Ellie Stewart

Ellie Stewart is a full-time Goldsmith’s MA student who is writing an experimental-form memoir blending poetry, prose, letters, diary extracts and images. It will explore the impact of childhood bereavement and inter-generational trauma, addiction and mental health. Ellie studied English & Philosophy BA at the University of Leeds and worked in the charity sector for seven years before starting at Goldsmith’s.
You can find more of her published work at

The Body Must Be Thin

In the yoga studio changing room, the women around me undress. I try to keep my eyes on my own belongings. I roll up my mat and put my water bottle into my bag – but I see the curve of their bodies in the curve of my eye. Their nakedness is inescapable. 

There’s not enough space. The women move around each other, brushing shoulders, touching arms, saying ‘excuse me, sorry…’ as they pull jumpers over their heads or reach to take coats from pegs. I twist myself up small to minimise the chance of being accidentally touched. 

I come here twice a week and it’s always like this. Heat and humidity from the hairdryer, the showers, and the bodies – all so close, sheened with sweat. I might pull off my socks, stand up, and face a pair of large, bare breasts. Or a woman will pull down her knickers, just like that, and walk across the room to the showers. Just – walk across the room, without any clothes on or even a towel. Once, a woman stood naked in front of the floor length mirror brushing her long hair. Gazing at her body, slowly brushing her hair.

The showers are in an open tiled space and steam billows into the changing room in clouds. The women wash themselves, fragrant soap running over their valleys and mounds. Sometimes I sneak a glance. Turn my head and for a moment see the women swaying in the dark blue room, like handmaidens to a goddess, water splashing about their feet.

When I see their shimmering orbs I hunch my shoulders around my own small breasts. Saggy, shrunken things flopped over the bars of my ribs. These women’s bodies – there’s so much of them. They ripple, they undulate. They jiggle. I feel creepy stealing glances, but I want to know: are their breasts symmetrical? Do they remove their pubic hair? Do their bellies have a roll? Answers: sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.

I wish I could be a whole woman with open arms, walking over the sand towards the sea. 

Feel the sun on my skin and allow myself to be audacious too. 

But what I know about exposure is disgust.


My fourteenth birthday was on Christmas Eve in the year 2000. Twenty-seven days later I watched my mother die of cancer. It had been a winter of starving – my mother slowly shrinking down to a skeleton. Her skin stretched across her skull, bones of arms sticking out from the sleeves of the white T-shirt that once was tight. I was frightened to hug her. Afraid she would snap. 

I wanted to believe she was getting thinner because she wasn’t eating enough. So I would take her portions of food while she wrote in her study. I’d lay down the saucer beside her and she’d say ‘thank you my darling’, and carry on writing. I sat with my father and siblings in the living room across the hall and watched TV. I wished she would join us. But she stayed in her study, wrapped in a pink dressing gown. Writing.

I was beginning to peel away from childhood but at fourteen I was still thin. I was thin like my brother and sister, thin like my mother, thin like my father. 

‘We’re a thin family,’ my father would say. 

He and my mother disliked the non-thin.

‘They’re making aeroplane seats bigger now because people are so fat!’ my father said, looking up from The Sunday Times.

‘People should just eat less,’ my mother said. ‘They shouldn’t be so greedy.’

My younger sister Elise came home from a swimming lesson, dejected.

‘The other girls say I’m too skinny.’

My father was proud.

‘You’re skinny like me,’ he said. ‘We’re a skinny family.’

Perhaps we were reflections of him when he was a child. When he was bullied at school and left at home by himself.

‘All I wanted was to have a brother or sister,’ he’d say.

I was born first in 1986. Elise followed less than two years later and then Chris arrived in 1990 when my mother was forty years old. I remember her standing in front of the bedroom mirror, her belly big, saying: ‘When is this baby going to come?’

Ten years later we buried her body on a hillside. 

We were sent back to school and her death was never mentioned. A-grades were expected, so I got A-grades. Thinness was expected, but my body had other plans.

The numbers on the scales I checked daily kept increasing. I was looking less and less like the others. Less and less like a child. Bulbs of flesh grew on my chest. My thighs thickened. Panicked, I cut out all the diet articles from Sugar and More! I saved an article about a new diet where you only ate raw vegetables. I exercised each day in my room.

My father qualified his refrain.

‘We’re a thin family: me, Elise and Chris.’

My name was dropped from the list. 

The scales kept creeping up.


At the yoga studio I walk up the stairs into the bright reception. I pull on my shoes and step out into the cold air. I would like a coffee and I know the café next door do great coffee, strong coffee. It will feel like a shot of adrenalin to my heart and spin me up, out of my body, before the comedown an hour or so later.

Am I allowed a coffee? Caffeine is bad. 

I stop outside the café. A man in a coat sitting at an outdoor table looks up at me.

But I’ll only have one today, I’ll only have one.

I walk inside, up to the young woman at the counter:

‘An Americano please, with oat milk, to take away.’

‘Of course. Anything else?’

Anything else. I look at the pastries laid out on the counter, glinting with sugar dust. I can’t have any of these. There’s a glossy ring of dough with a little handwritten sign that says ‘cronut.’

I say: ‘What’s a cronut?’

‘It’s a cross between a donut and a croissant.’

I say: ‘Wow!’

There’s no way I’m having a cronut.

‘Just the coffee, thanks.’

I keep my eyes on the cronut as she finishes making my coffee. 


On my fifteenth birthday I bled for the first time. I stood alone in the bathroom on the top floor of our house. The winter light filtered in through the skylight and the scarlet coiled in the toilet bowl. 

I had a book that my mother had given me: ‘The Period Book: Everything you don’t want to ask (but need to know)’. It was American, full of chirpy illustrations and bite-sized advice. If your parents are divorced, no problem. When you’re staying at your dad’s house, write a letter to him telling him how you feel. He can write you one back. 

I wrote a letter to my father and told him I was scared. I put the letter in my desk drawer and pushed it shut.

That April we drove to Gloucester to see my great aunt Peggy. She was my mother’s aunt and our only other relative in the UK. The rest were in New Zealand, specific whereabouts unknown. 

Two hours into the journey my father pulled off the motorway into the Welcome Break car park. This was a chance for a loo break and snacks. He, Chris and Elise bundled out of the car. As I stood on the concrete ground, I felt a wetness in the seat of my jeans. Between my legs was a dark stain.

My family walked away towards the service station. I just stood there. All I could say was: ‘Oh no.’

I’d made a terrible mistake.

I said: ‘Oh no’ again, louder.

My father turned.

‘What is it?’ he snapped.

I said ‘oh no’ over and over.

‘What IS it you STUPID girl?’ 

Angry heat reddened my face.

‘I’m NOT a stupid girl!’ 

That hung in the air for a moment.

Then, small again, I gestured to the back of my jeans and the wet on the car seat. 

‘…my period…’

His face dropped.


A pause.

‘Get back in the car you two,’ he said to my brother and sister. 

They did as they were told.

There was no loo break and no snacks. He got a plastic bag from the back of one of the seats – tucked there in case we got carsick – and I was instructed to sit on it for the rest of the journey. I pulled my seatbelt round me as the plastic bag crackled. I turned away from Elise who sat on the other side of the car.

My father drove down the motorway.

‘Didn’t you know you had your period?’ he said, eyes on the road.

My throat closed up with shame. 

He was right: I was a stupid girl. I should have used a sanitary pad AND a tampon. 

My mother agreed.

‘You stupid girl – look what you’ve done!’ she said, even though she was dead.

We reached Churchdown, a village outside Gloucester with one shop, one orthopaedic practice and nothing else. My father turned onto Chosen Drive. I watched the identical brown houses pass by as we drove up to Peggy’s. I clenched my stomach muscles tight. 

As my father pulled into the driveway at the end of the cul-de-sac, I heard the furious yapping of Peggy’s black poodle. It was always incensed when visitors arrived. Peggy stepped out of the side door to greet us with ‘Hello! Hello, my darlin’s,’ in her Gloucestershire accent. From inside the car I watched my father stoop down to give her a hug and tell her what had happened. She looked panicked.

I got out of the car. Suddenly it was an emergency.

‘Quick, get your jeans off,’ she said.

She hurried me through the kitchen, past the hedgehog ornaments on the shelf in the hallway, and into the tiny downstairs loo. It smelled of bleach and floral soap. I pulled off my bloodied jeans and passed them to her by opening the door a crack. I took out my soaked tampon and wrapped it in toilet paper. The doll that sat on the cistern watched me with her unblinking eyes. Her plastic Barbie legs sat in the toilet roll tube and her knitted green dress covered the paper. 

I took off my stained underwear – I’d have to give those to Peggy too. I wiped the blood on the gusset with more toilet paper and rubbed at the stuff that had dried onto the inside of my thighs. I put on clean underwear and a new pair of jeans. 

When I came out, Peggy was vigorously scrubbing away at my jeans over the kitchen sink. The sudsy water was red. My father stepped past me into the living room and didn’t look me in the eyes. 


I walk down the road to Sainsbury’s Local holding my coffee. I don’t have make-up on, but the yoga mat on my shoulder makes this OK. It signals to people that I only look like this because I’ve been to yoga – I wouldn’t normally go outside with my face bare. 

My lunch should be mainly vegetables and protein: this is a rule. I head to the vegetable aisle, and squeeze the avocados until I find one with just enough yield. Tomatoes. A can of chickpeas. A wholemeal roll. 

On my way to the tills I head down the confectionary aisle. The brightly coloured candy packaging catches me, makes me stop. A green frog on a purple background smiles widely at me.

A Freddo. 

A Freddo is only small…

I imagine the sound of the chocolate snapping as I bite off Freddo’s head. The melting sugary goo on my tongue. The warmth in my stomach. 

I reach for the Freddo, but then I see something even better. 


I was sixteen years old and my mother had been dead for two and a half years. This was our third summer holiday without her. On a beach in Sicily a woman lay next to me, sunbathing topless. She was skinny and blonde. She had moved her striped umbrella aside so she could lie under the full force of the sun, browning herself like a fillet steak.

I kept my clothes on: a denim mini skirt and a turquoise strappy top. I sat on the white plastic sun lounger with my legs folded close to me. I wanted to hide my wide pale limbs, wishing they could be slim and tanned like the topless woman’s legs. I was reading a horror novel by Christopher Pike. The cover was black, with ‘PIKE’ in green shimmering letters, and a purple monster’s claw underneath.

A tanned man with a gym-body walked over to the topless woman, bent down and tickled her under her arms. She squealed and leapt up. He chased her across the sun-bleached beach. Her silicone breasts stayed firm on her bony chest; the nipples exposed to us and the children and the men selling ice cream and all the water and the sand.

Our hotel was at the foot of a rock face in Taormina and each evening we rode the cable car up to the medieval town. It crumbled over the top of the mountain and received the spray of the sea. In the evening it hummed and heaved with tourists. Restaurants were scattered down narrow streets and the low sun shone on the bells of white churches. 

That evening it was very warm. I was aware that my breasts wobbled in my turquoise top; the milky skin exposed. Every few minutes I pulled up my top and readjusted the straps. The sunbathing woman from earlier sat in the same cable car as us. She was wearing a mini skirt like me but now her breasts were encased in tight, white fabric. Her gym-body man had his arm around her and she looked tiny and smug.

We walked through the town looking for somewhere to eat as families and couples chattered around us. A daughter, daughter, son and father. Someone missing. 

I was ashamed that we couldn’t hide it. That people might feel sorry for us.

We found a pizzeria and sat down outside on the plastic chairs. My father ordered red wine for both of us, because I was sixteen now. That summer I had got drunk for the first time on Malibu and coke at a house party. It was the first night I’d kissed a boy, in the dark by a tree, or rather he kissed me – thrusting his thick tongue into my mouth and his hands down the back of my jeans. The next day he texted me to say he was sorry, but he liked someone else. 

Sat in the warm night with my father, I drank more red wine. I looked at our waiter and thought what beautiful dark skin he had, the angles of his face, his soft eyes. I laughed easily. 

We made our way back to the cable car. I was a little unsteady and forgot about pulling up my top. Two girls slightly older than me got into the cable car ahead of us and sat down. They were followed by a woman and her boyfriend – another big guy with big muscles. I sat down next to him. I felt like liquid, like the night air had me and I could go anywhere. I was vaguely aware of the two girls across from me, who were talking in German, giggling together. But I was more aware of the press of the man’s thigh on mine. 

We were all squeezed together so it could have been innocent. But I was sure I could feel the tension in his muscles; sure that he was choosing to push his thigh against mine. 

I moved my arm to my side so it was against his arm, and, ever so slightly, I pressed my arm against his. He pressed his back.

I hadn’t even seen his face but I was aware of the bigness of his body next to mine, the desire that crackled through his skin. Warm blood filled me. I want –

I want-

How I want –

The cable car bumped to a stop and rocked as we each hopped out. The man and his girlfriend walked away arm in arm; the giggling German girls not far behind. I followed my family to our hotel. My blood was still pulsing. I wished, wished I could have followed the man, found some dark space between buildings, reached up to him as he wrapped his arms around me, pressed his body against mine, lowered his head and kissed my mouth.

But as we walked along the hotel corridor my father turned to me and said:

‘You’re virtually falling out of your top, Ellie. Those German girls were laughing at you.’

My heart twisted. The air turned cold. 

I thought back to the German girls in the cable car and realised he was right. They had been looking at me – pointing, and sniggering. They had been looking at my breasts, wobbling over my top, so close to spilling out. 

I undressed in the hotel bathroom my sister and I shared. I glimpsed my naked body in the mirror. Big, round, fat. I understood my father’s embarrassment. 

I remembered the man in the cable car, the feel of the hair on his arm tickling mine. I must have imagined it – the electricity.

The next evening, I wore a skirt that fell well below my knees and a black top with long sleeves that only exposed my neck.

‘Do I look OK?’ I asked Elise.

‘You look really nice, Ellie,’ she said, and I think she knew, I think she felt my shame.

We met my father in the corridor.

‘Do I look OK?’ I said to him.

I wait – please please please please let me be OK

‘You look fine,’ he said, and turned away.

I breathed out.


I went to university in Leeds and found my freedom. I could eat whatever I wanted. I reduced my meals to one a day. I would have lunch, but in the morning and afternoon I snacked on Ritz crackers and satsumas in my room. 

My flatmate Kathy and I watched Gillian McKeith’s TV show You Are What You Eat and took notes. We made her soup recipe for lunch: frozen peas, onions, water. We sat at the table and spooned the green liquid into our mouths. Next to us our housemate Tom devoured a whole chicken, straight from the roasting dish.

In this way I whittled myself down to eight stone. 

One night I stood in the kitchen in a tight pink top, pouring Morrison’s own brand vodka into a mug. It smelled like petrol fumes.

Joanne, my friend from school, looked me up and down.

‘Have you lost weight?’ she said.

‘Yes!’ I said and did a twirl.

We went to Oceana: a club with four themed floors and men who groped us as we queued at the bar. My new thin body attracted a guy who came back to my room. He tried to flush the condom down the toilet and didn’t stay the night. 


In the summer I went home to Tunbridge Wells and briefly became the girlfriend of a boy named James. He was six foot six and played guitar. At school he had gone out with a beautiful girl called Emily. And then, impossible though it seemed, he chose me.

We lay in bed at his parents’ house, my naked body in the crook of his arm.

‘I remember the night I first met you at The Crosskeys,’ he said. ‘You walked in and I thought: wow! I asked everyone: ‘Is she taken?’ I couldn’t believe you were single.’

He chuckled at the memory.

I closed my eyes.

‘That wasn’t the first time we met,’ I said.


‘We met two years before, in town. After the Dunorlan Park fireworks.’


‘You and your friends were all going to the pub but I couldn’t go because I was still 17.’

He leaned back to look at my face, as if trying to place me in the town of my memory, in the dark, two years before.

‘Did we speak?’ he said.


He didn’t remember.

Of course he didn’t. On that night my hair had fallen in dark blonde waves and my weight was pushing ten stone. 


The autumn leaves blow down the street as I unwrap my chocolate bar. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Marvellous Creations jelly popping candy chocolate bar. The wrapper is purple, white and pink. I break off one piece of chocolate, fold over the end of the wrapper and push the rest into my pocket. 

One piece. 

I put the rectangle into my mouth. The chocolate melts slowly over my warm tongue. The sweetness trickles back down my throat and I swallow. A lady with a Yorkshire terrier passes me and I try to hide the pleasure on my face. I suck some more. Then I bite down hard and feel the squidge of the jelly sweets and the popping candy ping-ponging inside my mouth. Like they’re jumping with joy.

Too soon, the mini-fireworks are over and I can’t help swallowing down what remains of the candy. As soon as it’s gone, I want another piece. 

I walk a few steps further. I cross a road. I grip my yoga bag strap.

Fuck it.

I pull out the rest of the chocolate bar from my coat pocket and snap off another rectangle. I slide it into my mouth. I fold the wrapper over and put the chocolate bar back into my pocket. A few minutes later, I take it out again.

By the time I’ve reached home, I’ve eaten the whole thing. I run my tongue over the silver to pick up every crumb. I put my hand in my pocket and close my fingers over the empty wrapper. 

It crackles in my hand.