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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 physical ideal established by models on the runway, in ads and on reality TV does not translate directly to eating disorders, but it affects us, both as emotionally vulnerable beings and as consumers. Dr. David B. Herzog, director of the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at the Massachusetts General Hospital, has advised the CFDA on matters of model health. “Most people who look at pictures of high fashion models do not develop eating disorders,” he says. “In the people who develop eating disorders, there’s a sizeable percentage that have little interest in fashion. It is not at all a direct correlation, but the thin ideal that the industry has had a role in developing … has a big impact on how people feel about themselves.”

As part of a wider trend, the fashion industry’s perceived endorsement of thinness at any cost promotes unhealthy eating practices that, in individuals with existing risk factors, may manifest themselves as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or other partial- or full-spectrum eating disorders. Some types of disordered eating may progress to obesity; others may lead to severe malnutrition or death.

Where responsibility lies

So, who’s to blame? The problem can’t be fixed until the culprit is determined. Therein lies the roadblock. No one component of the fashion industry seems poised to instigate change.

Modeling agencies are most profitable when they provide the thin models that are popular with designers. Often those designers are gay men whose standard for physical beauty eschews feminine curves. Designers contend that they aren’t to blame because all the models are so thin that they are forced to tailor clothing to skeletal frames. Advertisers and manufacturers of a vast spectrum of products profit from existing standards.

Models fear they will be easily replaced by a thinner alternative if they do not conform to the sample size, which is sometimes an American size 00, which is, incomprehensibly, one size less than 0.

The CFDA’s tight-lipped response to questions from In These Times was echoed by fashion magazine editors, designers and modeling agency representatives. All declined request to comment.

The CFDA has received flak for not ensuring model health with stricter regulations, but it is not properly equipped to resolve the issue on its own. Claire Mysko, former director of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association, puts it this way: “The CFDA is not a union. They don’t have the resources to enforce guidelines, and it would take a system to be in place for that to happen.” Even if the CFDA were to address model health in a meaningful and specific way, as several organizations devoted to eating disorder awareness already have, it has no regulatory authority to implement such directives. The AED, EDC and other advocacy organizations have offered the CFDA their help, but have received no response from the industry.

Herzog cautions against demonizing the industry. “The question I always get asked is, do I really believe these fashion leaders are serious about change, or do I think I’m being used? I would suggest that they actually are interested in making changes. It’s just that it’s hard to get all the various parties on board, especially in such a competitive industry,” he says. “I do believe, though, that this industry has a responsibility to create healthy images for the public at large.”

For the fashion industry to fulfill that responsibility, both to its models and to the public that consumes its products, it will have to undertake comprehensive changes, and in the process go up against entrenched beliefs about the role and purpose of fashion models. Mysko and model Magali Amadei, authors of Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? , suggest that models form a union that could empower them to negotiate the terms of their contracts without fear of losing jobs to an endless stream of ever-thinner—and more desperate—hopefuls.

 
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