“You can never be too rich or too thin.” ~ Wallis Simpson. In the luxurious world of fashion, that seems to be the ultimate dream with the latter putting the models through physical and psychological hell. In an August 2015 interview with The London Times, one of the most in-demand models, Cara Delevingne indicated her intentions to end her rather profitable modelling career. The now 24 year old expressed that modelling not only caused job-related stress that manifested in psoriasis and anxiety, but that she also felt aged from constantly being on the edge about body issues. Delevingne speaking out may have swung the spotlight back onto body issues in the fashion industry, but she isn’t the first to speak up about it.
From the current crop of ‘It’ models, both Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner to industry veterans Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum have spoken out about criticism from agencies and designers about being ‘too fat’. If they think any of these models are fat, what exactly do they think is thin?
The Skinny of it
According to the British Association of Model Agents, the ideal body ratio for a height between minimum 5’8 to 5’11 should be 34-24- 34 (bust to waist to hips). The pursuit of the ideal body shape, or thinner than that, in the modelling industry has cost model’s their lives. Twenty-one year old Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died in December 2006 weighing a measly 40kg due to anorexia nervosa related complications, shortly after the passing of Uruguayan Model Luisel Ramos in August 2006. Ramos’ anorexia, which lowered her body mass index (BMI) to 14.5, led to her demise via heart failure during a fashion show. To put this in perspective, the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies a BMI of 16 as ‘severely dangerous’.
French model and actress Isabelle Caro chose to reveal the truth behind anorexia in the fashion industry. She became well known after appearing nude in “No Anorexia”, a controversial advertising campaign that showed the full impact that anorexia had on her body. In an interview with CBS News in 2007 she explained her decision to pose for the campaign, “I said if I can put my years of suffering to good use then it will not have been pointless. … I know it’s a shocking photo, and I want it to shock. It’s really a warning that it is a serious illness.” Isabelle lost her fight in November 2010 via acute respiratory illness at the age of 28. However the campaign achieved its aim, with France passing a legislation banning skinny models from the runway. Models now require doctor’s note to clear them as healthy with an appropriate BMI in order to work. In addition, all commercial photography that has digitally altered models has to clearly indicate what has been done to the image. Failure to comply could result in stiff fines and jail time.It doesn’t just affect women, men too feel the pressure to keep the inches down. Jeremy Gillitzer started out his modelling career with stunning looks and a six-pack. All the while, he struggled with bulimia and anorexia. The vicious cycle of self-induced vomiting, chronic starvation and over exercising completely broke down his body. He died at the age of 38 in 2010 at a shocking weight of 30Kgs.
Sadly, its cases like these that finally forced countries to acknowledge and react by creating legislation to prevent any more deaths due to eating disorders. Many European countries have set minimum BMI and ages on the runway, humane model employment regulations and overall portrayal in advertising. Italy, Israel and Spain for example developed a self-regulated code for their fashion industry that includes increasing the minimum model-working age to 16 and BMI of at least 18.5.
The US and the UK have introduced guidelines to promote healthier models in fashion. However, California proposed the Modelling bill AB2539 that is looking to make three annual check-ups, nutrition consultation by qualified health professionals and that models would have to be cleared as healthy even before an agency can hire them. The United Kingdom does have the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which is the self-regulatory, non-statutory organisation of the advertising industry. It has played a big part in keeping fashion houses on their toes when it comes to the health and beauty messages they communicate through their campaigns. They deemed the Gucci campaign, published on The Times website in December 2015 as “irresponsible” due to the “gaunt” look of their featured model. Despite the fact that the Italian fashion house argued that the model was just “toned and slim” and that the ad was for an “older, sophisticated audience”, the ad was still barred. The ASA also censured the Miu Miu campaign that featured 22-year- old actress and model Mia Goth, who was posed in a sexually suggestive way with voyeurism undertones. The ASA declared that the overall setting gave the impression that the model was younger than 16 and presented her in a vulnerable, sexual manner.
Youngsters in the industry
Young models aren’t new to the fashion industry. In fact, the industry has always been obsessed with all things youth. Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss started at 15 and 14 years respectively. In the 1980s, a 15-year- old Brooke Shields was part of the controversial Calvin Klein ad where she proclaimed, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” Today, we have 14-year old Israeli model Sofia Mechetner opening for Dior and Cindy Crawford’s 13-year- old daughter Kaia Gerber who was recently in a photoshoot for Vogue Italia despite the fact that all 21 international Vogue Magazines signed a pledge in 2012 to refrain using models younger than 16.These pubescent youngsters, in a hyper sexualised industry, lack the attributes of a full-grown woman’s body, distorting reality and expectations. From the older models who are pressured into meeting these younger-girl’s measurements, to the older women audience being shown that these youth dimensions are ideal standards of beauty. This further perpetuates the notion that looking young is the ultimate goal and encourages women to cling to youth as long as possible at any means necessary. However, the modelling industry is trying to incorporate aging adults in their campaigns and on their runways, for example Dolce & Gabbana AW15/16 editorials and runway shows incorporated older men and women. It’s a small percent but its way more than none.
For the young girls themselves, being immersed in a world where they are judged solely for their looks and their bodies, heavily critiqued or sexualised, isn’t a healthy experience. Kate Moss admitted to Vanity Fair about her nude shoot as a teen, “I see a 16-year- old now, and to ask her to take her clothes off would feel really weird. But they were like, ‘If you don’t do it, then we’re not going to book you again.’ So I’d lock myself in the toilet and cry and then come out and do it.”So one would argue the need for more diversity in the industry to promote healthier body perception, right? A good example is when sports illustrated featured plus-size model Ashley Graham on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. She’s received praise for making history but she’s also received her fair share of criticism. The outspoken YouTube comedian, Nicole Arbourin, claims in her controversial “Dear Fat People” video that the cover was photo shopped because Graham wasn’t of physical perfection worthy of the cover. Others commented that plus size models condone obesity and unhealthy eating habits, which is as bad as putting a size zero model on the cover or runway. Side note: recent studies have shown that fat acceptance actually resulted in improved public health. On the other hand, fat-shamming leads to binge eating and obesity.
Why they push the thin agenda
Ease of fitting /altering
If you’ve watched ‘Bride Wars’, then you’re familiar with the quote, “You do not alter Vera [Wang] to fit you, you alter yourself to fit Vera”. While it was used as comic relief in the movie, it basically rings true in the industry. Designers who pitch their designs to retailers, aka their cash cows, design clothing with only appealing shapes and draping in mind. They prefer thin and tall models because they can easily fit and squeeze into the design that they made on a standard size zero to two sized mannequin. French model Aymeline Valade told Euronews that most designer houses often use models without curves due to time constraints. “You’ve got to know that they don’t have time to perfectly fit the clothes and on a girl with curves, it’s hard to fit them because it takes time, it takes at least 24 hours for just one look. But a girl who has no curves, you can put on the clothes, and they just fall well,” she says. Then there are designers who claim that material used to make couture garments is so expensive that they cut back costs by reducing the amount of material required. Hence, thin models.
To make the model invisible
Models are some of the most beautiful people in the world, but they aren’t hired to necessarily announce that fact. Despite the fact that they must have stage presence in order to walk down the runway, their curves or beauty can’t detract from the outfit. The end goal is for people to talk about the clothes not the model. Slim and androgynous makes the model the right level of unnoticeable to get the collection through without the model upstaging the outfit.
There’s the notion that thinner people will sell more products. Why? The beauty industry benefits from the current system that capitalises on fear and insecurity. The idea is to create an ideal that’s hard to reach but give the hope that this brand sells the solution or elixir that will take you that much closer to the unachievable ideals.
Africa may not boast the same modelling regulations because very thin models don’t appeal to the fashion industries or audiences; as it does in Paris for example. As South African boss models agency director Linda Bruchhausen said “We prefer our models slender, toned, and [to] develop a lifestyle that is healthy and easy to maintain.” Nevertheless, as more models from Africa enter the European market, we as a continent can’t say we’re completely exempt from the impact of pressures of their fashion industries. therefore we must develop our own contingencies to ensures our models remain safe while working oversees. Home-base wise there is a need for a shift in standards on the continent for designers to incorporate more body types that reflect the women they are marketing to. While the runways in Kenya feature size eight models have been turned away during casting for being too short or too hippy. Kenya as a country needs to create legislation to protect models in general; especially the younger demographic since there are quite a few modelling whether commercial, high fashion or pageant levels. As well as borrow a leaf from the ASA and regulate the kind of content the viewers are exposed to. In the end, the industry may try to make small changes here and there but it’s the audience that holds the power to change. To shift the demand to healthy models and images we actually want to see. Modelling and fashion are businesses and therefore must respond to customer pressure.