New York Fashion Week is here. What will we see featured for the upcoming spring season? And beyond the standard of beauty for clothes—will we see a healthier standard of beauty for models? Runway shows are about trends, style, and an idealized vision of beauty. A considerable majority of models who walk on runways or grace the pages of magazines appear to be naturally thin and healthy. Sometimes, however, appearances can be deceiving. Recently, extreme thinness has woven itself into the runway ideal, through the inclusion of some unhealthy body weights of rail-thin, often very young models. In response, many in the fashion industry are concerned about the vulnerability of models and are trying to make a difference.
Designers generally produce only one sample size for the runway, and in the last decade there has been a dramatic downward shift in the sample size of some of the top design houses. As a result, models are under increasing pressure to be thinner and thinner, and younger and younger. The industry’s hiring of prepubescent-appearing teenage girls as models of adult clothing sets an unrealistic standard; hips and breasts, the curves that define the female figure, are absent. Some models have difficulty maintaining the body ideal as they move into adulthood and run the risk of engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors that lead to eating disorders.
No single influence is responsible for the development of eating disorders. Genetics, neurochemistry, personality, weight- conscious occupations, and sociocultural factors all play a role in the etiology of these illnesses. Five percent of women in the United States struggle with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa at some point in their lives. The mortality rate is eight to ten times higher and the suicide rate is 57 times higher among women with anorexia nervosa than among age-matched women in the community.
Organized opposition to the fashion industry’s ultrathin ideal dates back over several decades, when studies began to show that super-thin female images adversely impact girls’ body attitudes and eating behaviors. Four years ago, when several international models died from complications of anorexia nervosa, criticism—and concern—intensified. The fashion industry in Madrid and Milan responded by imposing a minimum BMI (body mass index) requirement on models working the top shows; but most of the fashion world chose other strategies.
In 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) created a Health Initiative to raise awareness of eating disorders in the fashion industry and to change the aesthetic on the New York runways and in magazines from extreme thinness to a more realistic ideal. Given the complexities of the illnesses, the CFDA felt that BMI was not an effective screening tool. To protect the well-being of models, the CFDA created a series of guidelines consistent with their message “Health Is Beauty.” Key recommendations include encouraging models to receive regular medical care and advising those who may have an eating disorder to seek professional help in order to continue modeling. The guidelines also call upon designers to support the well-being of younger models by not hiring those under the age of sixteen for runway shows and by not allowing those who are under the age of eighteen to work past midnight at fittings or shoots.
Collaborating with the medical community has strengthened the fashion industry’s resolve to effect change. In February, the fashion industry and the academic eating disorders community participated in a CFDA-hosted panel discussion titled “The Beauty of Health: Resizing the Sample Size.” This event was energizing; key leaders– including designer Zac Posen, model Doutzen Kroes, CEO of DNA Management David Bonnouvrier, and casting director James Scully – spoke passionately about the need to improve the lives of fashion models and encourage healthy lifestyles for all women. The fashion industry will need time to reach a consensus, but if the February 2010 runway shows were any indication, change is afoot: Miuccia Prada and Marc Jacobs were among the designers who cast more curvaceous, adult models.
On March 22, 2010, 1,000 members of the Boston community attended a public forum at Harvard Business School titled “Health Matters: Weight and Wellness in the World of Fashion.” This event featured three giants of the fashion industry. Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour called for a celebration “of women’s bodies in all their different healthy forms.” Designer Michael Kors pledged to stop hiring models under the age of sixteen and invited others to follow his lead. Supermodel Natalia Vodianova spoke from a personal perspective, recalling her fight against and ultimate victory over the “little gremlins in my head,” thoughts that accompanied her struggles with food and body image.
Vodianova is one of several courageous models who are breaking what Wintour described as the fashion industry’s “code of silence” surrounding eating disorders. Dutch model Kim Noorda kept a journal while receiving eating disorder treatment and shared her experiences in the pages of Vogue. At one of the CFDA’s first forums, model Coco Rocha recounted painful experiences of pressures to lose weight; these disclosures required enormous inner strength. We admire these individuals and all models who have come forward to tell their stories.
Although models are key to effecting change, they obviously cannot do it alone. Everyone in the fashion industry – designers, casting directors, agents, fashion-magazine editors, show producers – need to join forces. The bottom line is the importance of healthy, fit models whose well-being can in turn promote the development of positive body image and improved self-esteem in all girls and women.
Leaders in the fashion industry are deeply committed to the CFDA Health Initiative and are urgently working toward change. Plans for education and awareness programs are under way, such as an Ambassador Program aimed at helping young models develop the tools to meet the challenges they face. The CFDA’s campaign to promote the concept of a healthy mind in a healthy body is off to a great start and – with growing support from the fashion community – holds the promise of a healthier standard of beauty.
Diane von Furstenberg is the President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Dr. David Herzog is a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Mass. General Hospital.