Too Skinny Models: Are They Models of Eating Disorders?

Some models have even eaten kleenex to effect satiety.

Posted Feb 12, 2016

As the Duchess of Windsor famously remarked, “You can never be too rich or too thin.”  Her skeletal frame certainly attested to the statement. Fortunately for those whose obsession with thinness may lead them to unwise dieting practices, Great Britain is preventing a pharmaceutical company, Omega Pharma, from promoting unhealthy slimming. The British company selling a very low-calorie weight loss drink is being criticized for a television advertisement in which one skinny young woman encourages her friend to use the product so she can lose a large amount of weight very quickly; just in time for bathing suit season. The bodies of both women are almost impossibly thin, and after about 200 complaints were received condemning the adverts as pushing young girls toward eating disorders, the advertisement was halted.

The push against promoting a body image at odds with good health, however, is rare. In our concern over the failure of effective weight-loss treatments to halt the obesity epidemic, we may overlook the success of some diet and excessive exercise regimens to produce rapid and perhaps even extreme weight loss. I overheard a discussion in my gym’s locker room between two women who were disputing the methods used by the television program, “The Biggest Loser.” One was admiring the enormous weight loss of a contestant, while the other was lamenting the almost ruthless demand for constant exercise and semi-starvation rations.

“But look at what they accomplished,” the first was saying. “All that weight lost? It has to be worth it because the contestant is now thin. ”

Being thin certainly seems worth a great deal by those wishing to be fashion models. Their measurements may not exceed 32, 22, 32 and thinner is better. Nowadays the super-thin model is the norm. The gold standard, apparently, for the perfect excessively thin body is the person who works as a ‘fit’ model for the fashion houses. A fit model is extremely thin, so that the clothes being draped on her body hang without being disturbed by curvaceous anatomy that are part of a normal female body. As a result, the runway models wearing these clothes have to be equally thin, and resort to starvation to achieve the emaciated look desirable by the designers.

A former editor of Australia Vogue, Kirstie Clements, described the health costs of this a few years ago. She described models so weak from hunger that they could barely stand up during a photo shoot and how they ate tissues to fool their stomachs into feeling full. Some were in and out of hospitals to receive intravenous solutions because dehydration and starvation caused them to collapse. According to her, what the rest of us might think is a severely emaciated body requiring immediate hospitalization, is considered by the fashion industry as perfect for fashion shoots.

Equally disturbing is the pressure on actors to exhibit sleek, thin bodies during the red carpet events preceding various award ceremonies. When did it become necessary for actors who take on multiple roles in the theatre, and in film to also take on the role of fashion model? Why are we, the on-lookers, so concerned about their weight, when we should only be concerned about their acting? Why should we want to know how these normal size people have to reduce the size of their bodies by cleanses, fasts or avoidance of most food stuffs or hours of exercise prior to these red carpet events? But we do, as the many articles in the print and internet media attest. 

This is why the action by the advertising board in the UK is so important.  But it is such a small step. Despite the horror of seeing the incredibly thin models used in a Parisian fashion show last year, the thinner the better ideal is still the mantra of the fashion business. And woe unto a celebrity who wears comfortable normal size clothes to a red carpet event, allowing some natural lumps and bumps to show beneath the fabric. Unless she squeezes herself into a better shape, she will probably have to enter the event by the back door.

Research has shown that people who obsess about their body image are helped if role models are a normal weight rather than an unattainable one (Posavac, H Posavac, S and Weigel R.  Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 3, 2001, pp. 324-340). How many young women flirt with anorexia or develop this eating disorder so they look as thin as the models in the magazine?

Isn’t it time to stop demanding that models and celebrities present unrealistically thin bodies produced only by the unhealthiest life style? Editors of fashion magazines, and indeed the whole fashion industry, have managed to influence us as to what is appropriate or what not to wear, as well to how to style our hair, makeup and manicures. Thus they have the power to convince us that a normal size, fit human body is the body we should be striving toward, not a body that has the girth of a clothes hanger. They have the power to tell the designers to make clothes that will fit over a woman’s body that looks like a woman’s body, not a pre-adolescent girl. They have the power to tell models that it is necessary to eat, and not alright to sacrifice their health for their job. How long must we wait until they do?