The problem with skinny models

Image of Vanessa Friedman

Once upon a time, in the fledgling days of my professional life, I spent some time at what is generally considered the bottom of the writing heap, subject-wise. I am speaking, you understand, not about county fairs or dental conventions, but rather the oft-dismissed world of beauty. It was by far the most challenging subject I have tackled, and ever since I have always believed that if someone can write well about beauty – find a new and compelling way to tell the story of foundation or describe the latest trend in highlights – they can write well about anything. But I digress.

One of my earliest assignments as a young beauty reporter was to spend a weekend in a house in the Hamptons with 10 “new models” and write about them. The models were “new” I discovered when I got to the house, not because their look was “new” but because they were, literally, new to the job: most had just signed with their agencies. It was a pretty varied bunch that included Laetitia Casta, who went on to become the face of Yves Saint Laurent, and Carolyn Murphy, a Calvin Klein girl and Vogue favourite, so someone knew what they were doing.

However, what struck me at the time, and has stayed with me since, was their absolutely bizarre physical reality: though they were all quite skinny, they were all also of that odd model physiology that marries small bones to great height, and combined with their relative youth (an average of 15/16) and the fact that they were still growing, they ate quite normally but looked like celery sticks. These girls weren’t sickly (having gone to a boarding school I am more than familiar with the many and varied symptoms of eating disorders, and can recognise a problem when I see the extra arm hair it causes), but abnormally proportioned, size-wise.

I always think of this time in the Hamptons house when the debate about skinny models rolls around, as it seems to do every few years. This time it comes courtesy of the international Vogues, all 19 of which have signed a pledge to “not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder; to ask agents to check IDs when they cast shoots, shows and campaigns; to arrange mentoring between older and younger models; to encourage producers to create ‘healthy backstage working conditions’, including not keeping models unreasonably late; to ask designers to make sample sizes larger; and to be ‘ambassadors for the message of healthy body image.’”

Presumably, as part of the final commitment, they are each doing an editorial in their June issues focusing on healthy attitudes towards food, and, this being fashion, those issues began hitting the stands in the first week of May (British Vogue), and will continue to appear through to the beginning of June (Taiwan Vogue). Last week, the heavyweight of the sisterhood (no pun intended), American Vogue, appeared. Fortuitously it was focused on the Olympics and featured a host of well-muscled Olympians between its pages. The message was clear: hooray for healthy bodies! It didn’t really need to do anything else.

And, aside from an editor’s letter laying out the health initiative, it didn’t, at least not overtly. This, from what I can tell (not all the magazines would let me see editorial ahead of time) is pretty par for the course: British Vogue’s story is about the fact that definitions of healthy eating change over time and we’re stuck with that, while Italian Vogue’s is a profile of Bo Derek, who apparently represents a healthy body and attitude (though arguably anyone who once starred in a movie called Ten represents as unachievable a body for most women as a skinny 16-year-old – or Barbie, for that matter, source of untold body image problems).

Portuguese Vogue, for its part, has a piece on misleading food labels, profiles of five current and former models of various sizes and ages, and a story on how to start different kinds of exercise.

Still, if I didn’t know these were health editorials, I wouldn’t necessarily have assumed it. Which suggests either that the Vogues are already behaving pretty responsibly in the subject or we don’t really know what the subject is.

I think the answer is a bit of both.

After all, what is the pledge really about? Protecting young girls? Body image? And is being too skinny really about eating, or is it about emotional and psychological development? Call me a fashion apologist but I don’t think models are the problem. In the same way that the majority of great athletes are people with freakish physical attributes (think of Michael Phelps’s enormous torso, squat legs, and flipper-like feet or a gymnast’s stunted height), so are models (and so was Bo Derek), and this should be acknowledged, and separated from the issue of eating – which should be separated from the issue of age.

My observations of eating disorders all took place in a time before supermodels and largely without the benefit of glossy magazines and celebrity-worship (it was the sort of school where existentialism, not stripes, was trendy) – but they absolutely did take place, because adolescence is a time when girls feel entirely out of control (of their bodies, their hormones, their social life), and the desire to get back in control tends to take the form of controlling the one thing you can influence: what food you put in your mouth.

This is not a special insight, I know. But I do think, given the hoo-ha currently surrounding the subject, it is worth repeating. This is why I think the age aspect of the Vogue pledge – which takes girls out of a judgmental environment at a time when they are least able to process such judgments – is good.

As for the rest of it, though: physical extremes of any kind are unattainable for most of us, and, in fact, perhaps the best way to express this – the best way to teach all of us, young and old, that how we look is simply one of a million different body types – is to pledge not to keep certain body types out but to put all of them in. And not just in special issues about age or size, and not just in Vogue, but every glossy every month.

If we get used to seeing all kinds of bodies, all kinds of bodies will lose their stigmas. It won’t solve all eating disorder problems but it might stop this endless debate.

Then we could get into some really meaty topics.

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