In the last few decades we have become increasingly obsessed with body image and weight, but a new age of hysteria kicked off in August 2006 when the death of Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos sent waves of outrage propagating throughout the fashion industry and media. Ramos died of heart failure brought upon by anorexia nervosa, minutes after stepping off the catwalk. Her much documented BMI was 14.5. For reference, a healthy BMI is anything between 18.5 and 25, whilst a BMI of 16 is considered to correspond to starvation. Two months later, another model, Ana Carolina Reston, died after infections due to kidney malfunctions, brought upon by her struggle with anorexia. Her BMI was a reported 13.4. In response to this, the organisers of Madrid and Milan Fashion Weeks decided to set a minimum BMI of 18 for all models, whilst thinness and malnutrition in the modelling industry became a topic of discussion in newspapers, magazines and television documentaries, discussed avidly by celebrities and politicians, and in homes all over the world.
Two years on, the term ‘size zero’ has become nationally recognised, despite the fact that almost no British designers produce clothes labelled ‘zero’; ITV and the BBC have cashed in by making endless versions of the same show, called some variation on ‘Make me a size zero.’ Let me explain the basic premise of these shows. A journalist or minor celebrity is, under the guise of serious investigative journalism, followed around by a camera for a few weeks, whilst maintaining a preposterous diet of an apple and lettuce leaf, in order to lose enough weight to fit into the elusive size zero. The ‘celebrity’ proceeds to whinge to the camera for the next few weeks, puts on a pair of jeans approximately two sizes smaller, and declares, admiring her washboard stomach in the mirror, that she has never been more miserable. Meanwhile gossip magazines recycle headlines of alternately shrinking and expanding celebrities, eagerly analysing every pound of flesh. Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Kate Bosworth and Teri Hatcher have become some of the poster girls of the size zero phenomenon and appear daily in gossip pages with stick thin arms and protruding collarbones, one day insisting that they are perfectly healthy, and the next day confessing to an eating disorder. Weight has become a confusing issue; the size zero debate has gotten an unprecedented amount of media coverage. At the same time, headlines about spiralling obesity rates are regular features, alongside increasingly dire predictions of the proportion of overweight toddlers in 2050. According to the sensationalist headlines, the average woman is getting fatter whilst the average model is getting thinner; the fashion industry is a sinister force behind the rampant outbreak of model deaths whilst the rest of the population continues to kill itself by gorging on McDonalds. So are we too fat or too thin? Is the fashion industry to blame for an increase in eating disorders and the tragic deaths of these models?
The knee-jerk response of the media and the public has been to put the blame squarely on the fashion industry for its unrealistic promotion and glamorisation of underweight women. Magazines and newspapers have even selected particular models, such as the extremely tall and thin Lily Cole, to be scapegoats. But the reality is that many of the beautiful glamorous models who grace the pages of Vogue are merely pre-pubescent teenage girls, parachuted into a demanding, superficial, and cut-throat world where they have little guidance and often don’t even speak the language. In this world, thinness is rewarded, drugs are common, and putting on a couple of pounds can mean being sent home in disgrace. Ana Carolina Reston was sent on a three month shoot in China in 2004. Aged 18 and weighing just 8 stone, she was warned by bookers that she was too fat to get the best shows. Reston poignantly describes her experiences abroad, ‘I didn’t understand anything…it didn’t go right. I failed.’ Sadly it seems that Ana Carolina Reston’s experience is far from unique. Industry insiders describe the desperate diets young models undertake in a bid to fit in and get cast in the best shows. A prominent psychologist who has seen nearly 2000 models describes how it is common to see young models taking illegal drugs, prescription pills, laxatives, and even pills to fight intestinal worms. Journalist Laura Ancona agrees, “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen models vomiting in the toilets, or sniffing cocaine, or 13-year-old girls fainting because they’re not eating properly.”
These shocking stories about young models hint at exploitation, and clearly the fashion industry needs to re-consider the treatment of these girls, as well as the images they are projecting to the rest of the world. Designers have taken different stances; many chains have condemned the culture of thinness and declared their intention to use ‘normal-sized’ girls. Meanwhile Karl Lagerfeld caused great controversy when he refused to compromise, saying, “What I created was fashion for slim, slender people”. And yet Mr Lagerfeld had a point. Thinness sells. The fashion industry has often been criticised for its inaccurate representation of the population as a whole, and yet the expectation is still that models will continue to be thin. As one designer said, ‘On one level, we’re vilified for using thin models on the catwalk. But women are the first to bitch about anyone who dares have an ounce of flesh hanging over their waistband.’ Fashion is all about the fantasy that everyone is thin and beautiful and walks around in haute couture; it’s not meant to exemplify real life. Perhaps some regulation needs to be introduced. But the solution to the model problem cannot simply be a blanket ban on any model deemed to be too thin. Many models are naturally slender; often they have just experienced their growth spurts and have yet to even go through puberty, and it is grossly unfair that these girls should be vilified by the media. Models such as Lily Cole and Erin O’Connor have voiced their anger and frustration at the criticism of their colleagues, describing it as undermining and patronising. A possible solution which has been put forward, but not yet implemented, is to introduce a routine health check before allowing models to walk the catwalk.
Clearly the fashion industry has its own issues to consider but the big question is whether their depiction of underweight women is to blame for an increase in disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. And how bad can it be, given that Britain’s obesity rate has never been higher? But those who cite the increasing obesity rate as evidence that we do not have problems with anorexia and bulimia are missing a major point. Eating disorders range across the spectrum from anorexia and bulimia to binge and compulsive eating, and they often stem from the same root, a warped body image and a sense of self-disgust. Anorexia is not the opposite of obesity, nor do the increasing numbers of people suffering from one or the other simply cancel each other out. According to the UK’s Eating Disorders Association, between 1-2% of women worldwide suffer from anorexia and a similar proportion suffer from bulimia. This percentage has slightly increased over the last few years but there is little evidence to suggest that this is a result of the fashion industry’s increasing propensity to pick younger and thinner models.
Still, the vast majority of women do not have eating disorders and seem to have relatively healthy eating habits and an acceptance of their body shape. In spite of the size zero hysteria, the number of women with eating disorders has not increased dramatically over the last few years. What is worrying is how the massive over-exposure of the size zero debate has trivialised the issue of eating disorders and propagated the myth that eating disorders are something that can be prevented, or worse, the result of vanity. The word ‘anorexic’ is thrown around in place of ‘thin’, whilst the sensationalist coverage has increased the stigma that already surrounds eating disorders. The over-exposure of thin celebrities and diet related articles has led to a constant and increasing obsession with weight, and the tendency of many women to vilify others, both fat and thin, for not having the ‘right’ body. In our current culture, the body obsession has grown to the extent that it is perfectly normal to see an article about a high-powered politician or business-woman begin with a lengthy critique on her weight and body shape. Meanwhile, women’s lifestyle magazines dedicate spreads to attempt to prove that men really do prefer so-called curvy women, whilst implicitly condemning thin women, seemingly unaware that it is no more acceptable to condemn someone for being thin than it is for being overweight.
Finally, the ‘size zero’ debate has led us astray from the more important debate about physical and mental health. We have become acclimatised to focusing on decreasing numbers on a scale or a label, when these numbers are, in actuality, completely meaningless. In fact, there is no uniform method of sizing, making the label debate a rather pointless exercise. We’ve been led to believe that our physical and mental health can be summed up by a number on a scale or a random mathematical calculation called BMI, but the issue cannot be simplified to that extent. There are dozens of variables to consider: ratio of hip to waist, weight compared to height, relative amounts of lean tissue and fat, whether you are an athlete or an office worker, age, body frame, level of activity, and many others. Mental health has been similarly trivialised; an anorexic is not a model who skips dessert but a person, not necessarily strikingly thin, who has a mental disorder leading to an overwhelming obsession with food and control. These people occur in all walks of life. Weight, health, and body image are issues which are far too complex to be summed up by a series of numbers, and especially not by one number on the label of a designer top.