Note: This is hands-down the most enigmatic post I’ve ever written, not because of what it says but because of the effect it continues to have on other people. I wrote this in February of 2009, when I was not in a very good place mentally and I thought it would be a nice little chunk of mental vomit that a few women would relate to and we’d all move on. This post remains to this day the number one post that brings people to my site from search engines. It is the most active post comment-wise in my archives.
Almost weekly I get people sympathizing with, chastising, hating and lecturing two-years-ago me. Some people say Audrey absolutely did have an eating disorder. Others comment that there’s no way she was 103 pounds. Still others chalk it up to the deprivation she experienced during World War II. And there’s even one commenter who claims to be related to her. It’s bizarre. So I thought I’d share this post with you again on the off chance one of you can tell me what is still so compelling about a woman with a teeny tiny waist.
That’s right. My height. I’m nearly 5′ 7″ which may possibly be the one number I have always been quite happy with. I have never wished to be shorter and thanks to a weird complex I have where I always think I’m taller than everyone, 6 1/2 foot-tall men included, my height has always been a happy number for me. Good thing too since it’s not like it’s something one can really do much about.
My height also puts me in good company. Kate Moss is 5′ 6.5″. Angelina Jolie is 5′ 7″. Jackie Kennedy was 5’7″. And Audrey Hepburn, one of my favorite actresses and style icons, is my height exactly. (Well, she was anyhow. For those of you who missed the memo, she’s dead now. She died a few months before her 65th birthday of cancer.) Why do I care about other women’s heights? Because it gives me the information I need to compare myself. Sigh.
103 was Audrey Hepburn’s weight. 20 inches was the size of her waist. I found this out courtesy of one of the magazines I read that is supposed to promote health (in fact it even has the word “health” in its title so it must be true!). This same article also called Princess Di “normal” with a waist of “26” at her largest” and Kate Winslet “large” with a 28″ waist. But seeing as I do not share the coloring nor stylistic predilections of the tragic Di or the beleagured Kate, back to Audrey. It is said that all throughout her life and illustrious career, she made it a point to never exceed 103 pounds. And according to all sources, aside from her two pregnancies, she never did.
Let’s get real. 103 pounds (a BMI of 16.2) is a positively ridiculous number for someone of our height. Kate Moss, the Waif of all Waifs, is reported to weigh 114 pounds (BMI 17.9). Angelina Jolie, if you believe the tabloids, is near 110 (BMI 17.2). All are considered underweight to the point of it being a health risk. At my very sickest with my eating disorder, I never got as low as Audrey Hepburn maintained for her entire adult life. For me to get to 103 would require calorie restriction and exercise the like of which I dare not even imagine.
A 20-inch waist is also similarly extraordinary. One of my thighs is bigger than her waist. The only women that I know of that can even approximate that number are Vivien Leigh (Scarlett O’Hara) and Dita Von Teese, both of whom use highly restrictive corsets to achieve 18″ for the former and 16″ for the latter. Audrey’s waist was 20 inches even in a bikini. (For the record, it is reported that Dita’s uncorseted waist is a mere 21″.)
I know all this and yet I still pine for a 20 inch waist. Why would I do this? I am healthy – exceedingly healthy if you want to talk those kinds of numbers (you should see the blood pressure reading on this baby!) – so why aren’t I happy with that? It’s because deep down I yearn, like most women I think, to not just be functional but also to be beautiful. And I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder but for this beholder, Audrey Hepburn has always reigned supreme.
Part of my problem with this is that for everything that Audrey was known for in her life, being eating disordered was never one of them. She maintained an impossibly tiny figure without making herself ill. Good genetics, I suppose. And I imagine she was very careful with how she ate – there are certainly no records of her being a glutton. But here’s where the crazy voices kick in: Why does she get to be so thin and beautiful when for me that weight would earn me a one-way ticket to the mental health ward? Why doesn’t she look sunken-eyed and gaunt in any of her pictures? I lose 10 pounds and I have bones sticking out in all sorts of wrong places. And where did she put all of her internal organs? In her pocketbook?
I am embarrassed to say how much these numbers bother me. I have spent the last two days looking up corsets online and wondering if I could wear one under my gym tank tops without the Gym Buddies noticing (not likely) and still be able to breathe enough to do my cardio (extremely unlikely). I have been wondering if I ought to take out all oblique exercises just in case my crazy strong ab muscles are actually making my waist bigger – an assertion that Jillian Michaels uses in her book Making the Cut as her reason why she never does them – despite the fact that it would give me an unstable and unbalanced core.
There is a reason that comparisons are odious. Certainly I am stronger than Audrey, she being no fan of sport or exercise aside from dancing in her youth. And other than coloring (and height!), we share precious little with which to draw a comparison. So you would think that I could stop obsessing. But I can’t. I have admired her for so long that to learn that the reality of looking like her is so far out of my reach as to be a logistical impossibility feels terribly sad to me. A loss, even.
What do I do? How do I let go of the numbers? Has anyone mastered the art of not comparing? Seriously, somebody save me from myself (and also Women’s Health magazine).
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everythingfor more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!