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October 02, 2006

Emaciated fashion models and occupational health

Lately, there's been a lot of discussion in the feminist blogosphere about a new Spanish ban on emaciated models at the Cibeles fashion show:

In accordance with the new regulations for this year's Cibeles fashion show 30% of models who appeared on its catwalk last year have been excluded for being too thin.

The models have been rejected because they do not comply with new rules put into place by Madrid's Regional Government demanding that models present a healthy image with a [body mass index (BMI) of at least 18], i.e. they must weigh at least 56 kilos if their height is 1.75[m2]. These figures are approximately what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers to be the minimum healthy weight.

The designer Jesús del Pozo made the announcement in a press conference during which Concha Guerra, Madrid's Vice-Director of Economy and Innovative Technology laid out the new guidelines for the fashion show which starts on 18th September. She said they had taken this unprecedented step because they were aware of the influence the popular Cibeles catwalk had on young girls' perception of fashion and ideal bodies. She explained that the Madrid government were aiming for healthier-looking models and getting away from the wasting-away appearance of many models which was heavily criticised during the last Cibeles catwalk. [Euroresidente]

As a pro-labor feminist and a civil libertarian, I have mixed feelings about the Madrid rule.

The policy is clearly an infringement on the free speech of fashion designers. Design is a form of expression and a fashion show is an aesthetic undertaking. Designing clothes for aesthetic effect is a creative undertaking. If a designer envisions her creations being worn on a certain shape of body, that's her prerogative. Even if we think her aesthetics are indecent or her politics are blinkered and decadent, we should respect her right to realize her creative goal.

Putting on a fashion show is like staging a play or filming a movie. The whole production is engineered to create a particular aesthetic effect for the designer and the collection. A fashion show is also live action ad, which makes it commercial speech.

The Madrid Regional Government's rationale for the new law is very troubling. Their main argument is that fashion shows should be regulated because they present an unhealthy ideal of beauty to the public and therefore constitute a public health risk. I have no doubt this is true, but I don't want the government to suppress ideas just because the larger society considers those ideas to be destructive. I certainly wouldn't want the US government taking any greater liberties on the censorship front.

However, Amanda raises a compelling counterargument at Pandagon. As she notes, the industry standard in modeling is an occupational health risk. A designer's right to design clothes for emaciated models doesn't necessarily guarantee her right to hire actual people to wear these clothes under dangerous conditions.

The average fashion model has a BMI of 16, which well below what most medical experts consider a normal weight for a well-nourished adult. Only a fraction of post-pubescent women have a BMI below 18 for any reason (CDC).

Even for 15-year-old girls, a BMI of 16 is at the 3rd percentile. (That is, only 3% of American 15-year-olds are at or below the average weight of a fashion model.) If you look at the chart I've linked to, you'll see that it doesn't even bother to quantify exactly how rare BMIs of 16 are in women ages 15-20. Look at the curve and you'll see what I mean--we're talking below the first percentile.

Of course, models are hired precisely because they are physically atypical. Still, it's probably a myth that there are large numbers of people who are naturally thin enough to be catwalk models.

Of the women who currently have BMIs of 16 who are of modeling age, a large percentage are probably suffering from anorexia, substance abuse, and/or other health problems. It has been estimated that one percent of all American women suffer from full-blown anorexia nervosa. If less than one percent of 18-year-olds have a BMI of 16 for any reason, and 1% of 18-year-olds are anorexic. There must be considerable overlap because an extremely low weight is a necessary diagnostic criterion for anorexia nervosa. A person won't be diagnosed as anorexic unless they're lighter than the vast majority of people their height.

The fact that the current modeling industry standard is unhealthy for most aspiring models also contributes to an unhealthy professional culture in which even the thinnest models can become obsessive and paranoid about their weight. After all, one of the hallmarks of anorexia is the conviction that one is too fat despite being extremely thin.

The evidence is overwhelming that the current industry standards for fashion models are unhealthy for the vast majority of models. Professional pressure can contribute to the development of anorexia, the psychiatric condition with the highest mortality rate. Simply staying thin enough to be employable as a model can pose health risks, even in people who don't have anorexia. These include decreased bone density, infertility, slowed heartbeat, and in rare cases, death. I don't know if anyone has quantified the risks of long-term professional starvation and compared them to other occupational risks that we regulate. Aggressively dieting to stay 30 pounds underweight for a year probably is at least as unhealthy as working in a bar with second-hand smoke for the same period of time.

If the current industry standard is dangerous for a lot of the people who work in the industry, it makes sense to submit the industry to some kind of regulation. However, the Madrid model would not be appropriate for the United States.

Restricting the aesthetics of fashion shows is an infringement of First Amendment rights. Don't tell me that fashion show free speech is trivial. I won't argue too strenuously that fashion shows make an important contribution to public discourse, but censorship is censorship. The only question is whether the benefit to the workers is sufficient to offset this infringement.

It is also difficult to see how a BMI restriction could fit into the existing legal framework for occupational health and safety regulation. The BMI standard looks at worker's bodies, not at their working conditions. So, the law affects people even if they are not putting themselves at risk in order to achieve a particular look. The health risks of having a BMI=n aren't the same for everyone. Some people can achieve the magic number with zero health risk, or minimal risk, while others can't even get close with life-threatening measures.

The issue is not how many people there are who are naturally and safely thin enough to be fashion models today. The BMI standard is arbitrary and that arbitrariness is problematic. You can't just deprive people of their livelihood because you want to send a larger message to an industry.

Furthermore, if anorexia is a work-induced disease, it seems perverse (and possibly illegal) to make women who suffer from the disease unemployable. It would set a very bad precedent to start making people unemployable because of medical/psychiatric conditions that don't affect their ability to do their job.

The best argument for minimum BMI laws is to rid the modeling community of the ruinous pressure to be ultra-thin. It's not that everyone who is that thin is at risk, it's that the current industry standards require most would-be models to put themselves at risk in order to be competitive. A BMI of 18 is still very thin by "civilian" standards. (The difference between BMIs of 16 and 18 amounts to about 10lbs on a 5'9" model.) So, it's not as if the designers are being asked to sacrifice the slender aesthetic for the sake of public health.

The problem is that the current standards create a never-ending cycle of competition to be thinner. If we could somehow step back and say, okay, thin's fine but we shouldn't allow emaciated models to set the industry standard. All models would be better off if an outside force imposed a reasonable minimum weight for the whole profession. However, I don't see how such a rule could be legally imposed.


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If you are a young women surrounded by other young women who are paranoid about food and weight, it's very difficult to keep any sense of perspective, especially if your employer berates you for the same "imperfections."

So you believe we could cure the obesity epidemic with social pressure and encouragement from our employers?

I doubt it. We need more research.

Epi, the media's influence on obesity is not by glorifying it, but by glorifying what causes it, namely overeating. More precisely, the sort of food that is most advertised and most available to most Americans has very skewed nutrient ratios, so to get enough protein, to say nothing of vitamins and minerals, they typically have to overload themselves with fat, cholesterol, and carbs. Further, the American ideal of bigness has contributed to huge portion sizes at every place that serves food. It's not just junk food; New York delis serve sandwiches that are at least twice as big as those served in French restaurants.

As for obesity versus anorexia, there are two different answers to that. First, many more Americans are obese than anorectic. And second, if the average model's BMI rises from 16 to 20, then women with a BMI of 33 will still feel intense pressure to diet, since from their vantage point there's hardly a difference; on the other hand, women with healthy BMIs will feel far less pressure, since they'll see models barely thinner than they are.

I agree with Alon that subtle but pervasive social pressures are contributing to the increasing prevalence of obesity. There are so many contributing cultural factors. It starts with being expected to sit in an office park that you can only reach by private automobile. It continues with an environment where fresh food is expensive and the time to prepare it properly is scare. I hate to say it, but most people don't even know what to do with raw ingredients any more because nobody ever taught them how to cook. Then there's our diet culture that teaches people to alternately starve and gorge themselves instead of slowly changing their lifestyles to become healthier. I think that self-loathing contributes to diet culture.

People are taught to be so ashamed of themselves that the idea of getting gradually healthier over the next year is unthinkable. People are taught to believe that they are so loathsome that drastic measures must be taken to end the unbearable shame in the next two weeks, or else. Of course, this strategy contributes to long-term weight gain through yo-yo dieting and loss of lean tissue.

Anorexia is different from self-imposed malnutrition, just as compulsive eating is distinct from obesity. I think that diet culture causes more compulsive eating than anorexia.

I just had a discussion recently about the book Brave New World. For those who haven't read it, the society in the novel is based on the central premise of 'loving what you do'. People are genetically engineered and then conditioned to 'love' doing the job that they are designed for. They are happy, for the most part. I mentioned that our consumer culture is the diametric opposite, we are quite literally being conditioned to be unhappy, to want more, no matter what we start out with, no matter what we achieve.

It reminded me of an article I read on 'city living'(vs country living), the idea of the article was that city living is destructive to long term 'romantic' relationships. There are just too many people, we constantly see 'opportunities' for something better than we have. Our tribal brains, which were formed to deal with small family based groups, are overwhelmed.

I'm no luddite or IDer, I don't hate capitalism, nor do I long for family values, but I think its not just 'the media', nor 'patriarchal'... whatever.

We're quite literally not designed for the lives we lead, and its seriously messing us up.

Alon Levy:
Good points about the media encouraging overeating (as opposed to obesity) with vast increases in portion sizes, corn syrup use, etc. But that still doesn't answer the question why those influences outweigh the pressures to be thin in the vast majority, but not in anorexics.

Could it be that anorexics just have a disease?

I think there are, if not "family values", some value judgments here. So what if city life takes a toll on long term marriages? Maybe that isn't entirely bad.

Despite fears that overcrowding would cause stress and disease, I recall that studies on the subjects failed to confirm the fears. Humans adapt quite well to crowding.

Interesting thoughts about Brave New World. I do remember the discussion about how the betas loved their position, looked down on those below, and pitied those alphas for all their stress and responsibilities.

However I would view with a much more jaundiced eye a culture that had the population thinking everything was swell than one that has us doubting who we are and what we do.

I don't think anything that involves informed decisions is all bad, but fewer long term relationships equals less stability and that IS something that children and society in general craves and benefits from. At the very least, it needs to be compensated for and I don't think we are doing that.

Also humans, in general, adapt well to anything, its what we are good at, but modernity has caused problems and some of those problems I think are directly related to our inability to adapt to specifics, or maybe adapt quickly enough to them.

Brave New World is the 'extreme' example of how to cope with the problem I see existing. I'm not sure I would advocate it as a solultion, but I think it helps frame the problem.

I'd have to say I disagree with the fact you think that there should be no limit for the models weight. Eating disorders is becoming, if not already, an epidemic. To see the fact models are all bones and ruining themselves to be the skinniest out there is ruining the way a young girl looks at herself. I have an eleven year old sister who already is calling herself fat and saying she needs to be on a diet, again she is only eleven. Yes it is freedom of speech and if a designer wants the look of their show to have rail thin models they should have a right, but the thing is if it was another industry many people would agree with the fact there should be a limit, but because fashion is an art, some like yourself automatically assume it should be however the artist wants it to be. The point is models are role-models if they want to be or not and should have an image that is healthy for the girls who look up at them. With what you say in some of the paragraphs it seems as though you are defending them becasue you yourself may be anorexic or bulimic and so you don't think needing to be extremely skinny is such a bad thing. People with that "work-induced" disease have their head in a cloud of thought you could say and do not realize what they are doing to themselves. Are you saying it is also ok for models to be drug addicts to stay thin as well? It is around the same thing as an eating disorder. Should our fashion industry be filled with addicts and people with psychiatric conditions?

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I agree with what you have written but, I think that model's should be a specific weight. They should'nt be under or over. If that is there career then they should atleast maintain a weight for there life career.

I'm sleepy so excuse the Neanderthal talk...

Most models used in Paris shows are at anorexic weights. Wow how come nobody noticed before. Everybody in the fashion world knows this and has known this for many years. I was shocked to see this reality with my own eyes many years ago.
I think designers should take total responsibility and make their prototypes bigger. They'll just have to be better designers and make stuff look good on bigger models. Consumers should boycot designers that advocate anorexia as their beauty ideal.
All the fag woman hating designers need to stop encouraging anorexia and being pimps to teenage anorexic models. Women do not naturally look like 12 year old boys so stop calling them fat.

Your article struck me as well-reasoned and insightful, but I do have a problem with one of your basic premises: the civil libertarian one. The point is that government must act in the best interests of society to prohibit behaviors that significantly harm people. The definition of "significant" is really what is at issue - everyone agrees that murder is significant, but to what extent is making unhealthy choices significant? Surely individuals have the right to make unhealthy choices, but again to an extent only - if a critical mass of individuals with a certain freedom misuse it to cause significant harm, then there is a compelling case to be made for legally interdicting that behavior. Drug use is a case in point. Of course the manner of enforcement poses an entirely different set of questions...

I also think you may underestimate the insularity and inertia of the fashion industry. The fashion industry is a machine. It is huge. There is significant creativity involved but by its very nature it is a game of copy - which is why it is called "fashion," not "art." Of course the line between the two is blurry, but the semantic difference is significant. Certain figureheads possess an inordinate say in what is "fashionable" and therefore in what is imitated - the clout of people like Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour is indesputible and new designers who do not conform to the unwritten (or written - this is largely a print industry) standards set by these people have little chance of making it big. The public is also afraid of the fashion industry because nobody wants to "break the rules" by admitting that under current standards, everyone else considers them ugly or "un-compelling." It is a giant societal case of the Emperor having no clothes. For this reason, fashion professionals and advertisers are very correct in pointing out that while the majority of women ask for bigger models, they buy the products advertised by skinny ones. Even designers who want to design for bigger models are simply steamrolled by public fear of buying from "the plus-size designer." (Plus size, by the way, is a size 6.)

At this point, it is a social illness, reflected in the inordinate amount of eating disorders and what is more prevalent and therefore dangerous, disordered eating and rock-bottom self-esteem among young women. It is a psychological phenomenon that is difficult to quantify, but nevertheless no human being is not affected by it, either as a woman (or man) committed to perverse, unhealthy lifestyles or as someone whose mother, sister, girlfriend or wife suffer from this kind of self-hatred. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, as mothers pass the "disease" on to their daughters.

Because the fashion industry, and society as a whole, appears incapable of organically addressing this issue in a timely manner (it's been getting worse for three generations, since beauty standards began favoring thinner women), it is fair to say that legislative action should be taken. The argument does of course exist that women have eating disorders as forms of exercising self-control in emotional and physical surroundings that may be out of control - but this particular manifestation of exercising control - eating disorders - is generated by the fashion industry and the society that continues to feed it in terms of attention (worship?) and money.

These models and young girls who try to imitate them need help, but we as a society also need help. Legislative action would serve as a strong signal that what we are all trying to imitate is in fact unhealthy and unnatural, and may help to begin breaking the cycle for some people. In a world where government is responsible for the well-being of its constituents, setting standards for models is a perfectly justifiable - and necessary - action.

that is sad!

it is unbelievable how people can be sooooo skiny but think they are fat!

it makes me well up in tears when i hear about models that die of being anorexic!

that is tragical!

why do people have to be anorexic!? why don't they understand they can die from it!

First of all, I agree that anorexia is a problem in our society especially with the large amount of only thin people in the media. However, if there was any specific body type that was exclusive in the media, there would still be self-esteem problems. Many girls,(such as myself) are considered underweight by the BMI scale, but eat healthy and often. I agree that it isn't alright to tease people for being overweight, but is it right to tease those that are heathily underweight because they are seen as "freakishly thin?" I don't think it occurs to many that a lot of thin girls are not okay with their body type. Personally, I have always wanted to be the buxom vixen with large breasts. However, my natural body type is on the thin side with much smaller breasts, and it is very hard for me to gain weight. Does that make me a bad person that must be subject to ridicule because i'm on the smaller side of the population? Should we only accept those with hourglass figures and pressure a new generation of girls to receive breast implants? I believe that we should accept every body type, including pear shaped, hourglass, and boyish. If we do not, we will simply add different self esteem issues.

You guys are missing the point. It's not that the employers are going to be firing women based on their weight or diseases. It is the fashion industry who started these standards. The law is to protect the employees, so that designers cannot force them to hurt their health in order to keep their jobs. Most models would be happy if they could relax and eat every once in awhile

I am 18 years old. I am 5'5". I weigh 100 pounds. BMI 16.6. I have a healthy diet and appetite. I am naturally this size and I am completely healthy. It is harder for me to gain weight than to lose it. There are not many people that can say this, but for the few that can if they would like to pursue modelling who is to tell them that they can't? There are ways to tell if someone has an eating disorder and their BMI is not one of them.

I was looking for sources online to write my first argumentative essay for English Comp. 101 when I came across your article. I happen to be writing on this topic as well. Your article put my essay to shame. Then again, I'm still in high school and you're a jounalist, something I someday aspire to be, but that little bit of schooling might just have something to do with the quality of the work. Anyhow, I really liked this article! Best wishes.

You guys don't seem to understand how modeling works. The designers don't hire models for being too big. They won't hire them. There is a difference. There are only so many models that can be cast in a runway show. A designer can cast a model for a show one year and not cast her for his show in another season for a variety of reasons. Maybe she got too fat, maybe she died her hari, maybe the designer is just tired of seeing her face or she doesn't fit the vision of his particular collection.

The models aren't under a contract with the designers. If the designer thinks they are right for the show they will hire them. It's all about aesthetics so it is hard to regulate. There is a difference between being exposed to pesticides on the job and starving yourself.

The basic idea behind laws is that one person's rights become limited when they begin to infringe on the rights of the next person. Using that as a guideline, designers should have all the rights in the world to design for stick figures if they so desire. They should not have the right to expect anyone to go without food (one of our most basic needs)to acheive their unrealistic vision. Let them walk out on a runway carrying a stick model with their unwearable "artistic" clothing on it.

Seriously, someone in the fashion industry should reach down, re-attach their long-lost ballsack and design something for people in the 'normal' BMI range. Ohh how bold, how daring, how edgy and chic that would be!

Maybe if someone started designing for normal sizes (try 4-10 depending on height) real people will actually get to buy their clothes. Then another designer may feel inclined to compete...and models might actually figure out what food tastes like again.

A win for everyone!

I personally, have been extremely thin my whole life. I'm 19 now and I am 5'3'' and weigh 100 lbs. This would make my BMI 17.7. I actually have hypothyroidism and hypoglycemia, both of which usually make a person OVERweight. When asked about my secret for being so skinny, I respond with the truth..." Well, I lounge around all day playing video games, I eat a lot of cheesy, fried fastfood, I hate vegetables". People don't really like hearing that. I understand that a body type like mine is very rare, but what this means is that there could be other girls out there like me who genuinely do not have an eating disorder and should be allowed to continue modelling no matter what BMI restrictions are invented. I do think that eating disorders are a horrible thing-I personally would like to gain a little weight but there doesnt really seem to be anything else for me to do haha. I would be happy to be normal weight, but am not too upset about my current weight. No one should ever starve themselves to lose weight. Maybe some dieting if they're unhealthy because of their weight, but that's it. My point in all this is that yes, I don't think that people with bulemia or anorexia should be modeling, and that even if they aren't modeling they sohuld get help. But to simply restrict all thin-below-a-certain-figure people is not really solving anything, and unfair to those naturally skinny. Plus, there will still be that group of people modeling with low metabolisms that will be starving themselves just to have a BMI of 19 or 20, so BMI regulations really can't solve anything.

Hello, I'm a student who's doing a research paper on how pressures linked to bodyweight in the modeling industry can lower a model's self-esteem and cause them to endanger their lives. I was wondering If I would be able to interview you by email, thank you for all your help.

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