Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Argument Wears Thin

There is nothing new about the suggestion that actresses and fashion models are virtual skeletons. Compared to other young women their age, women to whom the movies they make and the clothes and products they promote are usually targeted, these fragile, photogenic freaks of nature have always been at least a good two or three sizes smaller and several inches taller.

Speaking as someone who has loved fashion since girlhood, devouring all the best glossies and eventually doing a little modeling herself before coming to her senses and realizing that--according to prevailing standards at least--twenty-one was too old, and a fighting weight as low as 115 lbs. was still too heavy for my height (five-seven and a half...always remember to mention that important half), I must tell you that eating disorders among the professionally pretty are not just rampant, they are pretty much compulsory if one wants to compete for the lucrative work. Girls who suffer with anorexia, the most lethal of the various syndromes known as eating disorders, are usually so shockingly and heartbreakingly thin, their illness is obvious to anyone with decent vision. But disordered eating can take many (somewhat) less dire forms, and oftentimes its effects not only stop short just this side of Time to Hospitalize but also do not become evident until years later. Sub-normal body fat levels can cause amenorrhea, which in turn causes sub-normal estrogen levels, and this leads to weak, brittle bones. Constant deydration caused by the abuse of diuretics and laxatives can lead to kidney damage and heart problems, to say nothing of dull eyes and skin. Throwing up one's dinner on a regular basis will not only damage the esophagus, but rot dental enamel and wreck electrolyte levels, which can, in turn, lead to cardiac irregularities, and oh yes, death.

Most of the girls (if not all of them) were, and are, well aware of these risks, but the professional rewards of being extremely slender are terribly hard to resist. And as if that weren't enough, there are social benefits too, in the sense that a tall, beautiful, and very thin young woman--one who might be foreign and thus not speak English very well or have the support of friends and family--quickly finds herself the center of attention. In our legendarily image-obsessed culture--hell, in most cultures--everyone loves a pretty girl. Furthermore, adults generally have an instinctual urge to protect and help children (or those our eyes are telling us look like children, what with their lack of womanly characteristics like rounded bottoms or breasts consisting of actual fat tissue as opposed to silicone) and the frail. Being surrounded with people wanting to do everything for you is nothing if not intoxicating.

Knowing that friends and family read this blog and not wanting to horrify them, I won't delve too deeply into my personal history with the thin-at-all-costs mindset. Instead, I'll simply state that it has been both my experience and my observation that disordered eating among young women, especially those who seek work in fashion or film, can mean anything and everything. Substituting lettuce and cigarettes for meals, for example. Living on one or two types of food, like instant oatmeal and grapefruit juice, and eschewing everything else, every day. Going to a "doctor" for one's weight problem and getting amphetamines that not only cause that pesky hunger to evaporate but also help one stay awake for late-night studying. Drinking huge mugs of vile-tasting laxative tea the day before a swimsuit shoot so one's stomach will be nice and flat. And so on.

None of it is new; quite the opposite. There were stick-thin girls in the 1970's, and there are stick-thin girls today. And few, if any, were, or are, naturally thin--not if you define natural as thinness that occurs without engaging in unnatural behavior or taking in unnaturally scant amounts of nutrition. So I'm a bit curious as to what has caused this year's runway uproar.

Last week the organizers of Madrid fashion week, usually an overlooked event in comparison with the major shows in New York, London (this week), Milan and Paris, said they were banning models with a height-to-weight ratio below what the World Health Organization considered normal. In effect, models who weigh less than 125 pounds are prohibited from working the runways. Organizers of the event said they wanted to project “an image of beauty and health.”

Complaints about the idolization of role models who suggest unhealthy lifestyles are culturally endemic. Celebrities like Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Mischa Barton have all been subjects of tabloid headlines asking, “Are they too thin?” In all likelihood, the answer is yes, but that does not stop magazines from displaying their pictures or, likewise, designers from casting thin models in their shows.

And then, according to the website Euronews:

Under pressure from campaigners, certain local authorities in Spain have taken action. In Andalusia, shops are not allowed to display clothes of continental size 36, size 8 in the UK, or smaller. Antonio Pernas, a designer at the Madrid fashion week says: "We have reached an agreement and I think it's the right thing. The models should not have a negative influence with the young."

At which point London was quick to consider following suit:

Britain's premier fashion event has found itself under siege after health experts and Culture Minister Tessa Jowell suggested it should consider following Madrid which last week announced it would ban too-tiny women from its shows.

Madrid's plan, that has already seen some models rejected for its shows -- aims to ban models with a body mass index (BMI) -- a ratio of height to weight -- of less than 18.

In an effort to diffuse the weight row, organisers the British Fashion Council cancelled a photocall on Sunday, where some of Britain's top models were due to showcase London Fashion Week's shows spanning cult 1960s label Biba to a one-off appearance by Giorgio Armani's younger line Emporio Armani.

Yet, the debate continues to simmer among fashionistas and designers at the five-day event. While most agree eating disorders sparked by the industry need to be addressed, they say the Spanish solution is not the way to do it.

This is a topic that's never far from my mind, for the reasons above, and because I dearly wish our culture would widen its definition of what is beautiful and what will sell. The first blog post I ever wrote, for Melissa's fabulous Shakespeare's Sister, concerned my struggle since youth with body image issues; first there was the weight thing, and now there is that as well as the aging thing (I'll be 46 in a few weeks). As a feminist mother, I am often secretly relieved that I had three boys instead of three girls; as much as I lecture my kids now about healthy habits and staying true to one's convictions as opposed to following the crowd, were there scrawny, lettuce-nibbling females at my dining table instead of wild little pizza-scarfing warriors, I imagine I'd be nothing less than The Wicked Witch of the Eats, doling out protein bars and omega-3 fatty acid supplements along with my sermons.

Still. I really don't think government belongs on our runways any more than in our bedrooms, and I can't imagine that magazines, television, and cinema--all of which have a vast audience, unlike fashion shows, which are attended by a relatively small percentage of the population--would stand for one moment of being told what sort of body types they can and cannot depict. What's more, in all the years I've followed fashion, letters to the editor complaining about overly-thin models would seem to have fallen on deaf ears. It's like this: the editor or the advertising agency wants a certain look, and if a girl fits that image in his or her head, she will get the job, regardless of her lettuce-and-cigarettes lunch, regardless of any bad habits (and yes, I'm talking about drugs), regardless of her cell phone throwing, her chronic tardiness, or her penchant for throwing operatic tantrums. When the big Kate Moss cocaine scandal broke last year and large companies whose products Moss helped sell were tearing up her contracts left and right, pop culture pundits and fashion editors alike wondered if she'd ever work again. But this month, you can open any telephone-book-thick Fall Fashion Issue, and Moss is practically on every other advertising page, selling luxury handbags, pricey jewelry, and plenty of haute couture as though nothing had happened. She fit the images that sprung up in the minds of the image-makers, and thus she became the images on the page once more. Not only do the ad agencies, the designers, the editors, and the companies who make the products not care about the general message this sends to impressionable young people--if you're really thin and photogenic, you'll get all sorts of modeling work, attention, money, and fame, and it doesn't even matter if you take dangerous drugs--they don't really care about Ms. Moss herself, or any of the other pretty young things they'll employ as long as they're workable.

They just want that picture.

So perhaps, if we're serious about empowering young women, discouraging unhealthy behavior and eating disorders, and effecting change in the way women are depicted in in advertising, fashion media, television, and movies, we consumers must be the ones to spearhead the sea change. Bearing in mind that advertising = revenue for most media, I wouldn't bother writing to magazines and TV stations to complain about their use of pre-pubesecent wraiths to sell party dresses and cellulite cream. Instead, I'd suggest contacting the companies that advertise therein, telling them you won't buy their products until the media in which they advertise cease and desist with the emaciated mannequins. Conversely, when you come across an ad (or a movie or TV show or magazine feature) with images offering positive role models for young women, send an e-mail of thanks and support.

You never know: by the time my lads have a few daughters, it might be safe to let them read Vogue or even attend the odd runway show with their fashion-obsessed Grand-mère.

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