The Skinny: A job that ultimately kills

December 2, 2011

Political Theory


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.

Ana Carolina Reston, left, and Luisel Ramos on the runway just months before their tragic deaths

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.

Models are told not to be “anorexic” but simply “look it”

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.

Should models starve themselves to keep a job that ultimately will kill them?

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.

Gemma during her "It Girl" phase in 2004, and pictured on the 2007 Chanel Runway in the outfit that ultimately ended her career as a supermodel

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?

About sbsmoler92692

University of Michigan Student

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4 Comments on “The Skinny: A job that ultimately kills”

  1. emmaknev Says:

    For many years now we have been aware of the problem of Anorexia among models in the fashion industry, but nothing has changed. I think the CFDA has the right idea, and I support every designer who endorses it. Obviously, young girls see these skinny models and try to be just like them because they are considered beautiful by society. What they don’t realize is that the model’s lifestyle is extremely unhealthy, and isn’t something that should be looked up to. They sacrifice their health to do their job; but then again, isn’t that common among other professions too? Perhaps for models it is to a higher extent because of the pressure that their careers put on their appearance. While in other professions people act unhealthily and gain weight, models lose weight instead. Health is always a top priority in people’s lives because without it, how are we supposed to function? I think that while designers have a right to choose whatever models they want for their shows, if models band together and decide to live a healthier lifestyle, designers will be forced to choose from all healthy models. I feel that this would be good for society as well, because young girls could look up to healthy women, not anorexic ones.

  2. Matthew Vlasic Says:

    Just as the first commenter asserted, I think that designers should have the power to pick their own models because they are fulfilling their personal visions of fashion and presenting them on the models. These models embody the type of beauty under their designs that they prefer to present. Designers use very thin models because they think if will make their work look better and while, in my opinion, this is sad and somewhat ridiculous, it’s their decision. I think that we cannot take this right away from them, but I also think that people should take it upon themselves to start advertising their designs and high fashion with healthier models. This would benefit society as a whole and the models because people wouldn’t strive to be so skinny and models could focus on maintaining their shape, while not trying to be exceedingly skinny. Ultimately, I don’t think any restriction can be implemented on the models who designers use because it is their decision, but people need to realizing that being too skinny is not the message we want to send to children and the rest of society. Hopefully, a new generation of designers will take the initiative to use healthier models who evoke the beauty of their fashion just as effectively (and obviously much more healthy) as the models that are simply just too skinny. The fashion world can be changed by creative, new designers breaking the mold. This will be hard, but there are a lot of smart people out there who can attain positions of high power in the fashion world and hopefully these people will be smart enough to realize that models should be healthier.

  3. jillburnette9 Says:

    The fact that fashion designers feel that this law is unacceptable baffles me. I understand that fashion designers should “have the right” to hire whoever they please to model their clothing but I do believe the government should be allowed to regulate these types of conditions because of how influential the media can be on people of all ages. It is our government’s job to protect the well being of its citizens and by allowing the media to portray women who are extremely under-weight and unhealthy as “normal” is definitely not looking out for the well being of both viewers or the models themselves. Too many young girls are looking idolizing these models and are under the impression that they need to look the same way as those they see on the television without realizing that their lifestyle is unhealthy and unsafe. I believe that this law should indeed be passed because it would help many truly realize what is natural and healthy and would prevent any more deaths from under eating. In general, since it is the government’s job to do what is best for their citizens I believe they have every right to tell fashion designers that they must use a certain sized model in order to weed out false advertisement of what is normal in our society.

  4. kelseymlee Says:

    I definitely feel that a law prohibiting underweight models from walking on runways is an important initiative, and one that needs to be taken seriously. Yes, designers have a right to display their clothes to the world any way they see fit, but when they start to negatively harm people, both mentally and physically, they cross the line. Designers do not have the right to distort people’s vision of what is normal in an unhealthy way. Some may say that people need to stop being so sensitive, and recognize differences between what is healthy and unhealthy, but as a teenage girl, this is harder than people think. These disturbing images of overly skinny models have a huge impact on what young girls see as normal and beautiful, as superficial and vain as it may seem. These images bombard the media daily, and I can definitely see why models and other young girls feel that they need to succumb to the pressure to be too thin. By passing this law, underweight models would no longer be praised and put at an advantage for their unhealthy lifestyles, but people would see that leading an unhealthy life is not worth it. The fact that so many young models and girls die from preventable sicknesses such as eating disorders is disturbing, and something needs to be done to show girls that being healthy is much more attractive than the alternative.

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