Back when I used to work in Manhattan, my office was right on Bryant Park, where each year around this time, Fashion Week kicks off. What is otherwise a nice little getaway just one block west of Times Square and yet a whole world away from it, becomes a tented-off, highly secured, highly branded, brightly lit and excessively populated area where photographers and models and designers and everybody else affiliated with that world congregates for a frenzy of activity. It is a week I usually would seek lunch elsewhere.
But my co-workers and I would often joke that at lunchtime, you could see the models walking around the area, just like anybody else looking for a place to catch lunch. Where were these women going? Most of them were 94 lbs. soaking wet, and a rich meal for them was usually an air sandwich and a wistful glance at a glass of water. I often write about the dangers of obesity and the extra healthcare costs of being overweight, but this is a health problem on the other end of the spectrum, fostered by one of the very few industries left that somehow gets away with hiring (and more importantly, firing) people solely on their appearance.
A few years ago, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, under serious pressure from its critics, launched its Health Initiative Guidelines with the stated aim of improving the actual health of models. Modeling can be a deeply sketchy business, after all, and with models being expected to be super-slender, it is common for models to be pressured by their employers to adopt all kinds of unhealthy behaviors in order to remain skeletal. Anorexia and bulemia run rampant through the industry, and the anecdotes of modeling agencies or designers actually instructing models on anorexic or bulimic techniques are legion. So to that end, the CDFA put forth some basic goals to reverse all of that:
- Educate the industry to identify the early warning signs in an individual at risk of developing an eating disorder.
- Models who are identified as having an eating disorder should be required to seek professional help, and models who are receiving professional help for an eating disorder should not continue modeling without that professional’s approval.
- Develop workshops for the industry (including designers, agents, editors, and models and their families) on the nature of eating disorders, how they arise, how we identify and treat them, and complications that may arise if left untreated.
- Support the well-being of younger individuals by not hiring models under the age of sixteen for runway shows; not allowing models under the age of eighteen to work past midnight at fittings or shoots; and providing regular breaks and rest. (Consult the applicable labor laws found at www.labor.state.ny.us when working with models under sixteen.)
- Supply healthy meals, snacks, and water backstage and at shoots and provide nutrition and fitness education.
This week, the CFDA is proud to note that it is finally achieving a tangible result with its increased focus on health: getting designers to stop using models who are under the age of 16. DNA, Elite, Ford, IMG, Marilyn, New York Models, Next, One, Supreme, Trump, Wilhelmina, Women and Women Direct have all pledged not to send any models on the runway who are under the age of 16. One designer, Diane von Furstenberg, will require models to keep IDs on them and will card them every time they prepare to walk the runway. We will see how much the industry really abides by this. Models as young as 14 are not uncommon; a friend of mine who had a short modeling career started herself when she was 14, in part because she was unusually tall (and beautiful). She has stories to tell.
But why the effort to crack down on using such young models? Because the fashion industry’s warped aesthetic of female beauty has gotten so unrealistic that the only way it could get models to look the way designers want them to look is to get them while they are still children. The only other way to get models to fit the industry’s prescribed look is to kill them. Case in point: check out the model to the left. Look at her legs. Those are the legs of a chronically underweight person; when your knees are as wide as your thighs, something unusual is going on. I am reminded of a Sports Illustrated cover I once saw that had two bikini-clad supermodels on the cover, dressed in strategically placed football pads to promote the Super Bowl. One was holding a football, cocked back to throw. When you looked closely at the cover, though, you realized that the ball was only partially inflated; the model lacked the hand strength even to palm a football.