Why the Industry Should Adopt a Global Ban on Underweight Models

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In 2006, the high-profile deaths of models Ana Carolina Reston and Luisel Ramos spurned an international debate regarding regulation of weight in the modeling industry. Reston was 88 pounds when she passed away in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Ramos died of heart failure due to malnourishment following a fashion show. The world responded with anger at such senseless loss of life, and some fashion industry leaders, like Giorgio Armani, stepped forward to call for a ban on underweight models.

Looking back through the decades, it’s clear that models have only gotten thinner on the runway, which leads us to our present day predicament. In the late 80s and early 90s, supermodels like Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer boasted healthy weights and curvaceous figures, but the shift in body image occurred with the onset of “heroin chic” inspired by advertisements by brands like Calvin Klein and Matsuda, where lean, hollow-eyed models appeared to be wasting away. The exploitation of their emaciated figures signaled a twisted form of “coolness” that not only condoned drug usage, but exalted its ravaging effects on the body. Kate Moss became the poster girl for the movement, and from there, the fashion industry began to embrace underweight models on the runway and in ad campaigns. The casualties and psychological damage that have resulted from this kind of pervasive imagery has dealt long-lasting damage to women around the world, but there are many that are working to uproot the toxic glorification of the Size Zero Woman.

Consider how absurd it is to create size-zero clothes for women when the women who will eventually buy them are almost guaranteed to be larger than a size zero.

According to the World Health Organization, the average model has a BMI below 16, indicating severe thinness. It’s nearly impossible to untangle the snarled web that circumscribes the issue that has led to this shocking average. The world looks down on overweight people, yet society’s average weight gain is accelerating to shocking degrees. We are conditioned to expect models to be outrageously thin, yet the conditioning doesn’t come from society, but rather the designers who desire their clothes to lay a certain way on the body when presented on the runway. They argue that their clothes look better on hanger-thin models, but please consider how absurd it is to create clothes for women when the women who will eventually buy them are almost guaranteed to be larger than a size zero. If this argument exists only for the sake of aesthetics, it’s easy to see why so many have demanded that the industry reboot its standards.

Recently, France passed a bill that would ban underweight models, requiring that models certify their health with a medical professional, with parameters that will be “assessed in particular in terms of body mass index, compatible with the practice of the (modeling) profession.” The bill also states that if images are tampered with or Photoshopped to create a thinner appearance, they must be labeled as having been “tampered with”. Those found in violation of the bill face steep fines. The ironic side of this bill passing in France, is that there is an industry term called “Paris-thin”, meaning a model was thin enough to book an elite runway show at one of Paris Fashion Week’s major brand events. Although France bears responsibility for creating this issue, it has at least faced its responsibility with legal action that will hopefully save the life and health of thousands of models, and by extension, those who look up to them or aspire to look like them.

The fashion industry has the prime opportunity to completely re-write the standard, to embrace health as the goal to which we aspire, and to create clothes for women of every social level that promote health and well-being.

Surprisingly, some within the industry have decried the bill, stating that some models are naturally thin and that BMI measurements are arbitrary. Yet, the overwhelming majority of the public are in favor of the measures, and some are even going so far as to demand that this standard be adopted globally. While worldwide weight regulation in the modeling and fashion industries would be difficult to achieve, it’s not impossible. If this were to happen, it could have wide-ranging effects on the fashion industry. Designers would be forced to accommodate healthier sizes, which is a clear win for women everywhere. High-fashion and weight need not be at odds with each other — who created this idea, anyway? If you want to talk about arbitrary standards, this is an apropos example. The argument that high-fashion is aspirational and belongs only to the thin, beautiful, and well-bred women who can afford it is a symptom of a sickness in the industry greater than can be explicated here. High fashion is a remarkably powerful tool that instantly transmits the wearer’s social status, but the fact that styles from the runway are immediately mocked up and reproduced by fast-fashion brands has diffused the power high fashion once had. A move to accommodate a broader size range would be an instant bottom-line benefit to even the most “unattainably” situated brands — women who can afford high-fashion actually come in all shapes and sizes, and if they saw clothes that were finally being created for their body type, the brand would benefit financially. What’s more important here is that the fashion industry has the prime opportunity to completely re-write the standard, to embrace health as the goal to which we aspire, and to create clothes for women of every social level that promote health and well-being. It’s time to adopt a global ban on underweight models, not only to the benefit of the health of women working in the industry, but also to radically redirect the images that are being fed to us by the industry that spread the lie that being thin as a rail is the hallmark of fashion, style, or beauty.

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