Anorexia, Modelling, and the Rest of Us

After the ‘size zero’ outcry and the deaths of two young models last year, the modelling industry is seen as a hotbed of eating disorders. The independent Model Health Inquiry was set up to investigate, and recommends that models under 16 should be banned from the catwalks at London Fashion Week. How does this issue affect the average size 14 British woman?

There has been a call for models under 16 years old to be banned from the catwalks in London Fashion Week. The independent Model Health Inquiry, chaired by Baroness Kingsmill, published its final report on September 14th. It was set up by the British Fashion Council following media outcry over the rise of the ‘size zero’ model; the deaths, in 2006, of Uruguayan model Luisal Ramos, 22, who died of heart failure after not eating for several days, and Ana Carolina Reston, a Brazilian model who suffered from anorexia; and evidence that around 40 percent of models could suffer from anorexia, bulimia or other food-related problems.

The report expresses deep concern about the unregulated nature of the industry and the exploitative nature of the sexualisation of underage girls. It proposes a package of measures designed to protect the health and rights of models, e.g. suggesting that prospective models should have medical checks by doctors specialising in the diagnosis of eating disorders, and annual follow on check ups, that young girls should be chaperoned at cat walk shows, and that Criminal Record Bureau checks should be run on those who work with young models. It also presents a strong case for unionisation.

If these non-binding guidelines are followed, there is a chance that the working environment for models will be become a healthier and more nurturing one. But the very fact that models are still expected to be a few sizes below average and that their jobs depend on this, along with the concentration of financial incentives and the temptations of fame, means that self esteem is likely to become identical with body image, which provides fertile ground for eating disorders.

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How does this issue affect the average size 14 British woman? Do we really aspire to be like models? Some of us undoubtedly do, others see fashion as an art form, escapism, a form of inspiration rather than relevant to their own daily life. For many women, whatever the media say, the whole fashion circus is just irrelevant. But we cannot be unaware of the all pervasive linking in our culture of appearance with self esteem and self control, and the linking of the finished product with success in life.

At the end of the day, even though the idea that if the fashion business was more representative of real women, we would be less likely to suffer from eating disorders — and the idea that our self esteem is eaten away by the unrealistic images of female beauty we are surrounded by — may be to some extent undeniable, still we have to ask ourselves why our self esteem is so vulnerable in the first place.

When I started to meet young people with eating disorders, I realised their disorder usually had a meaning and a role within their whole relational system, that food for them had come to be experienced as acceptance, as fear, as hatred, as love. Controlling food intake and body shape is a way of controlling emotions, or a way of communicating. Of course once the disorder gets underway, it works like an addiction; it is experienced, and can be effectively treated, as a disease external to the person. But we would be wise not just to tell our daughters that they are beautiful just as they are, but to make sure that the lines of communication in our families are clear, and that all emotions are acceptable. Eating disorders arise for a deeper reason than the availability of too many fashion magazines in the house.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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