"Say No to Size Zero:" How Judging Thin Women Doesn't Promote Body Acceptance

Lashing out at thin women to tell them they aren’t wanted isn’t the way to address disparities and prejudices in fashion.

UK model Katie Green, who attracted media attention after losing a contract with Wonderbra when she refused to lose weight, has just started a “Say No to Size Zero” campaign in the guise of protecting the health and safety of models. Drawing on her own experiences in a highly competitive and judgmental industry where every ounce makes a difference, she says in a petition:

I want to put a stop to the fashion industry using size zero models or models with an unhealthy BMI (under 18.5) on the catwalk, in major advertising campaigns and in fashion in general.

Honey, I get where you are coming from, but you are so, so wrong here. The wrongity wrong wrongness going on here is so immense, I need two buses to carry it all, and I might have to call in a third. A double-decker.

Let’s break things down a bit

Does fashion have a serious problem when it comes to body diversity?

Uh, yeah, it does. A very narrow range of women are represented -- and I note that while Katie Green is presenting herself a folksy “curvy gal,” she also has the kind of body that is built for modeling. She’s tall, she has a very specific waist-hip ratio, and she’s very attractive by social standards. She’s also a size 12, which, yes, makes her larger than many fashion models, but still smaller than the average woman.

And she’s no ordinary size 12. She’s a model. So at the same time she’s telling us the industry should feature “healthy” women who are naturally beautiful (read: women above a certain size, but below a certain one too), she’s creating kind of a double standard here with her amazing looks. She tells us that modeling should be more accepting of diversity, while she herself fits within a pretty narrow range of women.

Should there be more women like Katie (and larger models! And women who look different!) in fashion? Of course, but let’s not get confused here, because I’m not convinced that’s what we would get if she was successful.

Does fashion have a serious problem when it comes to health?

Yes. Yes it does.

Katie says her campaign is about health, which is indeed a serious issue in the modeling industry. Many women are forced on extreme diets to make weight checks, which are a standard part of modeling contracts (about which more in a moment). Others may be pushed into substance abuse, alcoholism, exacerbation of mental health conditions, and other health problems by the high demands of the industry -- and their size isn't necessarily an indicator of how well they're doing.

After all, there are a lot of women out there who are naturally very, very thin. Who in fact have BMIs below 18.5 and are very healthy (but we all know the BMI isn’t a health indicator, right?). Take, for example, a friend I’ll call Sydney, who is a very, very, very thin lady. Sydney’s medium-height, but extremely thin, with very small bones. Like, my forearms are almost larger than her thighs.

And she’s quite healthy by every medical indicator. I don’t know what size she is or what her BMI is (neither of which are my business anyway), but I know she’s healthy because we’ve talked about how she gets judged for her size. Because she’s thin, but she doesn’t look like a supermodel. Because she’s thin, and people assume she’s ill or starving herself to death. Believe me, I’ve eaten with this woman. Her size has nothing to do with the calories she consumes or the amount of exercise she gets.

That’s just how her body is, just like my body is built larger and curvier. If you put Sydney and I on an identical diet and exercise program for a year, we’d come out of it looking basically the same way we do now. (Actually, Sydney might lose weight, because you’d probably cut her calories down from the amount she normally eats.)

Sydney needs body acceptance just like I do. We all need radical acceptance for all people, and we need to acknowledge that there are issues specific to larger women, especially those in deathfat range, but there are also different issues faced by other women, like those experienced by small women. Including models. Furthermore, people deserve to be accepted whether or not they are healthy.

This campaign is about size, specifically, not health. Health does not correlate to size. Green needs to articulate the disconnect between health and size, and not stigmatize smaller women in her well-meaning desire to address the serious health problems within fashion.

Because both size and health are huge issues in the modeling industry that need to be addressed. Numerous nations have started exploring ways to address health problems in fashion, but most unfortunately are based on weight alone, rather than a combination of factors. To really get down to the root of the problem with unhealthy models, addressing size discrimination will help, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

Meanwhile, campaigns like “Say No to Size Zero” are sending a pretty clear and pretty gross message. Lashing out at thin women to tell them they aren’t wanted isn’t the way to address disparities and prejudices in fashion; thin models need to work too, some people are naturally thin, and campaigns like this are why people harass my friend Sydney for looking “sick” because of looking the way she does.

Promoting a diversity of not just sizes but also shapes (and races) in fashion is critical, as is protecting the health of models, but that’s not really what seems to be going on here. This is a simplistic bandaid solution: let’s just ban all people below a certain weight (like we should ban all people above a certain weight, right?) to make the modeling industry healthier.

It doesn’t address why women experience pressure to lose weight, and it doesn’t explore another big issue in modeling.

Getting some class war in your size commentary

Labour rights for models are a huge issue, and they’re starting to gain a high profile thanks to projects like Model Alliance and numerous films exposing the darker side of the industry, like “Girl Model.”

For those not aware, most models aren’t on high-paying contracts, especially at the start of their careers. They scrabble to find work, running from casting call to casting call, living in poverty. They aren’t paid very much (free clothes are not actually all that great for paying the rent with, it turns out), and they’re forced to work long hours, endure harsh working conditions, and, yes, maintain very rigid weights.

Many models working in the US are undocumented, and can be in debt to their modeling agencies. In exchange for promises of fame and fortune, children (because modeling relies heavily on child labour) are brought to Europe and the US to walk the catwalk and pose for photoshoots, and they aren’t at all prepared for what they find here. They don’t have the financial experience, the real-world savvy, or the business skills to build and control their own careers.

While some people might say “boo hoo, they chose to be models,” models are people like everyone else, and they’re workers like everyone else. They deserve to have their rights protected, and many do not.

Katie Green knows this firsthand: the reason she got fired from Wonderbra was because of restrictive contract terms surrounding her weight. Wonderbra demanded that she diet to a size eight or ten, and when she tried, she got sick. So she refused, and she was let go.

Contract clauses like this (that a model achieve or maintain a certain weight, that models regularly be weighed and measured) are extremely common and they’re often exploited to abuse models. Gain two pounds? Your contract is terminated, and it’s back to Russia with you. I’d love to see Katie Green joining the fight for more rights for models, because that, too, is at the heart of discrimination against larger models.

Instead, she’s taken her experience and used it to create a campaign to kick thin women out of modeling. Rather than attacking the victims of a system, though, she should attack the system itself. The fashion industry needs to be held accountable for holding a very narrow range of body types acceptable, for pushing unhealthy diet and exercise habits on models, and for exploiting models for their labor.

How about "say no to labour abuse"?