Friday, February 09, 2007

weighing in

Weighing In
by Alexis Stember

As the tents of New York's Bryant Park buzz this week with talk of the Council of Fashion Designers of America's new health initiative, which addresses "the overwhelming concern about whether some models are unhealthily thin" and makes suggestions on how to encourage a healthier aesthetic in the industry, many like myself wonder if this campaign to "raise awareness" carries any real weight: if it won't just disappear like so many fashions before it.

The health initiative, which boils down to six "recommendations," lacks the bite of the requirements currently being implemented in Milan and Madrid, where models must now meet the World Health Organization's lowest healthy body mass index of 18 (which equates to 125 pounds for a 5'9" woman) to be allowed to work on the runways. This discrepancy between recommendation and requirement is what has recently sparked contentious debate.

"The way they [the CFDA] are presenting their guidelines really shows they are not acknowledging the seriousness of the problem of eating disorders at all," Eric van Furth, president of the international Academy for Eating Disorders told the New York Times. Furth's point is further supported by the fact that, in the same breath they used to voice their commitment to health, the CFDA also said, "…we cannot fully assume responsibility for an issue that is as complex as eating disorders…" thereby abdicating themselves of any real accountability in the matter.

Models are far from the only ones starving themselves. According to the Renfrew Center Foundation, an organization involved in furthering research and treatment for eating disorders, eating disorders rank as the third most chronic illness afflicting adolescent girls, while Liz Berzins, in the 1997 APA co-sponsored Dying to be Thin Congressional Briefing, reported that young girls have indicated in surveys that they're more afraid of becoming fat than they are of cancer, of nuclear war, or of losing their parents. Where are girls this young learning these fears?

A group of Harvard Medical School researchers in 1999 studied a population of Fijian women who hadn't previously been exposed to Western media or beauty ideals. After altering the women's environment and studying the changes that took place as a result, the group summarized their findings in the headline of a May 17, 1999 News Release from the Harvard Medical School Office of Public Affairs: "Sharp Rise in Eating Disorders in Fiji Follows Arrival of TV: After Three Years of Western Programming, Five Times as Many Teenage Girls Report Vomiting to Control Weight."

"I don't think it's so much the fashion industry as it is the crossover from fashion to entertainment," Emily, a twenty-four year old clinical trial researcher attending an art exhibit called Dangerous Beauty, which investigated the relationship between beauty, violence, and unattainable ideals, said in response to the question of whether the fashion world was to blame for our cultures rampant obsession with weight. Emily added that people are more influenced by women on the red carpet than by women in the pages of magazines. What, then, were those women on the red carpet, women like 5'1", 88 pound Nicole Richie, influenced by, I asked. Fashion? "Yeah," she said.

Nearly everyone, and certainly every woman, in the public eye is under the constant pressure to be thin. Scrutiny cuts across vocational boundaries, with recent highly publicized examples being singer Britany Spears, pregnant actress Tori Spelling, and TV talk show host and model Tyra Banks, all of whom have been attacked for weight gain. The pinch to live up to an ever-shrinking ideal of beauty is being felt universally, thanks to a trickle down effect originating from the runways of our past.

The 1990's, with the rise of 5'6", 105 pound Kate Moss, sparked a wave of concern over a look (called 'heroin chic') that suggested, and many felt glamorized, eating disorders and drug abuse. At a time when curvaceous supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington dominated, Moss emerged as an anomaly. Over the past fifteen years, however, the exception has become the rule, with Moss's meager figure today looking nothing more than ordinary, if not slightly large.

The CDFA may not want to recognize the power of its influence when, as Al Gore would say, it's inconvenient, but it's an undeniable truth that what the industry creates, promotes, and sells shapes what our society subscribes to, along with our W, Vogue, and Elle. If the CFDA is truly serious about making changes in the industry and the world, they need to put their money, and not just a scant list of recommendations, where their mouth is.

As long as designers, editors, and agents continue to seek and hire models that are unhealthily thin, women everywhere will continue to starve. Models, our societal epitome of desirability, will starve because they need work, actresses will starve so they can fit in the designer dresses that make them look like models, which will bring attention and thus work, and the rest of us will starve, or at least be tempted to, to look like the actresses who want to look like the models because, when it comes to beauty, we know the ugly, Darwinian truth.

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