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‘Disordered eating’ still a beauty of a problem

The Globe and Mail by Shari Graydon 30 March 2010

As designers and models, editors and agents from around the globe descend on Toronto (this/next) week to ponder the cultural significance of retro hemlines and metallic brocade minimalism, the tension mounts with the unspoken but preoccupying question: will the runways of 2010 feature models familiar with the occasional piece of cheesecake?

This should be an old story. In 2006, the high-profile deaths of two young models from anorexia-related health complications generated unprecedented scrutiny of the catwalk’s occupational hazards. The resulting publicity led fashion and design councils in Britain, Spain and the US to introduce health guidelines that would permit the hiring of genuinely post-pubescent girls, and encourage them to consume both fruitand yogurt while working.

Four years after this shock-fuelled enlightenment, the chorus of disgust over industry practices has increased considerably. But the silhouette of models? Not so much. France introduced a bill making it illegal to promote anorexic behaviour, U.S. designers launched a “Health is Beauty” campaign and fashion maven Victoria Beckham (herself a whopping size zero) signed up in support. And yet the industry famous for its capacity to inspire new trends overnight has been astonishingly slow to shift from “concentration-camp” chic to “women who actually swallow food” chic.

The editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, admitted last year that she frequently has fashion photos retouched to add pounds. No word on why she didn’t just hire more buxom beauties in the first place. But American casting agent James Scully – the man who famously declared “Let’s stop treating models like greyhounds we plan to shoot after a race” – says finding healthy runway models remains a difficult task.

At a time when most of us are trying to muster sufficient control to back away from a second slice of molten chocolate lava cake, it’s hard to mobilize public outrage over the plight of the chronic under-eater or the industry that (ahem) feeds such behaviour. This challenge is matched only by the impossibility of drumming up sympathy for those who appear to have become a little too intimate with the nearest Golden Arches.

And because the fast food industry cleverly avoids placing ads on Fashion File or inGlamour magazine, the link between starving models and the growing obesity epidemic isn’t as clear as it could be. But health professionals wrestling with the fallout on a daily basis have labeled both problems “disordered eating” for a reason: There’s a much clearer link than most people realize between a culture that appears too eager to embrace the artery-arresting “Baconator” (delivering enough calories in a single serving to keep a small football team alive for three days), and one that laments the growing familiarity among 5 year-olds with the Atkins diet.

Decades of peer-reviewed research studies have demonstrated clear links between young women’s exposure to thin ideals, body dissatisfaction and lowered self-esteem. Not everyone is affected the same way, of course, and other variables play a role. (If the beauty industry were entirely to blame for eating disorders, all North American women would be suffering, instead of just several million.)

But the increasing cracks in the wall of denial reflects the fashion industry’s inescapable recognition of the havoc’s long term economic and social consequences. Not surprisingly, girls and women taught by beauty advertising and fashion media to view their naturally-sized bodies with puke-inducing disgust often withdraw from health-enhancing activities, abandon academic studies and limit their career opportunities. They also diet like crazy. And teenage girls who diet are at significantly greater risk for obesity than those who don’t.

This is the context that has fueled a new campaign launched by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre. Acknowledging that responsibility for solving the problem is shared, the campaign targets fashion industry decision-makers and consumers alike. To magazine editors, NEDIC sent a greeting card celebrating a decidedly un-Hallmark moment: “Thanks for helping to make me such a successful anorexic,” it read.

Marketing managers received fetching black t-shirts with impossible 6-inch waists and a tag urging: “Please try this on to experience how your ads make us feel.” And an interactive transit shelter encourages passers-by to toss their fashion mags into a bin, echoing the blunt advice offered last year by former super model Cindy Crawford. “If people don’t want skinny models,” she said, “stop buying the magazine with the skinny models.”

Is anybody besides the marketers of Dove listening?

Shari Graydon is author of In Your Face: The Culture of Beauty and You.