Thursday, 14 May 2009


Months of misery eating and drowning of sorrows have taken their toll. I have eaten enough chocolate to recession-proof Sir Hans Sloane and Cadbury - the latter offers rather better consolation. As in fiction, so in chocolate: Jilly Cooper is a guilty pleasure in a way that Proust could never be, and Galaxy will always comfort where Willie Harcourt-Cooze 's tiny dark blocks of Venezuelan 100% cacao can only exhaust one with its self-conscious artisanal craftsmanship. There's no wanton hedonism in something that could be considered improving - I want chocolate to have the potency of cheap music, and the anaesthetising effect of soma.

And it's not just the chocolate: as bad news hit at work - whether of redundancies or just the daily grind of doing more with less or hunting around in search of business with all the efficacy of a badly trained truffle pig - I hit the bottle. Not - I hasten to add - in an inelegant, or health-threatening way, although a piece in the newspaper on middle class binge drinking gave me cause to count units and flinch - but in the way that nothing feels really quite so ghastly after a couple of cocktails or a nice bottle of wine.

But of course, all good things must come to an end. One must always take the consequences of one's errant behaviour. And so, mid-May, as I found myself struggling to get into my summer wardrobe, I swept the dust off from the scales only to discover with horror that I've put on nearly a stone since Christmas. The anguish! The recriminations! The self-berating!

Nothing for it: what looks fabulous on Mad Men's Joan, only serves to shatter my amour-propre. And so it was that I marched straight to WeightWitches, to begin my penance for my season of indulgence.

Yet, as I was on my way back to the office, in possession of a points counter and stalwart determination, into the inbox of the Blackberry pinged an email link from the Guardian- a fascinating and salutory interview with 'Bodies' author, Susie Orbach, forwarded by my clever and beautiful friend Sarah Churchwell.

Orbach is most famous for 'Fat is a Feminist Issue' which, as Aitkenhead writes is 'a ground breaking work, the thesis of which was so simple that no one who read it could dispute its logic...diets make us fat by distorting our relationship with food'. More than thirty years later, Orbach asserts that we're more disconnected from our bodies than ever before: we can't get past our indoctrination by a plethora of media images that celebrates an exceptionally narrow definition of female beauty. Intellectually, we know this is wrong - the paradigm we want to have reflected back at us in the mirror every morning is an artificial construct - a fantasy achieved by a few, and then only with abject self-denial, vast expense and the aid of an army of assistants from plastic surgeons to personal trainers to airbrushers.

Yet somehow, smart as we think we are, and no matter how fervently we assert that the route to sanity is self-acceptance, when we deviate from this 'ideal', it's deeply troubling. The anxiety of not fitting in, of not conforming, of not being acceptable, surfaces again. Feeling 'fat' recalls all those horrid childhood memories of not being picked til last for the netball team, of being cast-out from the clique for not having Caran d'Ache colouring pencils, or some such stupidly trivial badge of belonging.

Like many women of my age and class, I've struggled with my relationship with food - 'normal appetite becomes pathologised as the enemy'. Fortunately, it's many years since I accepted that aspiring to eat nothing at all is not only time consuming (how the throught of food and its denial inhabits one's every waking hour), but also utterly bonkers. And actually, it was Weightwitches which de-pathologised my relationship with food, and re-taught me what a normal meal looked like. Yet in the office, the women talking about the new and seriously expensive diet drug Alli are not those with the required BMI of 28 - like me, most of them would need to be a good 28 pounds heavier to qualify - they're women who, again like me, struggle with this modern paradox. Whatever we might know and believe and subscribe to, and however much you might hear us praising the gorgeously voluptuous Joan, we still berate ourselves for not being Betty Draper.

But for me, the renewed commitment to a sleeker physical aesthetic is economically, rather than politically or even psychologically motivated: I simply can't afford a new wardrobe. I either drop the 13 lbs and wear last year's summer clothes, or I'm reduced to two or three rather ugly items in the wardrobe, one of which I last wore when pregnant. And it's also about time that I knuckled up to the harsher, more demanding world out there, rather than medicating myself with sweets and treats.

I can't pretend to have addressed any of the psychological issues that make me crave to maintain a weight that works for fashion. Nor can I pretend to have reconciled the contradictions around the distorted way women see themselves. Yet somehow I feel Orbach would support the breakthrough I've made in identifying the relationship that exists for me between troubled mood and disordered eating. Sometimes one needs to create a watershed moment in order to realise that one has both the courage and tenacity to square up to it and solve it.

Friday, 8 May 2009


As the recession bites, the cogs in the corporate machine bite harder. One spends ever longer slaving over a hot spreadsheet, trying to create magic formulae that will stop the numbers leaking off the page. Incessant demands rain down from on high for yet more strategies and even cleverer ideas. Vast swathes of time are laid waste sitting writing reports on what one would be doing if only one wasn't forced to sit and write a report about it.

And now that the series of measures designed to reduce the cost base has been implemented, one has even more work, because there are fewer people around to help you do it. Broadly speaking, one has to work triply hard to stay standing still, and I like nothing more than being left alone to make use of the idle minute.
So when another meeting is scheduled in the boardroom to discuss trading - or to 'share ideas' - my heart sinks even lower in my Pedro Garcia shboots. Two hours carved out of my day, sitting round an enormous table drinking bad coffee is its own particular kind of hell.

I've long since given up wondering if these Kafkaesque examples of corporate comradeship were secretly scripted by Martin Lukes, as colleagues discuss amiably whether they have the required bandwidth [tr: enough people ] or if something's actionable [tr: we can get on with trying to sort it out, as opposed to get the lawyers involved], or suggest escalating an issue. I spent a lot of time drawing confused doodles in my Smythson notebook before I realised this had nothing to do with making things worse, but simply meant it should be pushed upstairs for someone higher in the food chain to deal with. One is tempted to feed in bonkers stuff, exhorting people to 'get the potato on the fork', though in this environment the response would no doubt be that they were following Atkins.

In truth, meetings here are - management-speak aside - remarkable for the rational, open, professional and timely way in which they're conducted, with plenty of emphasis on debate and frank discussion.

But lately, and particularly in the wake of the recent issues, the tenor of these meetings has changed. People no longer speak out, or up. There is no more debate, or disagreement, or sticking of the head above the parapet. There's a new meekness, a subservience, an interest in toeing the party line. But what was more astonishing than anything was the dramatic sartorial shift: at least three-quarters of the attendees were wearing suits. This is a magazine company, not the civil service: employees are used to expressing themselves through their clothes and having the freedom to wear what they want when they want, whether it's 'trying incredibly hard' high fashion or dress-down friday chino-chic. The lines between 'home' clothes and 'work' clothes had become eroded over the last 15 odd years to the point where people no longer had a work uniform. Jeans were commonplace - albeit those with a hefty price tag, and worn with fabulous shoes.

And yet, overnight, the dress code has changed, reflecting a new, cautious, serious mood.

It's not just here, it's all over town - reports suggest that even at the top end, bespoke tailoring has never been more in demand: it's one of the few fashion categories that's in double digit growth. When you're a hedge fund manager and your fund is making pots of money for the client, no one cares if you're dressed in Havaianas and a pair of cut off denim shorts. But now things are tighter, and people more risk averse, it seems only the seriousness of a made to measure suit will do to convey the seriousness with which you take the guardianship of your client's money.

It's as if some new sumptuary law has been put in place: the economy and people's uncertainty about their jobs has rendered decoration, individuality and flair in poor taste. Clothes are cut along austerity lines, in sober neutrals. Waists are nipped in. Fabric used with a parsimony not seen since Molyneux, Worth, Amies and the rest of the Incorporated Society of Fashion Designer united in 1941 to create thirty-four utility clothing designs, with the CC41 label (Civilian Clothing 1941) sewn inside.

In 1942, the British government issued the Civilian Clothing Order, which made illegal the decorating of clothing with additional buttons, embroidery, extravagant cuffs or other frills and furbellows.

But in 2009, it seems we are more self-regulating. And it's not merely 'street-fashion', a trend coming consumer up rather than designer down: the key looks on the A/W 09 ready to wear runways also had strong tones of tailored austerity chic, and with the exception of the price tag, could have come straight out of the pattern book of those 34 Utility designs.

Prada set the tone with its boiled wool dresses, with slim, belted waists and defined, tailored shoulders.

Even Lanvin took an unusually sotto voce, pared down approach to severe tailoring, albeit one with a defiantly sexy edge

And me? Despite bellyaching about the way meetings appear to be a viable alternative to real work, I'm sure I'll be as suited and booted as the rest of them before the next session in the boardroom comes around.

If you want to be seen to be waging war on economic armageddon, better make sure you're in the right uniform.