Do Models Need to Look "Healthy"?

The intentions behind this movement may be well-meaning, but we all know what the road to hell is paved with.
Publish date:
June 21, 2012
eating disorders, body image, body politics, models

The harsh truth is, the only sure thing you can assess by looking at a person is your own propensity for making kneejerk assumptions about someone you don't know.

Everybody’s worried about the models these days. Even Vogue is currently trumpeting a new campaign in concert with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s new “health guidelines.” As part of its efforts, Vogue pledges to check IDs for would-be models, and asks designers to make samples a little bit bigger.

The Vogue editors also promise that they “will not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder. We will work with models who, in our view, are healthy and help to promote a healthy body image.”

This is pretty impressive talk from a glamour juggernaut like Vogue, and the announcement has been met with a fair amount of praise, most recently from the Michael Landon of modeling, Tyra Banks, who wrote in an open letter on The Daily Beast last month:

When I started modeling, I used to see models who seemed unhealthy backstage at fashion shows. They appeared to be abusing their bodies to maintain a certain weight. These girls were booked over and over again for countless fashion shows and photo shoots. I’m sure many of you today have witnessed this, or even live it. Now, real progress is finally on the horizon. Vogue is stepping up, doing the right thing, and protecting that girl.

There are two distinct aspects to this issue. The first is, simply put, workplace safety -- this is the very straightforward idea that women who work as models should not be exploited nor should they be encouraged to injure themselves in order to keep their jobs. Women who work as models, by the nature of their profession, are not often thought of as individuals, and many are all too eager to deride these women as little more than “clothes hangers,” as though their physical health and safety are disposable when compared to their ability to serve fashion, and as though their humanity is not a worthwhile concern.

In her letter, Tyra goes so far as to hint that models should unionize to demand better treatment, and you know, that’s not a bad idea, especially given the youth of so many of the women doing this work -- it’s easy to accept terrible working conditions as just “paying your dues,” moreso if you’re too young to know better and don’t have anyone around to advocate for you.

Tyra had her mom around to feed her pizza and tell her she was going to make it anyway, but not all young models have such a reliable support system.

The second aspect, and the one we like to talk about more, is the effect that the use of very young, very thin models has on culture, and on the way individual women and girls think of themselves and their bodies. Even a cursory look at the better research on the subject would seem to pretty clearly indicate that the use of idealized, very thin model figures has some negative effect on women’s self-esteem and possibly even their eating habits. How much of an effect is certainly debateable, and whether the erasure of slender models from culture would fix it is hardly a foregone conclusion, but the existence of some degree of influence is fairly obvious.

And it makes sense that this would be the case: Models and fashion culture are ultimately about striving to attain an idealized beauty and style. Fashion is about fantasy and aspiration, and to a certain extent there is nothing wrong with that. But it’s difficult to motivate people to work for this without making them feel a tiny bit badly about themselves. Call it human nature.

So it goes without saying that this growing movement to healthify the models -- from Vogue’s sudden conscience to Julia Bluhm’s petition to Seventeen magazine, and its 80,000 signatures -- has its roots in good intentions, both toward the models themselves and toward the self-esteem and well-being of the women who consume the media that features them.

AND YET: I am not sold on it. Not one bit.

I know, it seems obvious that everyone should be cool with the idea of giving models a healthier work environment. That’s not my beef -- I throw my support behind any movement advocating that models work in circumstances that don’t require them to starve or eat tissues or whatever weird stuff models have secretly done to keep themselves efficiently svelte. I can accept ladies making their own decisions about their bodies, but not so much if they’re doing them under duress, in order to keep their jobs.

(Actually. just kidding, I can’t really get behind the tissue thing, period. I know, I'm a MONSTER.)

The sticking point is that a size 8 model is not definitively nor universally “healthier” than a size zero version; these things depend upon the woman in question’s unique individual circumstances. Some women are naturally very slender, and are plenty “healthy” in that state. Some women are not, and must take drastic measures to get that way. Is it cool to punish the former for the protection of the latter? I don’t think it is. I'm opposed to body-policing no matter the context, and that's basically what's going on here.

I also have a bit of a problem with the idea that an eating disorder is a thing that is easily visually diagnosed. While some women with eating disorders may betray a certain appearance, huge numbers of them look utterly ordinary. More than that, not all women who appear to be quite thin got that way by starving themselves. Insistently connecting a certain size with a pathological relationship to food is incredibly lazy, if not insulting, and even implies that so long as your eating disorder doesn't leave you too outrageously thin, then it's A-OK and nothing to worry about -- it's only a problem if you "appear to have" some psychological problem connected to your weight, by some stranger's purely superficial standard.

I think that introducing greater diversity into modeling is a fine idea, but that’s not what many of these regulations aim to accomplish -- their stated intention is not to open up the field to a broader range of sizes, but merely to force the default size to be slightly larger. And it’s an idea that’s catching on: Earlier this year, lawmakers in Israel banned models with a Body Mass Index of less than 18.5 from working in Israeli media. A recent study of eating disorders in the UK found that legally prohibiting the use of too-thin models is entirely justified. On a self-regulation scale, skinny models have been forcibly cut from fashion shows over the past few years, possibly in an effort to head off just this sort of government intervention.

Ultimately, we may be able to regulate the bodies, but we can’t regulate the cultural ideal; one might hope that by banning the improbably thin in the former, the latter might take heed. But I am inclined to think that so long as we are valuing and accepting only certain bodies while condemning and banning others, some group is going to be suffering for it. A more constructive approach might be to encourage designers to use a diversity of bodies and women. Some designers have already taken this step in their fashion shows: Jean Paul Gaultier has been a bit of a role model, by using plus size models in his shows for several years now, and telling reporters following his Fall 2010 show at Paris Fashion Week: “What counts is personality, there is not just the one form of stereotyped beauty.”

I support the idea of protecting the women working in this field, as well as the notion that the exclusive use of superthin models has cultural effects that we would do well to mitigate if possible. However, I think that making presumptions about the perceived health of these women based on nothing more than their appearance is a dangerous path to go down, and that making sweeping generalizations as a “solution” in which these bodies are erased and condemned as unsafe for public consumption does little to address the problems the majority of women -- even thin women -- may have with their own body image.