The unwelcome return of size zero

The most booked models on the Fashion Week circuit had the waist circumference of a seven-year-old child (22 inches). Annmarie O’Connor explores the unwelcome return of the size zero debate.

The unwelcome return of size zero

THIN is in… again. Or, did it ever really go away? Such is the debate that has cast a languid shadow over the fashion world as the size zero debate rears its bony head anew. Underage models, not-so-secret Photoshopping and gory gossip from industry insiders have led tastemakers and lawmakers to defend their respective corners, each with the fury of arch pugilists in a fight that simply has no winner.

Not since 2006, when Brazilian models Ana Carolina Reston Macan, 21, and Luisel Ramos, 22, died of anorexia-related complications; followed in 2007 by Ramos’ younger model sister Elena, 18, has the issue reached such fever pitch. Add to the fact that the 2013 fashion week circuit’s most booked models bore the waist circumference of a seven-year old child (22 inches), has put the big four fashion capitals at the frontline of debate with the current autumn/winter 14 runway shows revealing more than next season’s trends.

Despite Madrid and Milan Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the Israeli government setting minimum BMI (body mass index) limits, not to mention the British Fashion Council urging fashion designers to use healthy models, it seems task forces and legislation don’t hold any real weight in an industry seduced by skinny.

Just ask former Australian Vogue editor-in-chief Kirstie Clements whose tell-all book The Vogue Factor sent perfectly coiffed waves down the international catwalks on its release last July. Clements, who was unceremoniously sacked, after 13 years at the helm of the style bible, shared anecdotal evidence of dark model behaviour from eating orange juice-soaked tissues to ward off hunger to being hospitalised on vitamin drips in a bid to stay ‘Paris thin’. No longer bound to the hallowed towers of Conde Nast, the editor-turned-author has spoken openly on publicity junkets of the inner machinations of the fashion magazine, such as fattening gaunt models with airbrushing — a matter in which she considered herself complicit.

A 2010 exposé by former Cosmopolitan editor Leah Hardy, also revealed the commonality of “reverse photoshopping” — a practice designed to make models look healthier (less ribs) whilst still maintaining those unrealistic tenets of beauty (22-inch waist; long limbs) that one associates with youth. And therein lies the rub. When children stop modelling adult clothing, beauty standards might start to alloy themselves with more realistic body shapes — not those of a pre-pubescent paradigm.

Ironically, Clements was among the 19 international Vogue editors who signed the Vogue Health Initiative in May 2012 (less than a fortnight before her dismissal): a bid to ban the use of underage models (a measure which Vogue Australia already endorsed) and encourage designers to use more realistic sample sizes. Alexandra Schulman, UK editor of Vogue, pre-dated the pact in a 2009 letter to Prada, Versace, Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel, raising the same sample size issue and its limitations. It seems that in a largely unregulated industry, cries for help remain just that.

Unfortunately since June 2012, the Vogue Health Initiative has been broken three times (unwittingly it alleges) with Vogue Mexico, Vogue China and Vogue Italia each shooting 15-year olds. Similarly, Marc Jacobs’s decision to hire two 14-year old models for his autumn/winter 12 show broke the guidelines set by the CFDA, while Miu Miu’s unchallenged use of 15-year-old cover girl Elle Fanning demonstrates the power of revenue over rectitude.

IMG Models, the agency which represents Karlie Kloss, Chanel Iman and Gisele Bündchen, has included five fuller-figured models in the show packages sent to casting agents at New York’s Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week 2014. PR-canny, yes; significant, hardly.

A survey conducted by The Model Alliance (www.themodelalliance.com), a non-profit organisation which aims to give a voice to US models, makes for uneasy reading. Statistics from a poll of 85 working models show that 55% started working between the ages of 13 and 16; 64% have been asked to lose weight by their agencies; and 68% experienced depression or anxiety.

The facts are clear but whether an entire industry can be blamed for such a vastly complex issue as female eating disorders is taking whistle-blowing to a new pitch. In ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe, breasts were tightly bound to emulate a then desirable tight torso. Corsets, first worn by Minoans of Crete, espoused their own urban legend from rib removal to organ disfigurement — all in the pursuit of a 13-inch waist. Painful Chinese foot binding has been a practice for upper-class girls up to World War II; three or four-inch feet seen as the epitome of femininity. Indeed petite is a delicacy much lauded by fashion throughout the ages but, admittedly, long before the advent of fashion publishing.

That is not to say the fashion elite is blameless nor that it shouldn’t make a more unified effort towards empowering women through less elitist beauty ideals, but to suggest that the devil wearing Prada is largely responsible for the majority of disordered eating is to undermine the very serious and complex nature of anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

The claim that today’s fashion model weighs 23% less than the average woman as opposed to 20 years ago when she weighed 8% less fails to take into account that women overall have gotten statistically heavier. According to the Change4Life health campaign, only 2% of women in England were classed as obese in the 1960s compared to today’s 27.7%. Likewise, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (09-10); cites the prevalence of obesity amongst women age 20 and older in the US as having increased from 13.4 to 35.7%.

Furthermore, recent studies have proven that women are less prone to be influenced by advertisements featuring skinny women than would have previously been suggested. A recent study conducted by Warwick Business School (www.wbs.ac.uk) about reactions to idealised models as examples of aspirational living prove, in certain cases, that women can be ostracised from the product in question; the more blatant the pandering the more defensive the reaction.

The same cannot be said for more susceptible age groups: girls and teenagers. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, about 70 percent of girls from fifth class to final years cited magazine images as influencing their body image. This is further bolstered by the worrying trend of ‘thinspiration’ and pro-ana (pro-anorexia) websites which motivate extreme weight loss among its network of (predominantly young) members via imagery of thin models and celebrities.

What these statistics fail to capture is a collectively unconscious attitude to thinness as a virtue, one which permeates more subtle social cues such as language, gossip and social acceptance. Much of our beliefs about our own bodies are shaped by those around us; much closer to home than the glossy pages of a magazine. The existing culture of body shame has deeper roots — one in which we are all, to a degree, co-conspirators. Tabloid magazines exposing ‘top 20 worst beach bodies’ have little to do with airbrushing and good lighting yet operate on a more Roman forum where power is regained in a front cover judgement.

Neither is right and in a perfect world more parity would exist between what people want and what they’re presented with. The fact remains that for the top tier of high fashion models working the couture houses and big ticket runway shows, thinness is a professional pre-requisite in order to make big money, much like a jockey, ballerina, wrestler or body-builder.

Unlike a jockey, ballerina, wrestler or body-builder, the fashion world is much more ubiquitous and therefore held more accountable for its influence on the world at large. The abiding task at hand is in finding a new normal — one that doesn’t represent the rarefied cadre of casting agents, kingpin designers and ad execs with multi-million dollar budgets, one that doesn’t force its golden girls to starve for their supper. In the meantime, get set for the hunger games 3.0 — the battle has just commenced.

More in this section

Click and connect: 100 places in Munster to shop locally this Christmas

#HomeAtHeart

We want to help you to connect with the people you love, but may not see, this Christmas.  Every Saturday, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we will publish your messages in print and online, starting November 28.

Say it here, in the Irish Examiner.