Recently, controversy emerged surrounding the fashion industry, with claims that fashion runway models are “too thin.” Models are present internationally, in glamorous high-fashion print magazines, commercials, and on catwalks. They are frequently depicted as images for the “ideal” body frame for young girls, giving them a false impression of what they “should” look like, based on what they see within the media. Many of these models have an unrealistic body frame, as they are typically twenty-three percent below their expected body weight.
Unfortunately in 2006, two models faced untimely deaths due to complications with anorexia nervosa. This eating disorder is prevalent among many female models as they vie to keep up with the industry’s pressures to be thin and hold jobs. Former Brazilian supermodel, Ana Carolina Reston passed away in November of 2006, after being told she was “too fat” at a size 6. She then lived off of a diet consisting of tomatoes and fruit juice. Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos also suffered from anorexia nervosa, which at a size 00, was the cause of her tragic death in August of 2006.
Their shocking deaths forced the fashion industry to take a reality check. Madrid was the first fashion capital to try to combat this omnipresent issue on the runways. On September 13th, 2006, Madrid Fashion Week set a ban for underweight models. The healthy weight of models able to walk in the Madrid Fashion Week shows would have to achieve a healthy body mass index (BMI) number of 18 or above. No models that held a BMI under 18 would be allowed to walk during the week’s shows, and would be deemed “unhealthy.” Madrid’s political action against unhealthily skinny models soon snowballed, as it inspired the cities of Milan, Edinburgh, and the country of India to adopt the same 18+ BMI policies for their fashion weeks.
In January of 2007, the action towards healthier models reached the United States. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) met to discuss healthier guidelines for models within the fashion industry. They have collaboratively created a CFDA Health Initiative, where medical experts, nutritionists, fitness trainers, and over 100 designers and members of the CFDA serve on the committee that promotes wellness and a “healthier” working environment for models.
However, not everyone has been entirely supportive of the proactive measures to achieve healthier models. Critics such as Cathy Gould of New York’s Elite modeling agency were not thrilled with the new regulations. “I think its outrageous, and I understand they want to set this tone of healthy beautiful women, but what about discrimination against the model and what about the artistic freedom that the designer has,” Gould stated.
This dispute then spiraled into a larger issue, mainly between models health and a designer’s freedom of artistic expression. While one can understand that first and foremost fashion is a form of “wearable art,” and the models are merely “hangers” for the art, the designer holds the power to utilize their artistic freedom to elect what model they want. However, because of rising concerns regarding models health, more designers now support the CFDA health initiative and adopted healthy BMI policies.
Since this public issue emerged in 2006, some change has been present. However, the unrealistic goals set for models to be “skinny” has not changed. Back in 2003, a fresh-faced Gemma Ward made her debut on the runways, and she was soon drawn into the chaos of the fashion world. At 15, she was jetting across the world, up working late hours, running on very few calories and even fewer hours of sleep. Instead of going to high school dances and football games, she was attending lavish parties with world-renowned designers and appearing on international covers of Vogue Magazine. However, just like any other teenager, her body began to fill out as she grew up. In 2007, Gemma appeared on the Chanel runway show in a bikini where spectators noticed significant weight gain. The then 20-year old was put under speculation and scrutiny. She has not worked since and representatives from her modeling agency have explained that she is on a “hiatus” from modeling. While her weight gain to the fashion world seemed “drastic,” and ultimately ended her career as a supermodel, to many she now looks like an average 24-year-old.
Though there was excitement that the fashion world acknowledged the issue regarding their unhealthily unrealistic perceptions of weight, Gemma is the prime example of how nothing has seemed to change. Because she had grown up and her body developed, critics contributed to the demise of her modeling career. Unfortunately, stories like these only fuel other models to starve themselves, so they too can keep their job.
Thus, the issue remains that models resort to extreme measures to book jobs, despite the rise of the health initiative and its efforts. Some argue that designers hold the freedom of artistic expression to hire a certain “type” of model, and the implementation of healthy BMI’s would suppress their artistic freedom. However, others oppose the industry’s demand for thin models, putting their health at risk. Though the CFDA has composed a Health Initiative, and healthy BMI’s are now required for many fashion shows, do you think there will ever be reconciliation between designer’s freedom of artistic expression and the models health? Is there anything more that we can do to change the fashion world? Or, should we rather grant artistic freedom of expression to the designer, and allow them to use their discretion in deciding what model they want to use? After all, it is their clothes, so how can we place restrictions or implement ways in dictating how designers choose who gets to model their clothes?