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Looks can kill: why heroin-chic isnít

By Julia Fetherston - posted Wednesday, 27 September 2006

The revelation this month that the fashion world might at last be adjusting itself towards more realistic proportions gave cause for cautious optimism. The organisers of Madrid Fashion Week announced that it would exclude super-thin models from the catwalks of its design shows.

Any optimism was short-lived, however. London Fashion Week refused to follow suit, ostensibly to protect the aesthetic choices of its designers. Emaciated figures also graced the catwalk of New York Fashion Week. While the Spanish example has not yet spurred a trend, there is a powerful case for the exclusion of the “size zero” models.

A primary justification is the protection of the women who are engaged by designers to parade their creations. While the original supermodel Linda Evangelista famously did not get out of bed for less than $10,000, the majority of catwalk models do not command enormous salaries, nor exert much choice over the shows in which they participate. When major fashion houses and influential designers front their shows with waif-like models (witness the employability of the ultra-tiny Giselle Bundchen, Gemma Ward and Kate Moss), gauntness becomes the self-perpetuating ideal of the entire industry.


There is an expectation that employees are entitled to protection from risks to their health in the course of employment. Yet governments remain blind to an obvious case of employees being subjected to such harms, not by a single employer, but by a pernicious industry culture.

Sympathy is difficult to muster for those whose workplaces are filled with celebrities, champagne and caviar. But the fact that glamour is their business should make little difference. The promotion of thinness is a political act in the most direct sense. Fashion designers who insist upon unnaturally thin women as clotheshorses are complicit in the exploitation of young women.

The Madrid show is using the body mass index (BMI) - a ratio of height to weight - to evaluate models. A healthy BMI is anywhere between 18.5 and 24.5. A BMI of 17 is widely accepted to constitute an “anorexic weight”.

Under the Madrid ruling, models must have a BMI rating of at least 18. Spanish supermodel Esther Canadas is reported to have a BMI of 14. Had such a policy been in place in 2005, 30 per cent of models from the Madrid shows would have been excluded. Such a restriction would also exclude Moss and most of her supermodel ilk.

There is reason to hope that excluding such a large number of models would pressure the industry to adjust their expectation of model-weight upwards. Short-term unemployment can only be to the long-term advantage of all models.

The primary aesthetic consideration should be the quality of the clothes, not the body fat percentage of the women modelling. It is difficult to imagine John Olsen prioritising the choice of frame in equal measure to the contents of the canvas or Peter Carey devoting more attention to cover design than the first draft. Yet, some designers have chosen to rely on the selection of the very thinnest of thin women to market their garments. The number of ribs visible on the catwalk has become a publicity tool as powerful as the clothing itself.


Beyond these direct harms, the veneration of grossly underweight bodies has real social costs.

For vulnerable women, such images reinforce and normalise distorted perceptions. The cause of image disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder is vastly more complex than the mere presence of emaciated women on catwalks. Yet, the catalogues of fashion stills on so-called “pro-anorexia” websites testify to the power of “thinspiration”.

What is most shocking about these websites is not their remarkability, but that the images posted are not so different from those on the pages of any ordinary fashion magazine.

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About the Author

Julia Fetherston is a second year Economics and Law student at the University of Sydney. She has been a finalist in the Young Australian of the Year Award, received the Spirit of Canberra Award and is one of the 2006 Goldman Sachs Global Leaders.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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