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Fattening Up Fashion Models

04.30.2008 | SOCIETY

"Project Runway" has been a mixed blessing for the fashion industry. On one hand, it's given us the chance to become acquainted with some of its leading lights, such as designer Michael Kors and everybody's favorite dominatrix, Heidi Klum. Not to mention the beloved Tim Gunn. (Can he be Secretary of Design in Obama's administration?) Also, it helps you appreciate how hard aspiring designers work.

On the other hand, seldom before has the public gotten a good, long look at models. Not the slender, but still curvy, women who strut and preen through a Victoria's Secret TV special or who grace the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, but your standard runway model.

You can just hear viewers going, "Wow, they really are that thin." Especially in comparison with Heidi, who's brimming with good health, the Project Runway models look like they were shaped by Bodies by Dachau.

Perhaps because death camps were on its soil, Europe has begun to recoil before an industry in which, instead of a metaphor, hunger to succeed is literal. In a recent Washington Post article, "France Takes Aim at Cult of Thinness," Molly Moore and Corinne Gavad report: "This month, the French fashion industry signed an agreement to combat anorexia by promoting healthy body images in advertisements and on Paris runways."

Sounds kind of grudging and perfunctory, doesn't it? But the lower house of the French legislature just passed a bill which "now goes to the Senate [that] would make it illegal to 'provoke a person to aspire to excessive thinness by encouraging prolonged food limitations.'" Come to think of it, not much teeth in that one either. How do you prove that one party "provoked" another's "aspiration"?

Earlier though, three other members of the European Union took more quantifiable measures. Spain, according to Moore and Gavad, "banned models with less than a specified body mass index." Italy now requires "all models to present health certificates proving they do not suffer from eating disorders." And Britain calls for "models with anorexia or bulimia to prove they are being treated for the disorders before they can participate in London Fashion Week." (From here on, at risk of being reductive, we'll use anorexia as short-hand for all food disorders.)

Of the measures in her country, Isabelle Maury, editor of the French version of Elle magazine, complained: "A girl doesn't become anorexic only because she sees skinny models in magazines. Anorexia is linked to personal stories, genetics, family environment and psychological traumas." True, of course. Though she might have done Elle a favor if she'd left off her last sentence: "However, it doesn't mean that we don't feel concerned." Generous of her -- or just disingenuous?

Pressure on models to "make their weight," as if they were wrestlers or boxers sweating off the pounds, is sometimes attributed to misogynistic tendencies among gay fashion designers. (Note: Commenters are advised to refrain from accusing this author of homophobia. He's only trying to sort out these accusations.)

In his blog Center of Gravitas, Gayprof maintains that misogyny is as rife among gay men as straight. Whereas straights fear women's power -- or hate their mothers or whatever –- some gays nurse an "irrational fear and hatred of women's bodies."

"For many gay men," he writes, "degrading women's bodies as dysfunctional, inferior, or just plain icky becomes a means through which they attempt to build unity with other gay men."

But aren't gay fashion designers, who devote their careers to paying tribute to women, less likely than other men, straight or gay, to suffer from misogyny?

Perhaps the thinness a fashion designer decrees may not be intended to harm women. Instead, as others believe, he's only engaged in a quest to reshape the female form into an ideal of his: the adolescent male. In other words, no need to worry -- the designer is just a pedophile, not a misogynist.

However, this writer (certified LGBT-friendly!) is more comfortable giving him the benefit of the doubt and presuming neither. Still, it might behoove the designer to head such charges off at the pass by abolishing an ideal, excessive thinness, that's either unattainable for young women or, when attained, turns out to be the exact opposite of ideal.

Any influence that fashion designers and editors might have on young women careening down the road to anorexia is welcome. Especially when coupled with psychotherapy, nutrition counseling, medication, and support groups. Meanwhile, doctors and therapists are unstinting in their efforts to unearth undiscovered causes and devise new methods to treat anorexia (not to mention, get rich off the parents of anorectics).

But since the cure rate, even for those who enter treatment early, remains around 40 percent, they clearly need help. As one who's flirted with anorexia, the author feels compelled to weigh in. Action plan (as they say): Instead of just trying to build up the low self-esteem endemic to the anorectic, why not honor the affliction itself?

What? Honor -- as in encourage -- anorexia? There are already plenty of websites playing with fire by helping young women string out food disorders as long as can. It's not a lifestyle, but a deathstyle, with the highest fatality rate of any psychological illness.

To be more exact, what the author suggests is honoring the impulse to anorexia. For those unfamiliar with the lore of Alcoholics Anonymous, founder Bill Wilson was once the recipient of a letter from Carl Jung. The revered psychology pioneer wrote of a patient's craving for alcohol as "the equivalent of a low end of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness" or for "union with God."

In other words, alcoholism may, in many cases, be an unchanneled spiritual longing. This is also true of drugs, of course. Hallucinogens are often ingested expressly to achieve spiritual experiences.

Among anorexia support groups, some, such as Eating Disorders Anonymous, are based on Wilson's 12-step model. By implication then, anorexia too may be the precursor to a spiritual quest. Ultimately of course, the idea is to transcend alcoholism, drug abuse, or anorexia and let the spirit begin to soar in earnest.

In her groundbreaking book, "Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia," a source of solace to a generation of anorectics, Marya Hornbacher hints at this. "And it becomes a crusade," she writes, with which, "perfectly pure," she was "wholly obsessed."

In another book, "Starving for Salvation," Michelle Mary Lelwica maintains that for many anorectic girls and women, a "media-saturated, consumer-oriented culture" has replaced the "primary images, beliefs, and practice" of traditional religion. In fact, she writes, "a network of symbols, beliefs, and rituals centering on bodily appetites and appearances constitutes. . . a 'secular' salvation myth." (Emphasis added.)

Then of course, there's the time-honored religious practice of fasting. Based on the principle that nature abhors a vacuum, it operates on the assumption that spirit, and not a fool, will rush in to fill it. Also, it's a method for gaining control -- a concept that, however anathema to psychologists, is arguably key to most spiritual quests, especially Eastern.

Of course, not soon after you've got anorexia by the tail, just like alcohol and drugs, it whips around and bites you. But in the beginning, food disorders have been known to not only increase energy, but aid concentration and calm the nerves.

The anorectic is then in a better position to listen to his or her body, just like students of yoga and meditation are exhorted to do. Anorectics, however, are the equivalent of conservatives listening to echo-chamber disc jockeys on one radio station, while ignoring the emergency broadcast system at the other end of the dial.

Finally, however morbid, the anorectic might receive intimations unavailable to the average person of what's it like to pass on, and, mercifully free of one's body, become pure spirit. Of course, it's at this point that the anorectic can be pretty sure he or she has gone too far.

Those anorectics philosophically opposed to all matters of the spirit may be uncomfortable with viewing their affliction as a spark that can be fanned into the flame of a spiritual practice. They're free to think of it instead as evidence of a strong will just waiting to be let loose on the world.

Meanwhile, one of the advantages of honoring the impulse to anorexia is that when one is on a quest, he or she is more likely to not only accept, but seek guidance. If the high priests of Ms. Lelwica's secular religion are fashion designers and editors, in the initial stages of recovery the anorectic might be more receptive to taking cues from them instead of counselors and therapists.

Thus it's no help at all when, playing the fashion magazine editor as drama queen to the hilt, Elle editor Maury whines about the bill wending its way through the French legislature: "It may mean that we won't be able to publish anything."

However difficult to make them stick, she or someone else in the industry may one day be brought up on charges of aiding and abetting the death of an anorexic model. After all, it's an episode of "Law & Order Special Victims Unit," if it were to go on location in Paris, just begging to be written. Enterprising French public prosecutor finds smoking gun -- like when screener for modeling agency tells applicant: "Vous êtes trop gros."

You can't have too many irons in the fire when dealing with food disorders. A relaxation of the fashion industry's body-fat content is one; therapists and treatment centers another. Throw in honoring the impulse to anorexia and who knows? Anorectics far and wide might surprise those trying to help them with their response.

"I just wanted a little acknowledgment that I knew what I was doing. Now I'm ready to see if you know what you're doing."

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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