In the fashion capitals of the world the Spring shows are being rolled out, but it is the fashion industry itself that is being put through its paces as the problem of anorexic models commands attention. During New York fashion week the Council of Fashion Designers of America held a symposium on the issue. The British Fashion Council has pledged that there will be no size zero models on the catwalks in London this week. In Rome, fashion chiefs gathered just before the shows at Italy’s second most important runway, the AltaRoma, to confer on the subject, "Models, but not too slim: when fashion respects the body and the person."
This introspection has been driven by some dramatic events over the past year or so. Two models in South America died of anorexia nervosa. The Spanish then banned under-weight models. Italy became self-conscious about under-age as well as thin models and decided that in the future models would have to be over the age of 16, have a licence and a body mass index above 18.5 per cent to gain employment. These rules have yet to become effective.
Discussions in New York last week were underlined by the revelations of Russian model Natalia Vodianova, who, the New York Times reports, "talked about what food meant to her growing up poor in Russia and what it meant once she became one of the world’s most sought-after models, had a child and gained 15 pounds."(1) Vodianova revealed that she starved herself to get her weight back down and said that her anorexia grew to the point of losing her hair and suffering constant exhaustion along with a nervous condition.
Even before the issue of anorexia raised questions about the ethics of the fashion industry, however, an Italian named Giancarlo Polenghi was taking steps to start a dialogue in this area. Polenghi, who runs a marketing company in Florence, could see that the industry is too important for Italy to ignore the ethical issues, which concern not only models but the public whom the fashion houses purport to serve. A year ago he launched Fashion for Good with an Ethical Charter signed by Anna Fendi, Cosimo Gucci and other major players in Italian fashion, as well as journalists, designers and consultants. Among the charter’s principles are "to promote the beauty of a person as a whole, without objectifying him/her" and to "seek a harmonious relationship between person and clothing, never giving up experimentation, innovation and the promotion of new and creative solutions."
It was this organisation that brought designers, models, fashion agents, politicians, and representatives of the medical field together at the AltaRoma at the end of January to discuss the fashion world’s response to the excessively thin, and often unhealthy models found on Italian runways.
"Fashion is for people, not people for fashion," Polenghi reminded the assembly. Research shows that in Italy alone three million people suffer from anorexia, an illness which has physical, psychological, and sociological effects. A recent survey showed that 63 per cent of Italian 12- to 15-year-olds want to be thinner. While there is a definite connection between this growing health problem and the fashion industry, it is still unclear how deeply the two might be related. It was sadly ironic, said Polenghi, that people die in war because there is no food available, but the death of anorexic persons is possibly caused because society pressures them not to eat. "Same reason, different circumstances."
Spain recently passed a law that requires models to pass health examinations and clothing lines to only produce clothing to fit healthy people. But Italy is not Spain. Italy is seeking alternatives to legal enforcement, a government representative told the conference. "Fashion is Italy," she said, and because of the industry’s national importance it must take responsibility for issues like 16-year-old models who, by law, should be in school and not on the catwalks.
Some, of course, deny that there is any general problem. "Models have always been skinny and tall, and that’s fine as long as they’re healthy," Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers in America, told the symposium in New York. But you only have to look at the current shows to see that "skinny" is very close to "starved" and — here’s the point — a world apart from natural feminine beauty and the elegance of which fashion is capable. The challenge that the fashion world faces is to return to styles that not only respect the physical beauty of a woman, but also her intelligence and character. Would it hurt if models were able to smile on the runway once in a while?
So there is a problem — regarding health standards, at least — but who should respond? This question saw participants at the AltaRoma gathering ducking for cover. Lorenzo Riva, well-known designer of evening wear, insisted that designers are not to blame for the rising number of anorexics in the fashion world. He argued that designers merely contract the models from agencies, which have the responsibility to discover whether or not models are ill. Others responded asking how agencies were supposed to contract healthy models when designers only made clothing for excessively thin women.
The stalemate was broken when a journalist enthusiastically interrupted, "We have the responsibility. Who made Kate Moss into the most celebrated beauty in the world? We, the journalists. Who made physical perfection the definition of beauty? We have decided who is on the front pages of magazines for women and teens," he declared. This impassioned outburst set the stage for a true dialogue discussing the possibilities of renewing a sense of what is healthy in fashion.
Among the ideas discussed were psychiatric evaluation of models to screen out those at risk of anorexia, and doctors attached to each fashion agency to treat those who became ill. The latter idea, canvassed by Chiara Sole of Mondo Sole, an association for fighting anorexia, won some acceptance. Society had to take responsibility for this illness, she insisted.
Yet the responsibility has to start further back, well back from that fuzzy line between thin and emaciated. It is a question of understanding and respecting the body itself. As Polenghi said, "We can’t do everything with the human body. The body is made for the human being and the human beings are the reason for fashion, which should offer them its resources of creativity, fantasy, expression and freedom."
His appeal was echoed in a written statement from Raffaella Curiel, well-known Milanese designer, who suggested that fashions like low-rise jeans are destructive to the idea of womanhood because they are not flattering to women’s natural figure. She hoped "that there will be a return to a proportionate body and actual femininity." Indeed, newspapers now are peppered with headlines about the growing demand for fashion which reflects real women. In his recent haute-couture show, Jean Paul Gautier displayed models wearing a size 46.
Perhaps the most important idea to come from the discussion on anorexia was that the next step should be the education of families about the importance of strengthening an individual sense of character and about the dangers of eating disorders. Everyone applauded when, towards the end of the conference, Roman government official Maria Pia Garavaglia announced that debates like this were the first step towards facing the problem of self-starvation.
But, while we are waiting for official moves — and in Italy this could mean a long wait — there is nothing to stop families tackling the problem themselves, and every reason why they should. Let’s hope that Polenghi’s appeal to the professionals to "make a difference" will also make the family’s task easier.
Adela Lo Celso and Caitlin Forst are freelance journalists working in Rome.
(1) "Looking Beyond the Runway for Answers on Underweight Models," by Guy Trebay, New York Times, February 6, 2007