02.08.10

What's Wrong With Skinny?

With New York Fashion Week kicking off tomorrow, expect the usual criticism of models being too thin. But the truth, says Lisa Hilton, is that these models are powerful, professional women just like athletes and that obesity, not anorexia is the real health disaster.

With New York Fashion Week kicking off tomorrow, expect the usual criticism of models being too thin. But the truth, says Lisa Hilton, is that these models are powerful, professional women just like athletes and that obesity, not anorexia, is the real health disaster.

Another spring, another show season. In the mercurial world of fashion, it's comforting to know that some things will never change—Anna Wintour's hairdo, an Olsen in the front row, and a tsunami of earnest media coverage on how a conspiracy of evil designers and foolish models are reducing women to jutting-collarboned wrecks, barely able to lift their heads from the lavatory bowl to make it to Barneys in time for the pre-collections.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Skinny Models

Let's be clear. Anorexia and bulimia are horrific psychological conditions, destroying lives and families, and carrying devastating long-term health risks even when not fatal. Sufferers deserve nothing but respect and support for their condition. But is that condition nearly so prevalent as the barrage of attention it regularly attracts actually deserves? And are women really so pathologically stupid that they are unable to distinguish the fantasy of the runway from the realities of their own bodies? Arguably, the "size zero" debate is merely another side of the infantilized, hysterical box women thought they had clawed their way out of a century ago, an insidious means of suggesting that though we can run companies and governments we're still not quite rational creatures, too dainty and delicate to cope with the dissonances between the Bambi-limbed aspirations of the catwalk and our own wretched, cellulite-smothered carcasses.

That women can be beautiful at any size, age, or color is something no serious person would dispute. But the fashion industry is ultimately unconcerned with beauty, its objective is selling clothes, and the consensus remains that in order to achieve this, models need to be thin. Whether or not this is aesthetically desirable is a matter of taste, not morality. The recent success of "bigger' girls such as Lara Stone or Daisy Lowe suggests that it does not always obtain, as V magazine's recent billboard campaign emphasizes. Even Karl Lagerfeld has jumped onboard the biscuits and gravy train with his latest shoot of Miss Dirty Martini. The fact remains that for girls chasing the big money, skinniness is professionally necessary.

I spoke to one ex-model, Sasha*, who in her heyday walked for Tom Ford and Galliano; "Sure, we had to be skinny. I lived on Diet Coke and apples for two years. For the couture, we had to get up at 4 a.m. to be sewn into the clothes and there was huge pressure to be thin. But I made a million dollars by the time I was 20, I bought a town house in Manhattan and put myself through Columbia. Does that make me a victim?" For every Sasha, there are a hundred hungry wannabes who fall by the wayside, but why are we so keen to dismiss the professionalism and discipline of models who are prepared to make sacrifices to reach the top? Is it a coincidence that modeling is the one profession outside the porn industry where women consistently out-earn their male counterparts? Are we just a bit angry that young women with no qualifications other than what nature gave them get to be so powerful?

Is it a coincidence that modeling is the one profession outside the porn industry where women consistently out-earn their male counterparts?

We rarely get hysterical about the weight qualifications required of male sportsmen. Jockeys, boxers, and wrestlers put themselves through torture to make weight. A survey published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine lists a range of weight-loss methods for jockeys that would make any model agency proud—69 percent skip meals, 34 percent use diuretics, 67 percent sweat off the pounds in the sauna, 30 percent regularly vomit and 40 percent use laxatives. So where are the angry headlines and government initiatives to fatten up our jockeys? Perhaps in sport, the sacrifices are viewed as noble, and the rewards (prize money or prestigious college scholarships) seen as secondary to the noble end of winning for its own sake. Shifting dresses is after all a frivolous little multibillion dollar industry. Or is it that men are considered psychologically robust enough to admire the buff beauties of GQ or Men's Health without getting their tighty-whities in a twist? Women, it is implied, are too fragile to make a distinction between the Victoria's Secret catalogue and their own closets. Young women who choose to conform to the demands of their industry in order to maximize their earnings are portrayed as irrational and deluded, while young men who make comparable choices are admired.

Eating disorders, we are told, are on the rise, ready to grab the gut of any vulnerable teenager who spends too much time dreaming over Vogue. Except, actually, they're not.

The South Carolina Department of Mental Health claims that one in 200 American women suffer from anorexia, as opposed to the American Heart Association's statistic of 39.4 million women suffering from obesity. So that's half a percent against 34 percent. EMJA, the medical journal of Australia, concurs with the 0.5 percent statistic, noting that anorexia nervosa is not common and adding, "Eating disorders have captured the public imagination… This publicity tends to obscure the continuing puzzle created by these…conditions." (Gilchrist et al., 1998) Clinical Knowledge Summaries 2009, the statistics department of the British National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence, says that 19 out of one million women are diagnosed as anorexic, as opposed to 240,000 per million for obesity. The British NHS survey of Disordered Eating noted 620 hospital treatments for anorexia or bulimia (with some patients registered twice or more) for 2005 to 2006 as opposed to 17,458 for the same period for obesity.

There is simply no argument to be had as to the most prevalent weight-related threat to young women's health, and yet still every year someone vilifies poor old Kate Moss for suggesting that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. Well, right on, Kate. The hoary old trope that models are statistically thinner than the average woman now as opposed to 20 years ago proves nothing more than that the average woman got heavier.

Women have always gone to absurd and often dangerous extremes in pursuit of the beauty myth. Fourteen-inch waists and mercury-eaten complexions for the Elizabethans, pthisis- inducing sponged muslin for Romantic groupies. One of the many rather creepy truisms trotted out in support of "real' models is that much fashion is produced by men who would prefer us to resemble adolescent boys. Yeah, we get that. Fashion is about fantasy, about impossibility, about, dare we say it, art. Most women can tell the difference. The suffragettes got us the vote and they did it in whalebone corsets. Stop the presses, how we look is not actually who we are.

Women recovering from severe eating disorders consistently report that their illness was not induced by the desire to look like Gisele, but by far more complex psychological issues. Is it not demeaning to insist that such women were gripped by nothing more than vanity? Feminism has created a world in which young women are safe and secure enough to do a lot of stupid things as part of a rite of passage—they can drink Jell-O shots and worship Robert Pattinson and grow up to become accountants or lawyers or CEOs. Laying off the Krispy Kremes for a few years in order to shimmy into Paige jeans is hardly on a par with being unable to menstruate, but the rhetoric of the eating-disorder lobby insultingly blurs the difference between harmless faddiness and genuine disease.

Thin is a feminist issue because it grabs the headlines from more serious causes with which committed feminists might concern themselves. As the late great George Carlin put it, "What kind of goddamn disease is this anyway? "I don't wanna eat!", "Well, go fuck yourself." If we want to worry about malnutrition, why don't we get exercised about the hundreds of thousands of women who starve slowly around the world? Thin is a feminist issue because the well-meant anxiety over eating disorders makes us look dim. It's patronizing and disempowering and reduces legitimate concerns over body issues to juvenile whining. We could just leave the models to get on with their job. Maybe the radical way to look at this season's shows would be to enjoy the spectacle, buy the frock and get on with something more interesting? Obviously, we're not all brainless enough to starve ourselves out of existence because a sinister conglomerate of designers and editors says we should. Sadly, the current correlation between fashion and anorexia suggests precisely that.

* not her real name

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Lisa Hilton is the critically acclaimed author of Athenais: The Real Queen of France and Mistress Peachum's Pleasure. She was educated at Oxford University and lives in London.