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.

Skinny model

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.

There has been in recent years a pushback to promote plus-size models and models who appear more like average women, with curves and fat on their bodies. And while being overweight is not good, either, the point is trying to break a dangerous mindset: that skinny isn’t good until it’s bony. On the internet, super-skinny models are sometimes mocked for looking like “a bag of antlers,” but beyond the mockery is a very serious health problem. For while the actual number of models at risk is a fairly small population, the number of women the industry is influencing is not. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search for “eating disorder” and see how long it takes to find material on how many teens are hit by it, and how much media impact plays a role. Anorexia and bulimia are potentially lethal eating disorders, whose spread is very much exacerbated by an industry’s relentless drive to tell us that regular is plus, slender is regular, skinny is slender, bony is skinny, and skeletal is ideal.

That the modeling and fashion industry is cracking down on the use of models under 16 is, in all reality, a superficial effort. What is needed is a wholesale cultural reset of what the industry thinks is attractive. But as long as models will hit the runway wearing the utterly ridiculous things they are asked to wear, I don’t think we can expect designers and agencies to come back to Earth on the issue of beauty any time soon. But there is a quantifiable limit that can be pushed for, and it is age. Child labor laws do protect models under 18, but as anybody who has ever seen an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras, modeling isn’t so much a job as it is a lifestyle, and one that is sometimes forced upon the models themselves. It is a line of work, frankly, that should be off-limits to anybody under 18.The workplace hazards are simply too great. I’d be interested to hear what any health insurer has to say about its claims history for people who have been professional models at one point or another. I’ll bet my eyeteeth that the history isn’t good. I’d also be interested to know if any modeling agencies provide health insurance of any kind for their models. I can’t imagine they would. Why bother, when you’re just going to forbid them from eating? Frankly, they would be better trying to provide group life insurance; the models will probably see a more immediate need for that.

As long a the fashion industry remains as predatory as it is, letting models take on serious work at 16 instead of 14 is merely delaying their inevitable descent into chronic underweight and eating disorders by two years. When you’re talking about such serious health problems, a two-year waiting period is like asking a drunk to wait half an hour before they go for their car keys. It’s still a half-measure aimed at deflecting responsibility for destructive practices without really upending how they have always done business. Better to have done nothing at all and be honest with itself than to dwell in the delusion that it actually cares for the health of its models, a group of professionals who have never unionized, who are routinely taken advantage of by the managers to whom they answer, and who are often used up and cast aside as fast as possibly. After all, it only takes a maximum of 14 years to get a new one.