The Real Fashion Faux Pas

by Ellen Nordahl on February 8, 2010

This is my second post in a series regarding ethical issues and fashion marketing.  My first post, “Runways, Ready-to-Wear, and Cognitive Dissonance” can be found here.

Imagine, for a minute, you’re at the National Championship of the American Kennel Club (bear with me here).  Countless hours have gone into preparing for what amounts to a mere two or three minutes in the limelight.  The competitors here are the best of the best – what an institution has deemed to be the near-perfect representative of their species.

Knowing that these animals will be idolized by countless pet enthusiasts and breeders the world over, you expect to see healthy dogs in the prime of their existence.  Instead, you’re greeted with a parade of dogs looking like this:

Would you be angry?  Horrified?  Deeply disturbed?

How long would it take for PETA to be up in arms?  How much time would pass before the crackdowns for neglect, animal abuse and mistreatment began?

There’s no doubt in my mind that a media frenzy would ensue, deploring the “inhumane” conditions these animals were subjected to.

Funny, isn’t it — how we feel outraged, and morally obligated to act, when we see animals in this state of malnourishment, yet we tolerate the fact that an industry worth $298 billion in the US alone has decided that they’d like to showcase their wares on human hangers. While the fashion industry doesn’t go so far as to physically withhold food, the pressure to conform to the “industry standard” results in many models adopting eating disordered behaviors to maintain a disturbingly low weight.

In the early 1990s, the average runway model was a size 6.  Now, size 0 is the prevailing standard.  American Vogue recently published a feature article on Lara Stone, whom they labeled a “plus-size supermodel.”

She’s a size 4.

In 2006-2007, three international models died of complications relating to an eating disorder (namely heart failure and malnutrition) within a six month period.  One of the models, Luisel Ramos, died only moments after stepping off the catwalk.  She was 5’9, clocked in at under 100 pounds, and had subsisted on a diet of lettuce and Diet Coke for months. With an average BMI of 16.3, fashion models are considered medically underweight (“normal” is 18.5 – 25) — and at an increased risk for a myriad of complications relating to malnourishment.

In 1965, the average fashion model weighed 8% less than the average US woman.  Today, she weighs 23% less. (Coincidentally, the incidence of eating disorders in the United States has doubled in the past 40 years).

This decline in weight could be because girls are stepping onto the catwalk at a younger and younger age.  However, one who might be naturally slim and lithe at age 14 fights a battle with basic biology to keep the same child-like figure fashion designers so like to dress.

Robin Givhan wrote the following after observing a casting call for designer Tracy Reese’s fall show.  “A model walks into the casting with an elegant face and short, dark hair. ‘She’s beautiful,’ Reese says quietly, ‘but she’s less than a 0.’ The model ducks behind a screen and slips into a pair of trousers. They hang on her like sweat pants meant for someone twice her size.”

Fashion industry leaders in Europe have addressed the issue of “starving models” head-on: Milan has instituted a requirement that all models be at a healthy BMI before they’re allowed on the runway, and Madrid has taken similar steps.  However, these standards are ignored or scoffed at by other industry professionals.  Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel, justifies the use “extremely slender” models by pointing out that “no one wants to see round women” in the “dreams and illusions” that characterize the nature of fashion.

If designers think their clothing looks best on a human skeleton, perhaps they’re in the wrong industry.

I hear there’s a looming shortage of morticians.

  • Jim

    We really shouldn't expect much out of these fashion types. These people bring us things like homeless fashion and all the other ridiculous at best, offensive at worst, clothing lines. The reality is that yes, all sorts of people take the word and behavior of these models and designers as gospel truth, which is unfortunate, especially with young people. My point is that people that design ridiculous looking clothes for rail-thin people don't deserve to be held on a pedestal. But this is what we like in our culture. Hey, I watched a few episodes of Jersey Shore, I really shouldn't be preaching either.

    • EllenNordahl

      I agree that most fashion designers don't necessarily deserve the reverence they receive; as with any art, the field is cluttered with trash masquerading as genius. I think that some of the power fashion has in society stems from the fact that it is often bizarre and unattainable by the average person. The price point on a lot of these clothes should serve as enough of a separation between “average” and “luxury” – designers shouldn't exploit the vulnerability and impressionability of young women in order to hold onto their lofty position.

      After reading about the results of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (…) and seeing the effects of living in a malnourished state first-hand, I guess I'd feel hypocritical if I continued to follow the fashion industry without voicing my concerns.

      Then again, I'm a big fan of the resurgence in harem (aka MC Hammer) pants. Maybe I shouldn't be preaching either.

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