Q: Which of these women is the right shape and size? Julie Burchill demands an answer

In the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, Louis B Mayer, head of MGM (More Stars Than There Are In The Heavens), kept a very strange chart on his wall. The chart kept a record of the menstrual cycles of the studio’s leading ladies: Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Grace Kelly. By consulting it, directors and cameramen knew when their precious cargo might be feeling a mite tearful and would ruin her make-up if spoken to sharply, or when her skin might not be in the best condition for a big close-up. It seems rather pervy to us, used as we are to actresses who are so very publicly precious about their privacy, but to judge from the way women looked in the films of the thirties, forties and fifties, it certainly worked.

In my most paranoid moments, I imagine that the editor of the Daily Mail has on his office wall a huge chart, complete with hundreds of coloured pins, exhaustively detailing the weight gains and losses of every woman in the public eye, from Jennifer Aniston to Catherine Zeta Jones. A wanton pound gained over a two-week holiday and the fearless tabloid cameramen will be there, aiming their zoom lenses at Baby Spice’s thighs and coming away crowing that, yes, at 23 she may be worth her age in millions, BUT SHE’S GOT CELLULITE! That’s THAT uppity little bitch sorted, then! Mission accomplished, the men can sleep soundly, until it’s time once more to drag themselves from their pit and look into the shaving mirror at a face surely only a blind mother could love.

What does it do for a girl, if she has the world at her feet and her head in The Face, but the bespectacled little bald man who does the night shift doesn’t fancy her? Starving herself might seem the safest bet. But wait! Here’s Calista ‘Ally McBeal’ Flockhart, in a sleeveless dress at Sunday’s Emmy awards ceremony, looking like something the cat dragged in after gnawing the flesh off it. Miss Flockhart is now so thin that her face has that heartbreaking imploding look usually associated with cancer and concentration camps – and anorexia. And far from approving, the Mail, with a straight face, mutters of ‘fears… an eating disorder… like a wraith… shocked onlookers… intense speculation… bulimia… anorexia… skeletal shape… excessively thin.’ Excessively thin. This from the newspaper that only a year ago was pillorying Emma Bunton aka Baby Spice about her alleged bulk. And Kim Wilde. And Debbie Harry. And me. And as for poor Geri Halliwell, forget it. This most luscious and lovely of young women has spent her entire career attracting insults which, had you never seen a photograph of her, would lead you to believe she bore a distinct resemblance to Roy Hattersley.

Poor Calista, too. In a grotesque example of life imitating art, her desire for approval led her to believe that the less space she took up, the more she looked like Daddy’s Little Girl, the more public admiration would mount. Unfortunately she seems to have taken it a kilo too far and will now be as deafened by the chorus of disapproval as if she’d put on so much weight that her thighs went to bed 10 minutes before she did.

The media, particularly the frigid, joyless, gynophobic mid-market tabloids (and, despite its woman-friendly overhaul, the Daily Mail is STILL the sound of a million net curtains twitching all across Surrey), feels very uncomfortable when a famous woman becomes too thin. She is their monster, after all, the logical conclusion of believing that you are only of value if you can still get into your school uniform – junior school, at that. Anorexic women blow the whistle on the idea that to be thin is automatically to be attractive – as if we needed more proof. At the Daily Mail, Ann Leslie berates the ‘fat’ Monica Lewinsky, while Lynda Lee-Potter seems obsessed with the weight of the incomparable Kate Winslet – just voted sexiest film star in the world by the red-blooded, mostly male young readers of the film magazine Empire. Funny, but I somehow can’t imagine Lee-Potter being drawn nude by Leonardo DiCaprio would put that many bums on seats.

To Let Oneself Go means both to neglect one’s looks AND to enjoy oneself big time; very appropriate. It is easy to come to the conclusion that an abiding fear of women’s capacity for pleasure – pure, selfish pleasure, not the kind derived from making others happy – is at the bottom of the obsession of what can only be called the Fat Police. Papers like the Daily Mail love to boast, rebels that they are, that they are Very Un-PC, but to harp on about weight gain is extremely cranky and Californian, very un-British, totally conformist.

The fear that women are becoming ‘out of control’ is an old one and many lifestyle choices have been demonised over this century because of it: smoking, drinking, cutting hair, contraception, single parenthood. Female promiscuity is the mother of them all, but no one really wants to criticise women for having sex before marriage any more; only 4 per cent of brides are virgins anyway and the Daily Mail would be calling virtually all its female readers sluts. Besides, men don’t want to have to go back to paying for it all the time – a certain amount of female promiscuity suits them fine.

But the need to control women, to make it clear to them that they are simply not allowed to do as they wish with their own bodies without facing a barrage of name-calling and public ridicule, has come out in the media’s attitude to the female body. It is no coincidence that a skinny woman became the ideal for the first time in the 1960s, at a time when women started complaining about their lot in unprecedented numbers, and that what is considered the ideal drops a dress size each decade as women take up more space in public life. OK, you can have your fancy management job, society seems to be saying, but make sure you take up as little room as possible. The more successful the woman, the thinner we expect her to be; that’s why pictures of Nicola Horlick were so surprising, this supremely high-flying woman with the Dutch doll face and the matronly body. (And, yes, Lynda Lee-Potter was there in the front row once more, pointing out how ‘fat’ she was.) Working hard at staying thin is the way the female public figure says: look at me, I may be rich and famous and successful, but underneath we’re all lovable, just like the bra advert, and we all need your (male) approval to feel good about ourselves. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, because I’ve really, really suffered to get this way. But it is the paradox of the paper dolls that in seeking approval and admiration, their sex appeal dwindles away with their flesh – see the Incredible Shrinking Minnie Driver – while the big girls, the Winslets and Barrymores, are currently the cream of the crop. Many things can be sexy, many shapes and many sizes, but neediness – whether for a square meal or the approval of the popular press – never has been and never will be.