This woman is an American size 0, a British size 4. This is California's new aspirational body shape. And it's coming our way
The Hollywood culture of skinny has spawned an entire industry, in which doctors, nutritionists, stylists and personal trainers all contribute to the idea that size zero is normal. Is this fashion gone mad or a mass cultural eating disorder? Kate Spicer reports from LA
The Denim Bar at the Fred Segal boutique on Melrose is where hot Hollywood goes to fit tiny bottoms into $300 jeans. On a Saturday afternoon, a blonde baby- woman is having a tough time coming to terms with the fact that “fat” is bulging over the tiny, 25in waistband of her skinny jeans. Pivoting this way and that in front of the mirror, she grabs at her “fat” in heart-racing, face-crumpling desperation. She has the barest covering of life-giving, nourishing, desirable fat; a tiny amount that just comes between her and the ribcage horrors of anorexia.
Her friend tells her she isn’t fat; I am so astonished that this whisper of a thing thinks she looks fat that I also tell her she isn’t; then the male assistant assures her she looks great. But she is inconsolable. In her mind, she is fat.
What passes for fat in LA now is little more than skin and bone. At stores such as Kitson, on Robertson Boulevard, a size above 6 (UK size 10) is a rare find. LA stylists point the finger at the media for constantly publicising weight gain and loss, so that it is now a cultural obsession. Whoever is to blame, the upshot is that, as one stylist puts it, “It’s now kinda hip to be incredibly thin.”
LA has long held the reputation of being the health-and-fitness capital of the world. What starts here inevitably ends up in the UK. There was a time not long ago when Bikram yoga, carb-free diets, fasting, weekly colonics and personal trainers were all laughable LA fads. Now, they are entrenched in the British health-and-fitness culture. Skinny is fast becoming a fascination in the UK — we already have our own skinny icon in the shape of Victoria Beckham, who joins Nicole Richie and her LA skeleton sisters on the internet’s pro-ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-mia (pro-bulimia) websites. These disturbing sites, also called thinspiration galleries, are full of messages from girls lauding Beckham and her ilk for their “beautiful, inspirational” body sizes.
Off the internet and on the LA streets, pencil-like slenderness, natural or otherwise, is the prevailing aesthetic among the late- teens to mid-twentysomethings in particular, but most women of a certain social or professional aspiration want or, more pointedly, are expected to be rail thin — ideally, the mythical size zero. The boobs- and-bum sexuality that once defined the LA aesthetic is over. When someone now asks, “Who did your breasts?”, it is as likely to be about a reduction as an enlargement.
Even New Yorkers are shocked. In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar, the actress Debra Messing said: “In New York, I’m a hottie. In LA, because I’m no longer a size zero, I’ve fallen out of favour.” Gwen Stefani, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sharon Stone, Juliana Margulies and Heidi Klum have all made similar comments.
The designer Michael Kors has said that New York women are “proud of starving down to a size 4 (UK size 8). In Hollywood, nobody breathes what size they are unless it’s a 2 (UK 6).” But a 2 is not good enough; Kors says he is sending more and more zeros to LA. There are sizes smaller than zero: double zero (the reported size of the Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria), negative zero, XXS, even negative 2. It is difficult to give British versions of these sizes — they are almost unthinkable. As the actress Jennifer Love Hewitt said on television recently: “When you are a size 2 and you are the fattest person in the room, that’s weird.”
This isn’t just dieting; this is more akin to a mass cultural eating disorder. Brooke Hailey, of LA’s New Directions Eating Disorders Center, says: “I have several personal trainers among my clients who are anorexic. More and more, I am seeing patients with bundles of disordered behaviours: over-exercising, overzealous exclusion of certain foods, the use of anti-anxiety medicines that also curb the appetite. Everyone wants to look like the LA girl — it’s the culture, and it’s very, very accepted.”
There is a vast industry of thin here in this city. Personal trainers who prescribe crazy regimes and cranky diets are treated like gods if they get the results people want. Cosmetic surgeons will perform liposuction as regularly as Botox — an insane proposition, given the eventual scarring, but it works, for now. As one woman explained: “You can get lipo on any part of the body now. It’s one fast way to go from slim to very slim.” Breasts are tricky. The fashion-conscious LA female with big fake ones is now downsizing to fit more sleekly into fashion.
The starting point seems to be the recent relationship between the Hollywood red carpet and the fashion world. Fashion requires the clothes-hanger model body to show off its clothes to best effect, so actresses without the freak racehorse physiques of the catwalk model have had to slim down.
Stylists have their part to play in this. Negar Ali, who has worked with Beyoncé and Naomi Watts, admits: “I have been guilty of getting frustrated with clients who are not a sample size.” Another — anonymous — stylist says: “If I get 20 samples, and 15 are too small for the client, she needs a very strong sense of self not to get caught up in it. Everywhere you look, there is someone slimmer, tanner, blonder. I know for a fact that it is nauseating being on the red carpet, gawked at by the world. It breeds deep self-scrutiny.”
Queen of the stylists is Rachel Zoe, who is responsible for turning Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Mischa Barton and others into global fashion icons. One gossip-rag journalist has said: “That girl Rachel Zoe definitely has something to do with [this trend]. I’ve seen her eat — and she doesn’t. It’s the classic ‘living for clothes, dying for fashion’.”
Zoe sports the same LA look — bone-thin glamour — as her clients. She has publicly denied playing any part in glamorising eating disorders (Lohan apparently confessed to having an eating disorder in Vanity Fair, but subsequently claimed the magazine had taken her words out of context. In the same magazine, Richie admitted that she was scared by her own drastic weight loss). The anonymous stylist says: “I’ve worked with Rachel all day on a shoot, and basically, she drank a giant latte and smoked a bunch of cigarettes.” Then she adds, respectfully: “She is a great stylist, though.”
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication such as Adderall can cause weight loss because of its rapid side effects. The telephone numbers of hooky doctors prepared to prescribe strange cocktails of SPAMMI get passed around among friends. In a changing room at a gym, I heard the following story: “Last year, someone gave my cousin this doctor’s number, for weight loss. She went to him and he gave her loads of SPAMMI: a mixture of prescription and supplements. My brother had a party, we’re drinking, and you would not believe the state she got in — she shat herself, wet herself, she was puking. Because of all those SPAMMI. He never told her not to drink.” Someone else in that changing room then said: “Have you got his number?”
It goes without saying that eating bread or pasta in LA is a social no-no. Italian food has had to be redefined: it now means steamed fish, lemon and salads. Even sushi has been modified — Jason Harley, the healthy chef of Hollywood, recently opened a restaurant on Sunset, where he works with “no oil, butter or cream; instead, herbs, broths, reductions and water. Our sushi comes three ways: normal; low carb, with a paper thin layer of skinny rice; and no carb, wrapped in lettuce”.
Harley says that celebrities “don’t really eat; they’re very picky”, but compared with “all those skinny LA girls”, the average celebrity appetite is hearty. “We have a joke that when we hand them the amuse-gueule, we say, ‘Your dinner’s here.’ Except it isn’t that much of a joke.”
Reaching size-zero “perfection”, or getting as damn close as possible, involves some degree of privation and extremely hard work. It is not enough to starve yourself; the LA look dictates that you look toned as well. Even though you are hungry, you need to go to the gym. Even Richie goes to the gym four times a week.
At Barry’s Boot Camp, in West Hollywood, the car park is full of giant black SUVs by 5.15am: that’s when the LA girls start arriving for the morning’s first class. By 5.25am, 40 of them will be running on treadmills and pumping iron in a dark, airless room, all focused on the relentless 45-minute workout led by Barry himself. “The town knows me as a hard taskmaster. I’m the hard-core drill instructor,” he says.
The phrase “sweating buckets” is no hyperbole here. The first three classes of the morning are all Academy classes. Academy clients sign up for a one-month programme, on which you are expected to show up five days a week. In truth, many of Barry’s clients are permanently on the Academy. “They come here to take off weight, get disciplined and push themselves into a great shape. Why? They get addicted to the stress relief, and I can give people the look they want: toned, strong, with no body fat.”
“Toned, strong, with no body fat” is the mission statement of countless service providers: personal trainers, gyms, detox and weight-loss centres, spas, cosmetic surgeons and doctors all chasing the dollars that women will spend to reach their clothing grail.
The trainers in LA all come with their own trademark nutritional advice. There was a slight atmosphere when talking to Barry and the co-owner of Barry’s Boot Camp, Rachel Mumford, about the evils of complex carbohydrates. Mumford is in her late thirties, with three kids and the body of a slender 20-year-old. She works out a minimum of five times a week. If you are exercising twice a day, as plenty of LA women do, surely you need the sustained energy-release of starchy carbs?
Mumford: “You can get everything you need from fruit and vegetables, if you need to keep your weight down. Every trainer says no to complex carbs.”
Barry: “You should have a gram of carbs per pound of body weight, and they should come from fruit and vegetables.”
What about brown rice? “Only before 11am,” Barry says.
For dinner, Mumford has “chicken, fish or egg whites with broccoli and tomato”. I’m really struggling to countenance a diet such as this. Barry says: “If you are happy being a size 4 (UK size 8) then that’s okay. But it’s also okay if you want to be skinny, as long as you are eating right. Thin can be in shape, because you’re carrying less body weight. A true Barry’s girl is a shining example of healthy LA women on the go.”
Mumford says: “This is extreme fitness for people who want to get as fit as possible. It’s for A-type personalities. Perfectionists.”
I mention that I have seen two of their morning clients at other gym classes in the evening. “Coming twice a day, it’s not a bad thing; it’s a healthy addiction to have,” Mumford says. Those same two girls I mentioned had laughed, “Hey! Are you an LA girl now?” when they saw me at my second class of the day.
Just down the road is Train, a private gym where a hundred personal trainers hone their furiously goal-oriented clients. At reception, I say I want a trainer who can help me get thin. I say I really like the way Nicole Richie looks. “It’s a little bony for me,” he says, “but I know what you mean. Visible clavicles and hip bones, that sort of a look?” He writes down a list of trainers who deal in that sort of body.
The boot-camp approach is popular. It can have great results, according to Mimi Golnaraghi, who lost 21lb in three months and wound up, at 5ft, just over six stone. “I wasn’t as skinny as Nicole Richie, probably more the size of Hilary Duff. I had to get a boob job because I could no longer fit into the smallest bra size.”
But Golnaraghi’s experience also left her with no periods, a thyroid problem and IBS. “I went to my trainer two hours a day, five days a week for a year. I paid $550 a month. His schtick is, ‘I take your body, strip it of fat and then add muscle.’ His diet plan takes you into a state of ketosis [the state in which the body burns fat as fuel in the absence of carbohydrates]. My daily diet was, breakfast: egg whites and rocket; lunch: chicken breast and vegetables; dinner: egg white and rocket.
“Every day, he checks your pee for glucose levels, to make sure you are in ketosis. If you aren’t, he calls you a fat-ass. You don’t show up if you’ve eaten bread.
I once drank a can of full-sugar soda, thinking it was diet. When I realised, I started crying hysterically and rang him. He told me to calm down and immediately get on the treadmill for an hour.”
But perhaps more surprising than all the trainers, surgeons, diet centres, juice-fasting gurus, colon-cleansers, cranky nutritionists, yoga centres and fat- and carb-free dining is that the most basic weight-loss tools known to woman are back in town. You know there has been a critical shift in the culture when people start smoking and drinking coffee again. Caffeine and nicotine, in California? As the anonymous stylist says: “Skinny isn’t just a trend; it’s the culture now.”