Battling Anorexia Through Fashion Week

Fashion Week in New York has spawned all kinds of conversations about models, thinness and anorexia — including this op/ed in the New York Times urging the fashion industry to promote healthier bodies. The paper makes the important point that the thinness seen in many models isn’t natural, and that these women are being pushed to dangerous extremes:

If the industry needed a wake-up call, it got one last month, when Luisel Ramos, an Uruguayan model who had been advised to lose weight, died of heart failure after taking her turn on the catwalk. She reportedly had gone days without eating, and for months consumed only lettuce and diet soda.

I don’t think anyone expects industry standards to shift immediately. But Madrid has given us some hope, although I’m not sure they go far enough — as Aimee Liu points out in the LA Times, these women need help, not rebuke. While the best-of-the-best fashion models are making a lot of money, the majority of runway models are relying on their bodies for simple survival, and generally aren’t going to be able to check themselves into a treatment center when doing so is expensive and may damage their career. There must be incentives for models to strive to reach healthier weights, and there must be structures in place to help them with disordered eating.

These structures must also be put in place for “regular” women with eating disorders. The vast majority of anorexics and bulimics are not models; they certainly deserve access to treatment as well. But too often, treatment is expensive, inaccessible, not covered by insurance, or only partially covered.

Conversations around this topic are important, but they can be frustrating, as they often devolve into judgmentalism about which bodies are beautiful and shaming women who don’t fit a particular standard — who aren’t skinny enough, or who are too skinny, or who risk their health in order to keep their jobs. Critiquing the systems and social expectations that drive women to this behavior is fine (and when talking about eating disorders, that should obviously also be balanced with discussing genetics and psychological issues). So to preempt any of that, I’ll ask that in the comments section, we focus our discussion on the broader issues, without making comments about our personal opinions about the physical attractiveness of runway models, or skinny women, or fat women, or our ideas of what anorexic women look like.

All that said, I’m at least glad that a paper like the New York Times is covering this issue, and deeming it important enough to editorialize.


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11 comments for “Battling Anorexia Through Fashion Week

  1. Kim
    September 22, 2006 at 10:31 am

    It all boils down — IMHO — to making Beauty less important. Most men don’t freak out if they don’t have abs like Tyson Beckford, but nearly every woman ever has beat herself up at some point about not having so-and-so’s hips, etc. We need to make other things more important, somehow. (Not saying I know how to go about it exactly.) It’s just weird that with all of the very worthy professions out there — being a scientist or some other intellectually impressive profession — modeling still gets billed as the end-all, be-all of female jobs. (And like Jill said: most of the models that are in Vogue and on runways would only just make a living on what they pay: surely other jobs would be more lucrative.)

    And the craziest thing about the beauty culture is that you’ll never be good enough. People can compliment you all day long, but only the negative comments seem to stick. I do a little modeling– not high fashion mind you, just some print/calendar whatever — and even that sort of “recognition” that you’re this-much attractive is just a drop in the bottomless Beauty bucket.

    How do you make people value other things about women? Like…the IMPORTANT things?

  2. September 22, 2006 at 11:06 am

    Kim, I think you just hit the nail WHAP BAM on the head in describing the problem.

    I don’t know what to do about it either, though (I’m a scientist myself, yet have been known to burst into tears because I feel like such an ugly yeti).

    Do you think it would help to have unrealistic beauty ads etc. labelled as such? Something along the lines of ‘These images of women have been manipulated, do not take them seriously’? Plenty of other products – diet foods, medicines, financial products – are compelled to include warnings to protect consumers.

  3. Sally
    September 22, 2006 at 11:48 am

    (And like Jill said: most of the models that are in Vogue and on runways would only just make a living on what they pay: surely other jobs would be more lucrative.)

    I dunno. One of the interesting things about the modeling industry is how globalized it is, at least at the high end. If you look at the models who are featured in magazines right now, not very many of them are from rich countries. A lot of them are from Eastern Europe. I could swear I actually read a quote from someone in the fashion industry who posited that Eastern European girls are more beautiful because childhood malnutrition gave them particularly sculpted cheekbones. (This is also a theory I’ve seen regarding London in the ’60s: the girls had great legs because there was rationing when they were children, and that created a particular tall, lean body. I don’t think the theory makes any sense, but it’s fascinating in its complete perversity. My grandmother was malnourished as a child, and she ended up being 4’10” and having osteoporosis. But somehow models get the good, tallness-promoting, beauty-enhancing kind of poverty. I hadn’t realized that material deprivation makes one pretty.)

    So anyway, I think many models are women who don’t have tons of economic opportunities and who know that there aren’t more lucrative jobs open to them. I think there’s also a sense in which ordinary women’s obsession with beauty is rational, if damaging. People really do judge you on it, even if they don’t realize they’re doing it.

  4. Mikey S
    September 22, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    Regarding the malnutrition theory – I don’t know if it’s true, but it doesn’t have to work often to have that effect. Say 99.9% of people are horrifically damaged by it, the 0.1% leaves plenty of people with cheekbones to apply for modelling jobs and benefit from it.

    Where did that story come from? It really seems to be about the creepiest thing about the fashion industry I’ve ever heard. It’s one thing to call models gaunt and comment that they appear malnourished, but the fact that the *are* in a very real way, for economic and not social reasons – is, like you said, perverse.

  5. Sally
    September 22, 2006 at 2:05 pm

    Where did that story come from?

    I think it was in one of the British fashion mags in July or August, but I’m not sure. I’ll see if I can hunt it down. I haven’t taken out the recycling in a while.

    (Don’t shoot! I like fashion magazines, and I had to do something during a really long flight.)

  6. pigeon
    September 22, 2006 at 7:28 pm

    the need for affordable treatment is a big one for me. and by affordable, i mean both that the sufferer can afford to pay for the treatment itself, and can afford not to work while she’s there &/or won’t lose her job because of it. i knew a woman who could only afford treatment through her insurance, which she got through her work. except, taking a leave from her work (she wasn’t even getting fired, she had a pretty supportive work environment) meant she lost access to her health insurance until she resumed her position. it was the most ridiculous catch-22 — you have to work to have the insurance to be able to get treatment, but if you get treatment, you can’t work, and thus have no insurance and can’t get treatment.

    the idea of incentives really appeals to me. i’ve had a few friends whose work-places held them accountable for their health in order to keep working there. it was especially reassuring that two of these friends were professional dancers whose companies told them they wouldn’t let them dance if they were medically unstable. it wasn’t a get-healthy-or-you’re-fired so much as we won’t enable or encourage you to be unhealthy. i’ve also known women who worked in social services/mental health fields whose work-places encouraged and supported them in getting help. sadly, i think those are very much exceptions to the rule though.

  7. Kim
    September 22, 2006 at 11:34 pm

    Miss Prism,

    I think that it doesn’t have anything to do with labels. If people were less consumed with the desire for beauty, the unrealistic stuff would pass away. If it wasn’t the most important thing ever, no one would starve themselves to death in order to achieve an unnatural body. Just as it’s not super important to be a genius, so people aren’t killing themselves to get incredibly smart.

    Sally,

    I’m not the expert, but from what I hear of girls who do runway/fashion mag stuff in New York, by the time the reps take their cut, they make maybe a few hundred bucks. Which is a far cry from what Naomi and company make. (Most of those richly dressed non-world famous models you see out and about either have a rich father… or a rich daddy. Which… is another issue for another time.)

    Now, maybe in a poor country, that’s the best you can do. But here in the states, it’s recognized that status modeling jobs (which excludes most catalog work and its ilk) doesn’t pay a living wage. And eventually, you’ll be too old for the market and have to move on to something else. It seems silly to put all your eggs in that basket.

  8. September 23, 2006 at 5:31 am

    My understanding was that as a result of rationing, the average Briton was actually healthier at the end of WWII than before the war started. The health upswing was most dramatic and measurable in impoverished urban children (i.e. from the slums). As a result of rationing, there was less unhealthy food available and rations of various types of foods were established by consultation with nutritionists. If you’ve got a coupon which allows you to buy something healthy, you’re probably going to use that coupon, even if it’s not something you would’ve bought under normal conditions. Plus, there were strict price controls along with rationing, which made healthy food more affordable for the poorest people. So the food may not have tasted very good, but it was actually good for you, especially for children.

    As for Eastern European girls having the best cheekbones because of malnutrition, um, how about the fact that there is a typically Slavic facial structure which is more common in Eastern Europe? I’ve known quite a few high-cheekboned immigrants from Eastern Europe. Doesn’t always go along with a slim figure, and isn’t always a guarantee of a conventionally pretty face, but if that type of bone structure is more common in people of a certain ethnicity then maybe childhood nutrition or the lack thereof ISN’T the deciding factor.

  9. Jean
    September 23, 2006 at 9:07 am

    Conversations around this topic are important, but they can be frustrating, as they often devolve into judgmentalism about which bodies are beautiful and shaming women who don’t fit a particular standard — who aren’t skinny enough, or who are too skinny, or who risk their health in order to keep their jobs.

    I’ve been reading about this topic all over the feminist blogs, and I’ve been kind of horrified to read tons of descriptions of how awful people think these models look, instead of talking about ways to change the structure of the fashion world so that models are not required to starve themselves in order to keep their jobs, or, as you say, implement affordable treatment for recovery from eating disorders.

    Part of the wall we seem to be coming up against here is that we don’t know who to blame – although it’s clearly not the models – is it the agencies? the designers? the magazines? It’s so ingrained into the system that I think the idea that models have to be super-skinny supports itself at this point. So how do we target that?

  10. pigeon
    September 23, 2006 at 11:16 am

    kim,

    If it wasn’t the most important thing ever, no one would starve themselves to death in order to achieve an unnatural body.

    that might be true in the realm of modeling — our cultural beauty ideals certainly do manifest themselves through models and advertising — but i think it misses that mark for anyone else suffering from an eating disorder, often including those models. that eating disorders are connected to/affected by mainstream beauty ideals is undeniable, but i don’t think you can say that eating disorders are caused by those ideals.

    jean,

    Part of the wall we seem to be coming up against here is that we don’t know who to blame – although it’s clearly not the models – is it the agencies? the designers? the magazines? It’s so ingrained into the system that I think the idea that models have to be super-skinny supports itself at this point. So how do we target that?

    i feel like that’s where most of us get stuck. i guess i try to break it down into separate inter-connected categories. part of me has always imagined this sort of beauty boycott revolution. women organize to stop buying products by X-brand(s) whose advertising we find unacceptable, boycott leads brand to look for more profitable advertising, thus demands different models, which require the agencies to sign models of largers sizes and designers to make the appropriate clothes. a new beauty ideal would emerge out of new media & advertising.

    i don’t think it’s actually that simple (because we would have done that by now if that were all we had to do, right?) but it’s the closest to a solution i’ve managed to come up with.

  11. September 23, 2006 at 10:31 pm

    But Madrid has given us some hope, although I’m not sure they go far enough — as Aimee Liu points out in the LA Times, these women need help, not rebuke.

    My understanding was that in madrid, when they measured the models BMI they also had health proffessionals and doctors on hand for those who were seriously underweight. I don’t know what Spain’s health system is like re affordability but I think this shows that they seriously addressed their concerns about underweight models.

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