Noted medical authority The Daily Mail (I know, I know) is yet again helping us out by offering a visual eating disorder diagnosis of a model. And thank goodness for that, because otherwise we might all be going about our lives thinking that whether or not a random stranger has an eating disorder is a private matter, not something you can tell by looking, and most importantly none of our damn business.
It began when fashion blogger Poppy Dinsey tweeted a link to the image of a slender black-clad young model walking the runway at Yves Saint Laurent’s Paris 2013 Menswear show. Dinsey called the casting of this man “woefully irresponsible,” a reference to the recent efforts by many leaders of the fashion industry -- including that holy of holies, Vogue -- to stop employing models who fail to meet certain standards.
For example, in Vogue’s new standards, models must show ID proving they are at least 16 years old, and they cannot “appear to have an eating disorder,” which is a notably distinct idea from whether they ACTUALLY have an eating disorder, but no matter. This is all about appearances, babies.
The Daily Mail picked up the story -- it’s been a little while since they’ve used the term “manorexia” in a headline, after all -- and helpfully lists some other male models who are “normal” for comparison, with “normal” meaning “toned” and “fit” instead of “emaciated” and “gaunt.” Instructive!
Of the response to the tweeted pic, Dinsey said:
'What did upset me was the number of people who said the model was 'disgusting' - I made a point of saying you can't assume that the model has an eating disorder. I have been to hundreds of fashion shows so I'm never particularly surprised by the latest 'shock model picture' but casting directors have to take some responsibility. A model may well be healthy, but if someone looking at the pictures will assume the opposite, why not cast someone who doesn't create such controversy?'
And then I made the mistake of reading the comments, which were revoltingly explicit in their willingness to deconstruct the body and the perceived mental health of the model in question. (LIFE TIP: Never read the comments. Except on xoJane.)
All of this body policing and muddling of the issues is bad enough, but there’s another stunning oversight in the Mail coverage: They never bother to mention the skinny model’s name.
I only discovered this fact when I talked to our own (brutally gorgeous) Olivia about getting a copy of the image in question to use for this piece, and together we realized that the Mail article does not include his name -- a revelation that left both of us upset and enraged. Apparently it’s cool to pick apart this kid’s appearance in an incredibly public way, but taking the time to identify him as anything more than “SHOCKINGLY THIN MALE MODEL” is asking too much. (I tried to find out his name myself -- in spite of having WAY fewer resources for doing so at my disposal -- and failed, unfortunately.)
The body policing of strangers, whether they’re on a fashion runway or on a city street, is ultimately a dehumanizing tactic. It reduces the people we see to flat images, ignoring the complexity of their personhood, their relationships and their experiences. It’s much easier to deride someone’s appearance when we can conveniently ignore everything else about them.
To employ a recent alternative example, “Girls” star, creator and writer Lena Dunham might not have a body that meets the feminine beauty standards we’re accustomed to, but we also all know she’s a person, with a lot of other stuff going on in her life besides the size of her thighs. Lena Dunham gets crap for not being “perfect” because she’s famous and we, somehow, feel entitled to bash famous people because hey, it’s their own fault for being on TV.
But because Lena Dunham is also known for doing other things besides just being a body, she also gets a lot of support from people who respect and admire her work.
The criticism we throw at models is a little different. An anonymous model with a body that looks uncomfortable to us doesn’t get to be a person, in many instances -- they are just a model, as though the two are mutually exclusive. And we relish the opportunity to frown and call their body “gross,” because we like to think that they asked for it by becoming models in the first place, as though being a model means relinquishing any right to having one’s fuller humanity respected. See, if you’re a model, you must necessarily be shallow and appearance-obsessed and therefore it’s totally cool for the rest of us to treat you like you’re nothing more than an empty shell -- a hanger on which someone far more talented drapes the clothing they design. You asked for it.
This is, of course, profoundly fucked up.
What is also fucked up, though, is the idea that these bodies should somehow be censored -- that the appearance of a thin physique is inevitably going to glorify and promote eating disorders regardless of whether the person who occupies it has an eating disorder themselves. This line of thinking suggests that there are certain bodies that are too dangerous to be seen by human eyes, that merely looking at them might move people to engage in -- horrors! -- unhealthy behavior.
It’s also a problem because -- surprise -- very few people with eating disorders look the way we are trained to think people with eating disorders are supposed to look.
Even though I mostly agree with her, this is why comments like Dinsey’s charge of irresponsibility are tricky. They assert that this particular model is just too skinny to be employed in a big-deal fashion show, and that making the decision to include him is harmful. Unfortunately, such assertions rarely stop there, but often extend to the idea that such a dude is too skinny to be out in public at all, at least not without quietly accepting the unsolicited commentary of strangers on how sick/hungry/drug addicted/in need of help he must be.
Skinny people exist, just like people of all other conceivable sizes exist, and despite our seemingly irresistible cultural compulsion in favor of offering our thoughts on the perceived “health” and attractiveness of their bodies, they don’t actually need our input -- or our validation.
They don’t need it any more than the thin male model in the YSL show needs the Daily Mail to use him as a literally nameless poster boy for concern-trolling over “male anorexia,” which we don’t even know he has.
Sure, the very fact that we feel the need to label it specifically MALE anorexia is pretty telling of how we think about eating disorders, namely that they a problem unique to young women, and so the rising rates of EDs amongst men -- who currently represent roughly 20%-25% of all eating-disordered people according to some estimates -- are certainly a cause for concern, as gender-based assumptions may be influencing the likelihood of men being correctly diagnosed and treated.
There's no denying that eating disorders among men (and can we please drop this unclever “manorexia” nonsense?) are a worthy topic -- but not at the expense of some skinny kid who MAYBE got paid $100 to walk in a show and possibly stir a little controversy. Eating disorders are a problem, but the solution is not to publicly criticize a person’s body as the Mail has done, nor is it to suggest that people who look like the YSL show’s unknown model are somehow contributing to other people's eating disorders -- and that simply removing their visible presence will somehow erase this issue.
This is no more realistic than the idea that keeping fat people out of public view in the fashion world will also somehow solve our other favorite perceived social ill, obesity. That’s been the case for many years, and we’re not exactly a nation of willowy amazons as a result.
Fashion, especially in its upper echelons, is indeed guilty of promoting a very specific body shape. That much is obvious. And Dinsey is quite right that the responsibility for this lies squarely with the designers and casting directors, and not with the models themselves.
For all but a very small percentage of the top people doing it, modeling is difficult and unpredictable work, one in which eating disorders and drug abuse are rampant, and where a stunning number of the models themselves are too young and inexperienced to recognize when they’re being exploited, especially since many have no one to advocate for them, much less a union to protect them.
This is undoubtedly a problem that should be addressed. But we must take care to separate the condemnation of a culture that worships thinness from the condemnation of actual thin people simply for being thin.
All that censoring bodies accomplishes is to make some people feel badly about themselves, while also sending the message that anyone who dares look different from an arbitrary range of “normal” will pay a heavy social price, and that this is acceptable and right. In the meantime, our body policing culture continues its toxic effect on all of us, and people who look too big or too small are denied their humanity -- or in this case, even a name.