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How the Fashion Industry Is Killing Women

The pressure on models to be thin—and the resultant pressure on girls, boys, women and men to conform to an unattainable ideal—is immense.

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The day-to-day stress of modeling is considerable, chiefly because all but the most famous are easily disposable. If a model doesn’t fit into designers’ samples, an agency can simply bring in a thinner replacement, and the ousted model has no channel for redress. Dutch model Marvy Rieder, 31, explains, “If you want to work, you have to fit into the clothes. That’s not something your agent has to tell you; you come up with it very quickly yourself.”

Though modeling has often been cast as a glamorous occupation epitomized by jet-setting socialites like Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen, very few models are able to achieve such a degree of celebrity or financial security. “You have to realize that modeling is like a pyramid,” says Rieder. “The majority of the models are at the bottom of the pyramid. It is a huge layer of really nice, really beautiful girls who cannot make a good living. I compare it to top athletes. They have a period of time when they peak, and then it’s over.”

Rieder, whose marVie Foundation provides health guidance for models through workshops and trainings, points out that in this survival-of-the-thinnest vocation, runway models in their twenties must compete with 15- and 16-year-old girls. “When I was 15 years old,” she says, “I was just thin, and I could eat anything. But every girl…develops a female figure. From then on, the pressure increases. You have to stop the natural growth of your body to stay the same.”

Rieder’s long tenure in the profession has emboldened her to defy the compulsion to sacrifice health for work. She recognizes that her adult body no longer meets the strict expectations for models who walk the glitziest international runways.

Struggling against nature, some models turn to decidedly unnatural weight control methods like laxatives, self-induced vomiting and fasting. When those weight control methods metastasize into a full spectrum eating disorder, models face more serious risks than unemployment. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, and often deadly ones. Anorexia has the highest rate of mortality of any mental illness, at around 20 percent. Eating disorders are more than two times more prevalent in the United States than Alzheimer’s disease, although funding for anorexia research is less than one-fiftieth of that for Alzheimer’s research.

The causes of eating disorders are not entirely understood, but models are exposed to a conflagration of risk factors. Harriet Brown, a professor at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, is the author of Brave Girl Eating , a memoir about her daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder. “You’re often triggered by a perfect storm of things, genetics, puberty, hormones and cultural factors among them,” she says. “In fact, it’s less about triggers and more about aggregation.”

Models are often discovered at age 14 or younger, at a time when their bodies—and their feelings about their bodies—are in a state of flux. In 86 percent of reported cases, the onset of an eating disorder occurs before age 20. Compound the susceptibility of youth with a profession that entails continual—and competitive—monitoring of body measurements, and it’s no wonder so many models fall victim to eating disorders. “Every model is afraid of being measured,” says Rieder. “Every model is afraid of the centimeter.”

From runway to living room

That fear is not confined to the world of sample sizes and catwalks. According to The Journal of Adolescent Health , 81 percent of American 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Of course, very few 10-year-olds attend runway fashion shows. Instead, they—and Americans of all ages—get their “thinspiration” from a variety of media, among them ads for all manner of consumer goods that invariably feature tall, stick-thin models.

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