Archive for August 2010
Published in Russh, May/June 2007. Copyright Rachel Hills 2007.
From the tabloids to the catwalk, there’s no escaping the obsession with thinness that has engulfed popular culture. Rachel Hills delves into the heart of the skinny debate.
It was a story made for the tabloids. Heading backstage for her final dress change at a Uruguayan Fashion Week show in August last year, 22-year-old Luisel Ramos suddenly turned pale and said she had heart pains. Before she made it to the changeroom she collapsed. Despite the best efforts of onsite doctors and an emergency medical team, 15 minutes later she was dead.
Ramos’ untimely passing was the catalyst that pursuaded Madrid to ban models with Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) lower than 18.5 from its catwalks. Milan soon followed suit, banning models aged under 16 and requiring a medical certificate showing they were not suffering from an eating disorder. The deaths of Brazillian model Ana Carolina Reston three months later, and Ramos’ 18-year-old sister, Eliana, in February this year, cemented the issue as one that – for now, at least – is here to stay.
“Skinny models” themselves are nothing new. The term dates back to the 1920s designs of Paul Poiret, who replaced the curves of the corset with a streamlined, boyish look for women. Twiggy’s naturally androgynous frame caused controversy in the 1960s and the outwardly athletic Jane Fonda secretly battled bulimia in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, with the onslaught of “heroin chic”, that underweight models became a public issue.
In Australia, at least, things have improved since then. “Our models are generally larger and healthier than those in the international fashion events,” says Zoe Edquist of the Australian Fashion Council. Internationally though, models are thinner and younger than ever – it’s just that our attention has shifted to the almost equally shrinking and arguably more influential celebrities that grace our television screens, magazine covers and favourite blogs.
But death is the harshest wake-up call, and while Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, Mary-Kate Olsen and Paris Hilton have all admitted to eating disorders, they are also still very much alive.
Luisel Ramos is not, although the links between the modelling industry and her death are less solid than they appear at first glance. For one, Ramos’s involvement in fashion was as much behind the scenes as it was in the limelight – she modelled solely for Uruguayan fashion luminary Maria Ines Roderiguez, for whom she also helped coordinate shows.
For another, Ramos’s family and fiance fiercely denied the rumours that followed her death: that she had been told she could “make it big” as a model if she lost weight; that she’d lived off nothing but green vegetables and Diet Coke for three months; that drugs were involved. A post-mortem examination of Luisel’s body indicated they were speaking the truth: it showed no signs of malnutrition or drugs, nor was there a history of cardiac problems in the family. On the other hand, when her sister Eliana died, also of a heart attack, six months later, evidence suggested it was caused by malnutrition. To this date, we can only guess at the true cause of Luisel’s death.
Ana Carolina Reston’s November 2006 passing was less mysterious: she spent her last three weeks in a Brazillian hospital. Her whittled 38kg frame meant that modelling work had dried up months before.
The real story may not be as black and white as the one told in the tabloids, but it’s not as rosy as the one favoured by the fashion industry either. As fashion academic Donna Reston points out, just because this is the first time we’ve seen a catwalk model die from an eating disorders doesn’t mean that it’s a new problem for the industry.
Discussions of industry reform have featured a common refrain: that regulating BMIs discriminates against naturally slender models. When the Melbourne Fashion Festival considered introducing a minimum BMI of 18.5 for their March shows (they later decided against it), Matthew Anderson of Chadwick Models told The Age it was “disgusting and discriminatory”. Over in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld called reforms “politically correct Fascism”.
But these comments miss a pivotal point: that for many of today’s top international catwalk models (who average a BMI of 16.3), the extreme thinness that is demanded of them doesn’t come naturally.
Take Natalia Vodianova who, at 175cm, weighed a tiny 53kg when she gave birth to her son. Within two weeks, she was back on the runway and thinner than ever, at just 48kg. But she wasn’t well. “I was nervous, oversensitive and I had thinning hair. I wasn’t even aware I was unhealthy. I didn’t know there was something wrong with me. I thought I was just doing my job,” she told a New York Fashion Week panel on eating disorders in February.
As her weight began to return to normal, “Couture houses were calling my agency to complain that I had put on 2cm all over,” she said. Vodianova was and is a veritable star, and as such had more bargaining power than the average runway model. She defended herself. “I think because I was one of the girls most in demand it helped me to be able to forget the incident quickly. On the other hand, it makes me think that if I had been weak at the time, I can really imagine how it could have helped me endanger myself.”
For many models, that threat of losing work is a major motivation to maintain a low weight – and to keep your mouth shut about it. In the post-supermodel age, says Donna Reamy, models are as dispensable as any other casual worker. “If one girl will not lose the five or ten pounds, another girl will. The demand is there [for models to be thin], and the supply is high. If the girl wants to work, she has to play the game.” Models eat, but many scrape by on a can of corn or an apple a day, says Dutch model Marvy Rieder.
It doesn’t hurt that many of the girls walking the runway come from underprivileged backgrounds. For Ana Carolina Reston, the desire to earn money to support her family was as much a motivation as the desire to be a successful model. Vodianova comes from a similarly poor background.
According to Monash University Psychology Professor Felicity Allen, such a background can result in a lower body weight at adulthood. Allen is skeptical of fashion industry claims that the BMI is not an accurate measure of health. “The reason we can set rules like 18 to 24 is because this is based on a lot of research on a lot of people. There’s an acceptable range for health.”
Under what circumstances might someone be more likely to fall outside that range? “You can be exceptionally small for a number of reasons – growth problems, poor feeding, a major infection in early childhood.” Of the poor backgrounds that many top models come from, she remarks, “They may also be more willing to put up with a life of semi-starvation.”
But why the move towards that exceptional thinness in the first place? Reamy puts it down to one of fashion’s core principles: that everything ends in excess. “If you look at pants, you’ll notice they’ll go as wide as they possibly can and then they go the other way,” she says. Models are just another “accessory” taken to the extreme. “They’ve gotten as thin as they possibly can. They can’t get any thinner, so I think we’re going to see a turn around.”
But not too much of a turn around. Allen is unsure how effective broad guidelines like those developed by America’s Council of Fashion Designers or the Australian Fashion Council can be. “You’ve got a very major culture change issue here. If you want to get it happening you have to put in objective standards and then you have to enforce them. It’s no good just talking,” she says.
For Allen, this issue isn’t solely about the models: it’s about what happens when the beauty ideal is so far down one end of the bell curve that even those genetically predisposed struggle to achieve it. “This pushes a lot of women not into anorexia but into constant dieting, and I think that’s a much bigger problem in terms of being more widespread and causing unhappiness, self doubt and an inability to enjoy food,” she says. Thinner models lead to thinner celebrities, which in turn create a beauty ideal seriously out of step with an average woman who is growing, not shrinking, in size.
Perhaps it’s only a revision of that ideal that will lead to real change. Reamy hopes that the recent debate around the issue will lead to action. “You’re still going to see thin models, but maybe not as thin,” she says. “I think it will help.”