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October 09, 2006

Emaciated fashion models and occupational health II

A new Spanish law requires all models on the catwalk at the Cibeles fashion show to have a BMI of at least 18.

Amanda of Pandagon argues that a minimum BMI is a reasonable restriction to ensure the health and safety of models on the job. Of all the arguments in favor of the emaciated model ban, I find the occupational health angle the most persuasive.

The official rationale for the Madrid regional government's ban was to enhance general public health by forcing fashion designers to show minimally healthy-looking models. I don't think the state should interfere with people who are espousing harmful standards of beauty in order to protect the welfare of the community. First, I don't think that there's enough empirical evidence to single out catwalk models as a cause of eating disorders. Second, putting choosing emaciated models for the catwalk is an implicit promotion of an aesthetic ideal. People should be allowed to argue for whatever ideas they want. It's up to individuals to think critically about the views being espoused.

The health and safety rationale is much more persuasive because fashion designers/fashion show producers are employers as well as artists. When you put on a play or a musical you don't have the right to skimp harnesses or other protective equipment for your stagehands or your stuntmen. By the same token, fashion show producers don't have the right to put put workers at risk in order to realize their creative vision.

Could an occupational health and safety standard work to protect models in North America? I asked some of my favorite occupational health, public health, and labor bloggers to weigh in on this debate, so to speak. Here's a roundup of their contributions:

Public health scientist Revere of Effect Measure urges us to consider the occupational health of models in the larger context of the much wider but less publicized occupational health crisis in America. At a time when hundreds of thousands are at risk in less glamorous jobs, maybe the health of models shouldn't be a top priority:

In the last analysis I find focusing on supermodels as an occupational health problem interesting but marginal because it doesn't also reveal the huge part of the iceberg below this grotesque tip, the huge number of working men and women dying for and on the job for wages a tiny fraction of what these women earn and none of the adulation. Indeed it tends to conceal it because of its glamour.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't worry about fashion models. There is much to worry about in this world. But this isn't where I'd start unless it was a way to open other doors.

Safety expert Jordan Barab of Confined Space argues that it would be difficult for OSHA to enforce a minimum BMI for American fashion models.

The whole point of the Occupational Safety and Health Act is to prevent employers from forcing workers to choose between their jobs and their lives. OSHA regulations are a floor; employers are not allowed to negotiate weaker protections for their employees, even if they provide hazard pay.

I'm trying to imagine OSHA citing a modeling agency for encouraging (forcing) models to attain or maintain an unhealthy body weight, assuming you can define that.

And the remedy would be? Firing them unless they gain more weight? Supervising their ingestion of X calories /day (along with a camera in the bathroom)?

On the other hand, OSHA could theoretically stop an agency from retaliating against an employee for exercising her health and safety rights. On the other hand, the whole process of choosing models is so subjective it would be hard to prove.

Labor policy expert Nathan Newman of the Labor Blog agrees with Jordan that an OSHA-based approach would be excessively intrusive.

But the original Spanish proposal is brilliant in its high-impact, low-intrusion approach. Regulate only the fashion week type runways, where in a single spotcheck, models can be blocked from the runways. Much like a weigh in for a boxing match-- where under and overweight boxers are barred from matches regularly -- models would have to meet the appropriate weight criterion for the runway event. What they do the rest of the year is up to them, but with the runway setting the overall aesthetic standards during the media frenzy of fashion week, other outlets are likely to follow the trend of the runways, avoiding more intrusive year round types of regulations.

Sara of f-words wonders what the BMI/modelling debate can teach us about improving the occupational health of porn stars.

Scott Lemieux of Lawyers Guns and Money sounds a cautionary note about the potential psychological impact of work-related weigh-ins. Could mandatory weighings be just another way for management to torment workers, as some trendy New York restaurant owners have been doing to their female servers?

Thanks to all the contributors for offering their expertise.


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While blanket minimum BMIs might not work, there are plenty of alternative legal regimes. You could have a minimum BMI distribution for new hires that grandfathered people in who had previous contracts with that employer, for example, which would protect people from getting fired but would require designers to build their work around a norm that assumes the presence of larger models. You could complement that with an aggressive damages regime allowing suit against employers who hampered advancement or worsened conditions for models based on BMI or BMI increase (with, maybe, some exceptions for particularly drastic increase, in order to offer some concession to protect the hirer's reliance interest). Models could simply sue alleging a "totality of circumstances" case of a work environment hostile to their BMI increase or level, just as an employee can for a hostile work environment claim under Title VII.

These are just a couple off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions. Other options could involve auditing of internal advancement or hiring procedures, or subsidies for BMI-balanced hiring. Or treble economic damages for any medical costs associated with being underweight - including ones associated with the use of recreational drugs that contribute to underweight status. That'd mean that if you wanted to hire people who looked like cocaine and heroin addicts, you're going to have to pay for their treatment and medical costs for those habits.

Anyway, the point is that there are a million different regimes you could choose from here.

Doesn't obesity threaten the health of more women than anorexia and other eating disorders? And by more, I mean, orders of magnitude more?

jjf, most women aren't fashion models. You manage risk at the workplace in regards to the risks that people are actually taking at their workplace, and dangerous thinness is a risk in the fashion industry.

Why don't these designers use DIFFENENT body types for their collections... a range of bodies.. just like real people. I know this is kinda weird... but rather than highlight one body type.. diffuse the whole thing and go real real. No?

OSHA can enforce anything anyway. I've had friends with clear health hazards at work be told by OSHA they were just not going to do anything because there are far too many things to enforce and OSHA has no money. I think the only reason to pass a law in the US for BMI restrictions on models, actors and any person who is visually influential would be to send a message from the voting public to the media at large. We think it's wrong to exploit skeletons. there could never be an enforcement.

In the meantime we should get out our camcorders and sewing machines and blogs and start our own media movement of real people. I'm so sick of looking at bland magazine faces. Give me some pockmarks, some side fat, a belly that's comfy to rest a head on. Use the internet to reject the media, there are plenty of sites to do it on.

I'm not too sure which way I lean on this issue, but I don't think such a simple policy would work out. At least... speaking as a 5'9" 24-year-old, who until just this year was unable to break 115 lbs. (works out to a BMI of 17.0) no matter how hard I tried or how much I ate, they might want to tweak their numbers a bit. Not everybody fits into an arbitrary "normal" weight range, especially when they're still maturing.

Oh and while obesity may be an actual larger health risk unreal, skinny, bodies paraded around as the norm is much of the problem there also.

Anorxia, bulimia and overeating are all eating disorders brought about by feelings of not being good enough and needing to control at least one area of life. Yes, overeating is controlling, however much we want to say it's the opposite. "I'm putting this in my mouth cause I want to and you can't stop me." There is a lot of anger at the world behind eating a lot for a lot of people.

My eight year old son was asking me if he was fat, worried he was a porker but really it was just his lunch in his belly sticking out. Young children are sucking this atmosphere in and it leads to all of the body image issues.

Why don't these designers use DIFFENENT body types for their collections... a range of bodies.. just like real people. I know this is kinda weird... but rather than highlight one body type.. diffuse the whole thing and go real real. No?

I've been teaching myself photography for the last couple of years, and it's changed my thinking about this issue.

One of the things I've learned is that the kind of lighting that's good for clothing is bad for people. It makes them look fat, and it's a misshapen kind of fat, distorted rather than smooth and soft.

You probably see this in flash snapshots of yourself. If you're like most of us, a camera's built-in flash makes you look fat and flat. But if you're model-thin, a photograph like that still looks about right. I'll bet professional models look like themselves in their driver's license photographs.

I think it happens because a still image doesn't give the human visual system enough information about shape. Using side-lighting helps a lot because the shadows show the shape of the face and body, but that kind of lighting makes it hard to see the dress. (See Lindsay's portrait for an example of moderate side lighting.)

So if you want a model for a dress, and you want her to look really good in fasion photographs, you need someone unusually thin. A normal person would look a bit ungainly and distorted under those conditions.

I'm not saying fashion people aren't obsessed with thinness, but I'm convinced that at least some of the reason for using very thin models is that the limitations of 2-dimensional still photography are kinder to them. They simply photograph better.

Windy, I totally agree about the evils of on-camera flash. Nobody (and nothing!) ever looks good when lit by the equivalent of a miner's helmet on the photographer.

Have you heard of Strobist--an excellent instructional blog about off-camera lighting for the photojournalist? I haven't invested in an off-camera lighting system yet, but Strobist's advice has change the way I approach lighting, even when I'm shooting available light.

Thanks for the Strobist tip, I glanced at it and it looks like some stuff I'd like to know more about. Not too many books address that niche.

OSHA has a rule that makes people with blood lead levels above 50 micrograms/dL stop working. So, it can probably make a rule that requires someone with a BMI <18 to stop working.

I would think that OSHA could put in variants for people who are naturally thin. I have one sister who weighed 99 lbs. at 5'7" while managing a cookie shop. She eats like a horse. My husband is 6'1", 140 lbs, as was his father and his father before him. This man lives on cheese and yet cannot gain weight. If I ate like he did, we would look like a stick and ball set.
There are people who can maintain <18 BMI while eating a healthy diet and sometimes even an unhealthy diet but these are people who could look for a variance on a prescribed standard rather than people on whom a standard is based.

As I said before, BMI is a good guide for people in general, but applying it to 'extreme' populations is really not what it was designed for.

The fashion industry looks for tall models, women who are unusually tall, women who are taller than the norm. The fashion industry also looks for women who don't look muscular. Remember muscle actually weighs more than fat.

If a woman is taller than average, with a very low muscle mass, her BMI will be low as well, even if her body fat is at a healthy but low level.

This breaks the BMI.

I think the BMI thing is probably a good wakeup call for the industry, but BMI is not really a solution here.

Also, if its really a health and safety issue, then you could reasonably apply the inverse, refusing a job to someone who is over 25 on the BMI scale as well. Which might not apply to the runway, but would apply to plus size models. They do exist.

Also, it could, although this is a bit different, apply to office workers, who tend to sit on their asses all day. Anyone with a BMI over 25 would be putting their health at risk taking a 9-5 office job. If an employer can deny employment for employee health reasons... this is a big ole can of worms to be opening.

As for models, I still think random drug tests, like for athletes, or even mandatory yearly physicals, ala boxing, might be more effective and appropriate.

It's certainly possible to have a BMI <18 and be healthy. My own BMI is a little under 18.

The point of the industry standard, IMO would not be to keep unhealthy people off the job. The goal would be to take the ruinous pressure off the industry as a whole. Most people can't maintain the industry average BMI of 16 and be healthy. They are locked in competition with the naturally super-skinny people, to the detriment of all. This standard is harmful to naturally super-skinny people as well as their normal weight counterparts. The unending pressure creates a dysfunctional culture around eating and weight, which is toxic to everyone involved. Super-skinny people can get eating disorders, too.

"... fashion show designers don't have the right to put workers at risk in order to realize their creative vision."

Balanchine is probably turning over in his grave, not that he deserves untroubled sleep.

I think I'm with Revere on this one: there are plenty of less glamorous and more dangerous jobs demanding our attention, before we spend time and energy on the perils of being a fashion model.

Doesn't obesity threaten the health of more women than anorexia and other eating disorders? And by more, I mean, orders of magnitude more?

More reinforcing of the notion that any woman who is not about to die from starvation must be fat. Women taking up any cubic inches of air is troubling, better that they be safely underground.

I'm not so sure Scott's post really ties in with this issue, since the waitresses at Sutton Place were weighed and monitored for no other reason than to humiliate them. There's no occupational health reason to do so, and not even a valid image-related reason, since their adherence to norms was apparent to the eye. Not to mention, male employees were not subject to such treatment.

Plus, it's Sutton Place, for God's sake. I've been there; it's where frat boys go after college -- not exactly "trendy."

> Super-skinny people can get eating disorders, too.

Of course they can, but BMI will not tell you if someone has an eating disorder. It wasn't designed for that. And I think it sends the wrong message. Having an eating disorder doesn't mean you are or will ever be model-thin. A lot of women suffer for years with an eating disorder, without ever being as skinny as Kate Moss.

This isn't a model problem, its a society problem.

In olden times curvy women were all the rage because having some curves meant you had been fed, which meant you were likely in good health and financially well off. Most women were lucky not to starve.

Nowadays with our out-of-control high-sugar and high-fat diets, which the media glorifies, curvy is a sign of lack of self control, of poor health, and only being able to afford to eat a Supersize me diet.

Having a few curves is not necessarily unhealthy, but these days most people have more than a few. Part of the reason alot of people idiolize thin is because they are indeed FAT. And then not only are they unhealthy for that, then some start abusing themselves to be thin. Models don't cause the problem, they are a symptom of the problem.

I've gone back and forth about this issue in my own head. I support what the Madrid government did, because the fashion show was partially subsidized by the government, and as such, I think the government had the right to regulate a practice that is unhealthy, socially harmful, and poses a workplace safety issue.

On the other hand, what about plus-size models? Like the "regular" models, they are required to maintain a certain body weight or they will lose their jobs. Yet the argument can be made that being overweight is unhealthy, and that the plus-size fashion industry encourages unhealthy practices by continuing to employ overweight women. So according to the Madrid standard, the government would have the right to shut them down, too.

Ultimately, having the government police the fashion industry by requiring that models maintain a certain BMI is a nonstarter, particularly in the U.S., where there is so much resistance to regulation, especially regulation of the workplace. Yet the fasion industry's insistance on exclusively using dangerously thin models is disturbing and destructive on many levels. We need to come up with other practical, creative strategies -- laws? protests? boycotts? -- to pressure the fashion industry to embrace different kinds of beauty and all varieties of body types.


When you put on a play or a musical you don't have the right to skimp harnesses or other protective equipment for your stagehands or your stuntmen.

Infants work in movies that couldn't work in any other occupation for 2 seconds regardless of the protections. And I was at a play not long ago in a non-smoking theater, and one of the players lit up (in character, of course).

Certainly Revere is right. OSHA hasn't even moved to ban cigarette smoke from workplaces. This is WAY down on the list. Since far more people die from tobacco, and cigarettes are ubiquitous in the high-profile fashion industry, why not forbid the hiring of models who smoke? This would also raise the BMI, and save far more lives.

Your stinking rules don't apply to show biz folk. The show must go on.

On the subject of BMI - we should continue to recognize that whilst it is not a surefire measure of health levels in an individual, it does provide an indication of their overall body composition. Whether people are using Calipers, sending electrical pulses through the body, or calculating based on hip, waist, neck and forearm size, the end results does point to a person's general state of well-being.

Naturally, there will always be exceptions to the rules - based on some calculations, Jean Claude Van Damme came out as morbidly obese! - and whether this is the most appropriate gauge for naturally skinny models is up for debate. Ultimately, when you at least bring a measure such as BMI into consideration, you at least have a foundation from which to promote certain levels of health within an industry that, for the most part, seems mostly geared towards emaciation. At least this way, you have some indication as to whether some models may benefit from learning how to gain weight for a change.

Just an opinion, and respect each and everyone's right to hold their own...


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