How the Fashion Industry Is Killing Women
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An inadequate response?
Advocacy groups cried foul. Weeks before the release of the Health Initiative, in an unprecedented joint effort, three of the most prominent organizations of their kind in the United States, the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC), the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) had formulated their own set of guidelines for the industry.
Their guidelines included a minimum BMI requirement of 18.5 for models over 18 and a graduated system of BMI requirements for younger models. They called for the development of “action steps to identify models in need of intervention.” And they proposed an outright ban on airbrushing photos of models to create unrealistically thin images. Furthermore, the AED urged the industry “to institute regular, yearly medical evaluations and developmentally-appropriate medical and psychological screening and assessments for all models.”
These nonprofit advocacy groups volunteered their own resources to assist the fashion industry in implementing the above proposals. While they have scant financial resources, these groups do serve to network physicians and other eating disorder experts. Conversely, what the multi-billion dollar fashion industry lacks in medical expertise, it compensates for in revenue. In an e-mail to In These Times , Cynthia M. Bulik, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program and former president of the AED, wrote: “We have the advocates, we have the brainpower, we have the ability to help build and evaluate programs, but our meager dollars couldn’t come close to the depth of their pockets!”
That seemingly fortuitous partnership has yet to become a reality. The CFDA Health Initiative fails to include some of the bolder recommendations of the eating disorder activists. Indeed, preemptively addressing any such criticism, the Initiative reads: “The CFDA Health Initiative is about awareness and education, not policing. Therefore, the committee does not recommend that models get a doctor’s physical examination to assess their health or body-mass index to be permitted to work. Eating disorders are emotional disorders that have psychological, behavioral, social, and physical manifestations, of which body weight is only one.”
Eating disorders are complex psychiatric disorders, but some experts worry that without concrete screening methods the Health Initiative will be ineffectual. “You can’t tell someone’s health by the BMI. It is not a perfect indicator. But the American fashion industry did not refuse to use BMI because they don’t think it is a good indicator. They basically tried to take the teeth out of any real standards,” says Jennifer L. Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News (WIMN). “Anything that would change the industry and hold them accountable in ways they could not deal with, they rejected.”
In These Times asked CDFA if it has taken any specific measures to ensure the effectiveness of the Health Initiative and why it was not requiring a doctor’s evaluation to ensure that models are in good physical health. Christine Olsen, CDFA’s manager for public relations and special events, refused to answer, saying only, “We do not have a statement to add at this time.”
Doctors’ evaluations and screening models based on BMI are not foolproof ways to detect eating disorders, but they do have potential benefits. “[The screening methods] can definitely reduce the pressure on models to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors,” says Bulik. “They also help protect the consumers of the fashion industry from constantly being barraged by images of unusually thin women.”
High standards of beauty
The pressure on models, both female and male, to be thin—and the resultant pressure on girls, boys, women and men to conform to an unattainable ideal—is immense. Because a model’s professional success depends almost entirely on appearance, models obsess about their bodies. Yet the physical standards that models feel pressured to meet are unrealistic. A 2002 Centers for Disease Control report found that the average American woman is 5’4” and weighs 163 pounds; in 2006, it was estimated that the average female fashion model is 5’9” and 110 pounds.