can we possibly just stop making the topic of women’s bodies something we ever weigh in on (sorry) at all?
In my personal Utopia, we wouldn’t need to shout that you’re more than the weight on the scales — everyone would just know this, in the same way that we know how to breathe.
It’s a mental burden we all carry, whatever our size. Fat or thin, we don’t need it and we certainly don’t deserve it.
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