The fashion industry has a long way to go when it comes to addressing mental health issues such as bulimia, anorexia and depression.
The independent Model Health Inquiry of 2007 which was set up in response to concerns about the use of ultra-thin models during 2006’s London fashion week, concluded that models under 16 should be banned from the runways, designers should be trained to help models with eating disorders and shows should be ‘demonstrably’ drug-free.
Minimal change has resulted since this inquiry. Models under 16 have been banned from appearing in both the London and New York fashion weeks. And recently, the editors of the 19 editions of Vogue magazine published a ‘health pact’. The editors jointly said they would not use models under the age of 16, or those they believe have an eating disorder in order to encourage a healthier attitude to body image. But many fashion designers and editors are still using girls to sell clothes to adult women. These girls are picked because their bodies have not fully developed and are slender without curves, this has created a distorted unrealistic image for young adults (especially) to aspire to.
American and British Vogue editors Anna Wintour and Alexandra Shulman have both criticised designers who supply very small clothes samples, which they believe necessitates the use of thin models. Maxine Frith wrote:
‘One day the editor told me that we were running a “plus-sized model” in a fashion shoot for the next issue. Oh good, I said, how big is she? She was a size 12… The fashion world’s outlook runs counter to everything we know about women’s bodies. The average size of a UK woman is 14 yet “sample sizes” – the ones designers and stores send out to magazines – are a tiny size 6 or less.’
But not every designer is willing to accept responsibility. While at the ‘Chanel: The Little Black Jacket’ event, Karl Lagerfeld had something to say about the fashion industry’s reputation for eating disorders: ‘that’s nothing to do with fashion. People who have that [anorexia] have problems to do with family and things like that.’
Dr Adrienne Key, clinical director at the Priory hospital’s eating disorder unit, said at the Mental Health Inquiry conference that as many as 40% of models may have eating disorders and almost all the models the panel spoke to confessed to having an ‘unhealthy relationship with food.’
Model and documentary maker Sara Ziff pointed out that some models, including herself, lose weight because of the gruelling 20-hour work schedules during the fashion show season that leaves no time to eat. Adding, ‘Sometimes, people forget you are human.’ A survey by the Model Alliance, which advocates models’ rights, found that more than two-thirds (68.3%) of models suffered from anxiety or depression.
The wider impact
But what about the wider impact on society. Take the case of teenager Fiona Geraghty who made national news last year after her father found her hung in her room; coroner Michael Rose said he felt the fashion industry was directly responsible for the teenagers death. She had developed an eating disorder, suffered from bulimia and weighed about 60kg. A letter from her GP to a community mental health team stated: ‘She says she started doing this following taunts from girls because she is fat.’
Many forget eating disorders can also affect males, especially with increasing pressures on them to look like male models. Men have been reluctant to admit they have such problems as the issue has traditionally been seen as something affecting mainly teenage girls. Yet, NHS figures have shown a 66 per cent increase in hospital admissions in England for male eating disorders over the last decade.
‘Pro Anorexia & Pro Bulimia web sites’ have even emerged with tips and guidance for getting into an eating disorder. Writer John Sammon proclaimed ‘I think it’s because the fashion and film industries teach that appearance, like money, is the sole indicator of a person’s worth as a human being.’ In many ‘pro-anorexia’ sites and forums, posters write about watching fashion shows and reading magazines for ‘thinspiration‘.
Kate Moss proclaimed she lives by the motto; ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels‘ sparking a size zero debate. The problem with this kind of statement is the fact that many people are literally dying to be thin. Anorexia affects one in ten females and has the highest death rate of any mental health illness. The London School of Economics concluded that an eating disorder is a ‘socially transmitted disease’ and a ‘potential epidemic’ because of the unrealistic body shapes and images portrayed in magazines.
Many would argue that obesity is a far more serious problem in society as it leads to weight related illnesses like type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and heart and liver disease. Dutchess Wallis Simpson said ‘you can never be too rich or too skinny’. It’s high time the fashion industry found a middle ground between glorifying skinny-models and plus-size models, and promoted a healthy body type that people can aspire towards.