In 2006, after stepping off the runway in Montevideo, Uruguay, 22-year old model Luisel Ramos died of anorexia-related heart failure. The public was outraged, and they demanded that fashion executives re-evaluate their hiring practices.
Nonetheless we find today that it has been eight years and runway models are not getting any heavier or healthier. In fact, the average size and weight of models in the fashion industry is at an all-time low (even while the US Council of Fashion Designers instituted an 16 year old age limit in 2012). According to the British Association of Model Agents, the minimum height for a female should be 5’8, which the most acceptable range being 5’9-5’11. This woman should be approximately 115 pounds, and she should measure, bust to waist to hips, 34-24-34. At 5’9, this makes for a body mass index measurement of 17. 18.5 is where women become infertile and ill. 16 is where the WHO says it gets severely dangerous. 15 is where they often die.
A famous shot of Ramos before her death in 2006.
As a culture, we know this is unhealthy. We know that model extremity is one of many cogs in the complex gears of slender body image norms. We know none of it is right. Nonetheless we cannot seem to shake our attachment to extreme thinness.
Taking a good, hard look at the fashion industry reveals some powerful answers to the question of why models are so thin. These answers so powerful that they collapse whatever validity we had previously ascribed to thinness in the fashion world in the first place. They demonstrate that the fashion industry treats and depicts women as less-than human. Less-than-human is not valid. Less-than-human is not worth our attention and adoration. Less-than-human is something to reject and overcome, not something to aspire to.
These are two of the bizarre, harmful rules by which the fashion industry plays.
- Models are made to fit clothes; clothes are not made to fit models.
The primary aim of fashion designers is to sell their product to retailers. This means that clothing is designed to drape and hang however it is most appeals to the human eye, no matter how drastic the body size its design requires. The longer, more flowy, or better draped an article of clothing is, the more likely a retail executive’s eyes will pop out of his head, and he’ll scramble to place thousands of orders. Krystle Kelley, a former model turned president of the Desert Models Agency, said of this phenomenon in an interview with Fox News that “people that pick up magazines are consumers. They want to see people that relate to them, which will make the consumer more eager to buy products. But designers are showing their garments to the majority crowd who are mostly retailers. The collections are also considered drafts, and those drafts are fitted to a mannequin that is size 0 or 2 dress size. The other concern of the designer is for the garments to flow as well as be mesmerizing on the catwalk and the way to accomplish that is for the dress, pants, gown etc. to be long. The only way to fit a long garment is with a model who is thin and tall.”
Image credit: stylite.com.
So clothing is designed for its own appealing shape, not for how it fits actual human beings. Models have often been called “hangers” for this precise reason. They are valued first and foremost as objects. They are useful for their measurements. They are bones and angles off of which clothing is meant to hang, not living, breathing, vibrant human beings.
This problem is best demonstrated by the role of the “fit model” in the fashion industry. The fit model maintains a precise, tiny shape that fits to exact measurements. This enables her to be the first mannequin in the production line, the tiny size—or the “skeleton” in the words of once Vogue Australia editor Kirstie Clements–off of which all of the larger sizes are modeled. Clements remarks in an excerpt from her book The Vogue Factor published in the Guardaint in July 2013 that one model described her roommate as “’[being] a fit model, so she is hospital on a drip a lot of the time.’” Executives in the industry often confide the same perilous status of their own models to Clements. Sometimes they even resort to strategically arranging a model’s limbs during a shoot because she is too starved and exhausted to move.
(Steffie Soede. Image credit: vogue.it)
After the design process, runway models must fit into these skeletal clothes. After that, the clothing is made available to the press to use for shoots. This forces the industry’s thinness norms down the throat of magazine editors and the popular presses (who nonetheless retain their own culpability in this process).
Models in the popular presses must fit into the sizes already produces: the fours, twos, or zeroes that come directly off the backs of women – hangers – on the runway. There are no bigger samples available, and it doesn’t matter much anyway, says Clement, since the industry knows that long, lean clothing sells, even if it will never drape off of a “normal” woman the way it does the fit model or a mannequin.
So models are so thin because they are hangers who are forced to squeeze themselves down to the size of pencil sketches. Models fit clothes; clothes don’t fit models.
2) Models disappear so clothing can shine.
Much as we might think of models as impossibly beautiful, they are not necessarily chosen for this fact. Yes, they must have a particular “ferocity” or “verve.” They must have the stage presence a designer is looking for. But if they were too beautiful or too buxom they would be distracting. Fashion executives fear that instead of focusing on the brilliant cut of a particular piece of clothing on a runway or in a fashion magazine, people would be drawn into lustful, envious thoughts of flesh. And they cannot possibly have that! Emmy Award-winning stylist and author David Zyla affirms this point in an interview with Fox News. According to Zyla, so much is at stake in runway shows that curvy, healthy, vibrant women would “upstage” a designer’s creations. “As a result,” says Zyla, “the models chosen are typically slim and androgynous…so that audiences are not distracted by a curvy hip or full bosom.”
Image credit: complex.com
This is a particularly potent aspect of the fashion industry we need to think deeply about. Models are so slim, so young, so angular, and so often the antithesis of healthy body shapes because industry executives deliberately want them to be invisible. They are not chosen for sexual appeal. They are not chosen for their astounding womanhood or beauty. They are not chosen to be beacons of vibrancy or health. They are chosen for their potential to be a hanger…An object…something that is not seen. If that’s not reason to buck the fashion industry’s heavy-handed anorexia-mongering, I don’t know what is.
(Adriana Lima, VS fashion show 2013. Image credit Zimbio.com)
Of course, many of the female bodies we idolize in popular culture such as Victoria’s Secret models are not at risk of death by anorexia nervosa, but nevertheless the fashion industry is problematic because its drastic aesthetic preferences perpetuate the myth of leanness as a necessary component of beauty far and wide. The fashion industry is partly why even the curvier Victoria’s Secret models are themselves still so tall and thin. The fashion industry is partly why mannequins are so tall and thin. The fashion industry is partly why women and girls flip through magazines and develop negative body images issues and disordered eating behaviors. Extreme thinness is not a standard of beauty for the ages. It’s not a norm founded in health and empowered womanhood. It’s not even a standard that treats women like human beings. It is arbitrary, and it is cruel. Recognizing this fact can help us move forward into the future thinking more realistically about what makes a woman beautiful,
I do not have all the answers on beauty. But I suspect it has something to do with health. I suspect it has something to do with personality. I suspect it has something to do with goodness. And I am certain it has something to do with dignity and inherent worth. These are not values the fashion industry offers–they are ones we must develop and stand up for ourselves. But we can do this with courage, forgiveness, and love, and with passionate indignance at the injustices perpetrated against women everywhere in the production of fashionable clothing.