When an already slender Kate Middleton lost an estimated 20 lb. between her November 2010 engagement and April 2011 wedding, the reaction from a society that upholds size 00 as a fashion ideal was predictable: however did she do it? Rumours that her mother introduced her to a low-carbohydrate regime devised by French doctor Pierre Dukan catapulted the 30-year-old The Dukan Diet onto bestseller lists worldwide.
But Middleton’s rapid weight loss also gave rise to concern, particularly among those who remembered Prince William’s mother’s struggle with bulimia. Back in March, Belfast resident Heather Lindsay reportedly advised Prince William’s fiancée “not to lose any more weight” when she shook hands with her during a walkabout. Lindsay later reported Middleton laughed and said it was “part of the wedding plan.” At the time, few questioned that logic. The spectre of brides dropping several dress sizes before their big day is part of the wedding script, one even encouraged by reality TV shows like Bridal Bootcamp. And no bride was under more scrutiny than Middleton.
But the duchess of Cambridge’s disturbingly rail-thin appearance during her Canadian tour, one not fully captured by cameras, suggests the weight loss was more than wedding jitters. It was a subject of rabid discussion among journalists covering the tour, though rarely mentioned in their reports, primarily because the topic is not part of the fairy-tale narrative that William and Catherine embody—one that sells newspapers and magazines. One British journalist, a veteran royal watcher, puts it thus: “Her weight is simply not discussed.” Some reporters, especially women, are reluctant to engage in “body-snarking,” the common practice of criticizing women in the public eye for their physical appearance, and they’ve chosen not to add to the immense pressure the duchess already is under.
One person willing to voice concern, however, is Fabiola De Clercq, the founder of Italy’s Association for the Study and Research of Anorexia. “You only need look at the pictures from the current visit to Canada to see that she really has lost a lot of weight and that she’s bordering on anorexia,” she told the Italian news agency Adnkronos, adding, “the young duchess’s appearance risks becoming an advert for anorexia” and will influence young women routinely bombarded with unhealthy images of photoshopped models and starlets. But already Catherine is being cited as “thinspiration” on pro-anorexia websites.
“The skeletal ideal has become a norm,” says New-York-based cultural critic Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, who points out women in the public eye who waste away are applauded in the media, while those who fail to conform are ridiculed. In her book, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV, Pozner writes of the advent of the “lollipop,” a term coined in the 1990s to describe women with big heads atop stick-figure bodies, among them Friends stars Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox who were visibly skinnier at the end of the show’s 10-year run. Former Ally McBeal star Portia de Rossi writes in her memoir of developing an eating disorder to conform to the standard.
Similar pressures exist in royal circles. Wallis Simpson, the duchess of Windsor, led the rallying cry with the adage: “No woman can be too rich or too thin.” In her memoir, Sarah Ferguson recalls the pain that media taunts of “Duchess of Pork” and “Frumpy Fergie” caused her. And Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, who was chastised by a Swedish women’s magazine in the 1990s for appearing to have “eaten too many hamburgers,” was celebrated by the same publication as a style setter and frequent cover girl after her rapid weight loss—and before the palace announced in 1997 that she suffered from anorexia.
Pressures on Catherine are even more intense, with her body a vessel that serves two contradictory purposes: as a stylish new ambassador for the monarchy, she’s the most-watched clothes hanger in the world, which calls for hyper-thinness; yet she’s also required to produce the proverbial “heir and a spare.” Speculation is swirling that this latter task might be problematic. “When very young women enter the downward spiral of eating disorders, their future fertility is at risk,” says De Clercq. The veteran royal watcher is more explicit: “I doubt Kate can get pregnant at this weight.” That’s a story she’ll never write, even if the conversation about the pressure on women to take up less space is one we should be having.