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Coming in February, 2007 (National Eating Disorders Awareness Month)!


There’s No Accounting for Fashion

February 21, 2008

With the end of the 2008 spring fashion Season in Paris coinciding with Eating Disorders Awareness Week next week, it seems a good time to ask what became of the international designers’ grand promises to replace the look of starvation with a glow of health on the catwalks.

Last year, if you will recall, the anorexia-related deaths of two runway models (since followed by at least one more) prompted fashion week organizers on both sides of the Atlantic to vow with great fanfare to promote “the message that beauty is health.” Milan’s Chamber of Fashion issued a non-binding “manifesto” stating that design leaders had a responsibility to "creatively and constructively transmit positive aesthetic models as an instrument of prevention" of eating disorders. In order "to give value to a healthy, sunny, generous Mediterranean model of beauty," mannequins working Italian runways were to have a minimum body mass index, or BMI, of 18.5. That’s about 127 pounds for the minimum runway height of 5’ 9 1/2”.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America issued its own "Health Initiative," stressing voluntary measures to "create an atmosphere that supports the well-being” of models. Unfortunately, the key word was not health or well-being, but voluntary. The CFDA actually specified that it would not recommend models be required to have a physical or body-mass assessment.

In its defense, the CFDA stressed that fashion alone does not cause eating disorders. But that’s like saying that Las Vegas does not cause gambling.

It’s true that certain people are biologically predisposed to eating disorders, just as alcoholics and compulsive gamblers have a biological vulnerability to addiction. But modeling lures those prone to eating disorders the same way casinos attract high rollers. At least 40% of fashion models struggle with anorexia or bulimia. These disorders, however, have a higher mortality rate than craps or roulette – or, for that matter, alcoholism, depression, or schizophrenia.

The problem extends far beyond the runway. Of the 10 million American women and girls who develop eating disorders, many avidly study glamour shots of skeletal models for “thinspiration.” This is the real reason why the size of models matters.

So what happened to all that bold talk about designers’ responsibility?

I serve on the advisory board of the Academy for Eating Disorders. Earlier this month several of my AED colleagues called on CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg, CFDA Executive Director Steven Kolb, and Nian Fisch, chair of the CFDA Health Initiative, for an update on their implementation of the Initiative. We have yet to receive an answer.

“Their failure to respond underscores that the CFDA health panel was all for show--just lip service and empty promises,” said Cynthia Bulik, PhD, past-president of the AED. “If there’s no accountability, there’s no action.”

In Europe, supermodel Marvy Rieder, whose marVie Foundation aims to create a healthier working atmosphere for aspiring models, has noticed that designers are showing clothes even smaller this year than last. One model who dropped to a European 34/36 (equivalent to a U.S. 0) in order to qualify for the Milan shows was told she still was “too fat.”

“Agencies often do not agree on the strict measurements made by the designers,” Rieder told me, “but they don’t want to be put out of business so they tell the girls to lose weight if they want to do the shows.”

Of fourteen recommendations made last year by the Model Health Inquiry chaired by Baroness Denise Kingsmill, the British Fashion Council has chosen to implement just four: London Fashion Week will ban models under 16; no more backstage drugs, smoking, or champagne; models will be allowed to rest between shows at a staffed apartment; and maybe by next September's Fashion Week, the Council will begin model health certification.

Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the British eating disorders charity Beat, is fed up. "We want the fashion industry to put its words into action, to just get on with it.”

In a world where real women wear an average size 14, why does the fashion industry mount such resistance to more substantial models? When asked, most designers reply bluntly that skinny girls make their clothes look better.

Here, then, is the ugly truth that each of us should consider whenever we open the latest Vogue or check out what’s new on the catwalk: in the world of fashion today, looks matter more than people do. Style is literally to die for.

below for more about Aimee's books & work.

Anthologies of fiction and nonfiction that Aimee has edited or contributed to.
a suspenseful novel of rescue and redemption set in Central Asia at the start of the Cold War, featuring two unforgettable heroines whose fates are irrevocably intertwined.
The unforgettable tale of star-crossed love that spans four decades and two continents.
A young photographer wrestles with her repressed past and identity as an Amerasian in New York's Chinatown. Now back in print after more than a decade, FACE is Aimee's first novel.
Work on Eating Disorders
While there are numerous memoirs available chronicling individual women’s struggles with anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, this is the first book to bring together many people’s stories to create a complete and candid picture of the recovery process. Aimee Liu has skillfully brought together firsthand accounts of recovery to create a realistic roadmap for the journey. This book also includes informational sidebars, written by professionals in the field, on topics including treatment options, choosing the right therapist, the pros and cons of medication, how parents and spouses can help, and much more.
How do anorexia and bulimia impact life AFTER recovery? GAINING is one of the first books about eating disorders to connect the latest scientific insights to the personal truth of life before, during, and especially after anorexia and bulimia.
America's first memoir of anorexia, and one of the earliest books about eating disorders, originally published in 1979
Craft & Criticism
Resources and suggestions for students and fellow writers
Aimee's latest book reviews