Modeling and Eating Disorders
of risk to fashion models has been very much in the news for a while now, and
much of what has been said and done, while perhaps well meaning, has conveyed
far more heat than light. For all the
vast number of words being devoted to the issue, the fashion industry itself
and, more importantly, parents of models, are left with little reliable
The truth isn’t easy to find – in
fact, truth about many of the claims being made on the issue may not even
exist. But that doesn’t stop the claims
from being made, and the actions from being taken.
So let’s try to sort some of the
fact from all the fiction, and see what conclusions should be drawn. This is a complex issue, and we can’t expect
parents and models to do all the reading for themselves, so let’s start with a
“Sound Bites” version. A more detailed
discussion will be added for those who are interested.
The eating disorder most relevant to modeling is
anorexia nervosa. Briefly, this is
a psychological disorder which causes people to maintain an abnormally low body
weight, generally through extreme dieting, though it may encompass other
behaviors as well. Anorexic models have
unrealistic assessments of their own body, often seeing themselves as “fat”
even when they are extremely thin.
Anorexia afflicts about 1% of women in America at
some time in their lives. Typically
it affects young women age 15-25, most commonly beginning about 16, although it
can appear at any age.
There is no question that agencies and clients do put
pressure on models to be very thin; whether this causes a medically
significant disorder is much less clear.
Models may greatly restrict food intake, or use other
techniques, including dangerous ones like purging to meet industry size requirements,
although these rarely meet the definition of an eating disorder.
Bulimia, for instance, is
generally an affliction of average- and above-weight people, but its practices can still
be harmful even when a clinical case of bulimia is not present.
Fashion models, like everybody else, are at risk for
anorexia. That risk is likely
amplified by the emphasis put on a very slim body as a requirement for
Most fashion models are naturally very slim, and a
considerable majority of them have normal, healthy eating habits. Some models do have to take considerable
care to control their weight. Nonetheless, despite the appearance,
relatively few fashion models are really unhealthy due to weight and diet.
Available research does not show that fashion
models are afflicted with eating disorders any more than the general
population. There is no lack of
exaggerated claims, but they seem unfounded.
Although some studies have been done, there is no authoritative study on
Other occupations which put a premium on slim
body image (dancers, gymnastics, skating, extreme athletics) have been shown
to have a higher prevalence of eating disorders (but generally not
anorexia) than the general population.
It would not be unreasonable to expect some such effect on fashion
models, even though the evidence for it is no more than anecdotal.
There is no evidence that anorexia is becoming more
common. There is nothing new about
hyper-skinny fashion models, as the “heroin chic” look of the mid 1990s
attests. Epidemiological studies in the
US do not support the claims of in increase in anorexia in the general
The current cases of dangerously thin models seem to
come from Eastern Europe and South America, rather than America. It has been suggested, not without reason,
that the need to feed a family may cause a model to acquiesce to pressure more
than a model from a more affluent country would.
The death of two South American fashion models has
drawn a lot of recent attention to the risks. An unholy alliance of interest groups, politicians and sloppy,
sensational journalism has made the risk appear to be severe. These two deaths, while tragic, are not
unlike the many deaths from anorexia which occur annually in the general
Much of the discussion in the press on the issue has
been false. The Internet is rife
with faked pictures of fashion models which purport to show them cadaverously
skinny; journalists often make exaggerated claims that are not supported by the
Industry Attempts at a Solution
There have been several recent attempts by
politicians to control the problem.
Most visibly, these have included restrictions on the Body Mass Index
(BMI) of models participating in international fashion shows. However, to date these restrictions have been
ineffective, and seem more driven by a desire to be seen “doing something” than
by a mature understanding of the problem and solutions.
There are legal constraints on what can be done by
the industry. Formal rules to
restrict access to jobs because of an arbitrary measure such as BMI likely
would run afoul of US labor laws.
Other suggestions have been made that the industry
can implement. These include
banning runway models under age 16, improving the nutrition in food available
backstage at fashion shows, encouraging agencies to provide monitoring and
support services, discouraging magazines and advertisers from using extremely
thin models, and generally raising consciousness on the issue.
Mandating use of heavier models will not solve the
problem. Whether the line is drawn
at size 0, size 2 or size 4, fashion models will always be much slimmer than
average, and “slim” will still be perceived as desirable. Anorexics will still have unrealistic
assessments of their own bodies. An
anorexic girl in a hospital bed will still see herself as “fat” no matter who
walks down the runway.
What Parents Need to Know
Causes of eating disorders are complex. The factors which cause a girl to exhibit
symptoms are much more than just exposure to media images of thin people or
pressures to meet fashion modeling job requirements. A psychologically healthy girl put into that environment is far
less likely to become a victim than one that is already less mature and stable.
The government and the fashion industry are not the
solution. The approaches suggested
and tried so far are no more than band-aids that feel good, but don’t really
address the causes of the problem.
A girl who has issues which can lead to eating
disorders should consider some other line of work. Modeling is stressful, often gives girls
less responsible supervision than they need, and can exacerbate disorders, or
tendencies, which were already present.
Young models need supervision and guidance. Eating disorders are just one of many risks
young models face. Parents need to
approach evaluation of that risk like they would any other – from a position of
knowledge, judgment and a realistic appraisal of both the risks and their own
daughter’s maturity and emotional health.
Models and parents should not ignore warning signs, but neither should
they become paralyzed over exaggerated claims about the dangers.
The more common problem is not "eating disorders" at all.. Far more models will try rational (if misguided
and sometimes dangerous) techniques to reduce or control weight to meet real industry standards, even though
they are not suffering from a true eating disorder. Focusing on the extreme cases
and on psychological disorders runs the risk of blinding us to the lesser, but real
risks that the pressures of the industry can put on models.
An excellent resource is available to help guide
parents. The discussions at www.anred.com provide a balanced,
knowledgeable source of information on the risk factors and symptoms that will
help models and their parents understand the issue in much more depth than they
can get from the popular press.
Examples and Sources:
The Press Cannot Be Trusted:
example of irresponsible journalism that exaggerates the issue is to be found
at http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/76241.php The author of that article starts off with
an inflammatory lead paragraph: “Models
seem to be suffering the brunt of the fashion industry's obsession with size
zero, according to a new study carried out by the Model Health Inquiry. The
study indicates that as many as 40% of models may currently be suffering from
some kind of eating disorder.”
In fact, the preliminary report of that study, which is
what is claimed as the source of that statement, contains nothing of the
sort. The study says that other
fields, not modeling, have been shown to have higher risk of eating disorders,
up to 40%. However, the study is
careful not to include modeling in that statement: “Dr Key has stressed that there have been no detailed studies
that have investigated this population and therefore no data to confirm or
disprove a high rate of employment related eating disorders in this sector.” http://www.modelhealthinquiry.com/docs/Interim%20Report%201.pdf
“Solutions” Have a Life All Their Own
Politicians in Madrid opened with a “solution”: they banned models with a BMI of less than
18.5 from shows at Madrid Fashion Week.
In short order, Milan politicians forced a similar measure there,
coupled with a “modeling license” requirement based on a health
certificate. Similar measures have been
urged, but not adopted in fashion capitals such as Paris, London and New York.
Generally, responsible observers have concluded that such
measures are “a blunt instrument” which target the wrong issues, and have been
ineffective. Again, from the same
British study, for example: “we have no
evidence that this has been enforced or that the intervention has been
Nonetheless, activists, politicians
and the media are not the sort to be put off by little practical difficulties
such as the fact that a “solution” doesn’t work. Recently a journalist who is also director of the Fashion Fair in
Perth, Australia decided to “do something” and send out a press release. Sure enough, what they decided to do was to
mimic the ineffective BMI restrictions imposed in Madrid and Milan, rather than
some more difficult, thoughtful and effective measure. The appearance of “doing something” is more
powerful than actually having a beneficial effect. Needless to say, her action was widely reported with approval by
Anorexia is Not a Growing Problem
One of the claims made by activists on this issue is that anorexia
nervosa, the eating disorder which most concerns modeling is a growing
problem – even becoming “an epidemic”.
Certainly it is a problem, and one that has a higher fatality rate than
almost any other psychological disorder. It also appears to be appearing at a younger age than has been
true in the past. Even so, the
incidence of anorexia has remained unchanged in the United States in recent
years. Source: The
Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity
Survey Replication. James I.
Hudson, Eva Hiripi, Harrison G. Pope, Ronald C. Kessler, Biological Psychiatry,
Volume 61, Issue 3, 1 February 2007, Pages 348-358.
The experience in
Australia seems to be similar, where patients are younger, but their numbers
overall remain stable. Source: Dr Michael Kohn, director of The Eating Disorder Service, (a 12-year
research program at the Westmead Children's Hospital, Australia).
Research on Eating Disorders in
There is no authoritative scientific
study on the real incidence of eating disorders in models. However, the most recent, and largest study
to deal with the issue concludes that fashion models have no more problems with
eating disorders than the general population (in this case, in Canada). A report of a study included the
unexpectedly, the models scored an average BMI of only 17.4, compared to a more
"normal" 22.7 for the students. But their eating and exercise habits
showed little difference, and more than 80% of both groups had normal, healthy
eating behaviours and displayed positive attitudes toward food. The other 20%
or so don't necessarily have eating disorders but may have some questionable
eating habits such as skipping breakfast . . .
In the meantime, McWhirter hopes her study
will encourage the fashion industry and others to look beyond a model's BMI
before deciding if she's healthy.
“Possessing a certain body type," she says, "cannot and should
not be equated with having an eating disorder." http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/news/artslife/story.html?id=934179b3-e31a-46cb-9f1f-568e6a7f012a&k=54762&p=2
Is the Problem Caused by “Size 0
A lot of the press
coverage and statements by activists has focused on the claim that a major
cause of eating disorders in models, and in the general population, is that
models are extremely thin. True, we do
seem to be in the part of the cycle where even skinnier than normal models are
seen on the runways and in fashion magazines.
So is that really the cause?
Will changing it fix the problem?
No. The media bombard us with images of thin
people presented as desirable, from actors and actresses to dancers and
models. Very few of them are “size 0”,
and yet the point is made in an impressionable mind: “thin = attractive”. “How
thin” turns out not to matter much, since the anorexic cannot properly assess
how she compares to the “standards” anyway. If anything, a fashion model does
have reference points: she has a
preferred size to get hired, and needs to fit the clothes. There is such a thing as “too skinny” to be
hired in most cases, and that point will be made to the model.
Of course, no
single change, no matter what it is, will make the psychological issues that
lead to eating disorders go away. And
the great majority of causes have little to do with media presentations of
anything, let alone fashion models.
Still, presentation of slim people as desirable and beautiful does have
One of the most
respected sources of popular information on eating disorders discusses the
contribution that media presentations may make, but summarizes as follows:
“While all of
these images, advertisements, and messages may be counterproductive to a good
self-image, and society's overall acceptance of each person's different size
and shape, they are NOT the reason so many men and women develop an
Eating Disorder. These images may not help, and for those already open to
the possibility of negative coping mechanisms and/or mental illness, the media
may play a small contributing role -- but ultimately, if a young man or woman's
life situation, environment, and/or genetics leave them open to an Eating
Disorder (or alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, OCD, etc.), they will still
end up in the same place regardless of television or magazines.
Ultimately it's important to know that Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive
Overeating are NOT about weight and food. Rather they are complex
disorders where each sufferer is plagued with low self-esteem, an inability to
cope with their own emotions and stress, and many underlying issues that have
lead them to their disordered eating.” http://www.something-fishy.org/prevention/society.php
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This article copyright newmodels.com 2007.
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