By Ainsley O'Connell
With fashion week set to launch next week, a New York state legislator today zeroed in on an issue that the fashion industry has been tiptoeing around for months: models suffering from eating disorders. If Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera’s proposal wins support, New York will create an advisory board charged with setting employment restrictions to monitor the health and weight of models and performers under 18.
While the advisory board’s rules would concern only the health of those who are directly involved in the fashion world, the goals of the proposal are more broad. Eating disorders have become an increasingly prominent problem in schools around the country, and when parents and researchers begin to look for answers it is the images of rail-thin (or airbrushed) models that most resonate.
This year the proposal feels particularly of the moment given a much-needed, though still small-scale, backlash against the skeletal ideal. Kate Winslet sued one mag for airbrushing her cover photo without her permission; Jennifer Hudson dominates the screen in more ways than one in Dreamgirls; and Sara Ramirez of Grey’s Anatomy struts her stuff with confidence. Following the death of several prominent models, due to eating disorders, Madrid Fashion Week decided last fall to ban models with body mass indexes of less than 18 (the World Health Organization considers anyone under 18.5 underweight).
Unfortunately the designers and editors responsible for perpetuating emaciated standards of beauty have yet to take meaningful action. Earlier this month the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which founded Fashion Week, adopted guidelines that are well-intentioned but effective only as damage control. It sounds good to bar models under age 16 from walking the runway, prohibit cigarettes and alcohol at fashion shows, and raise awareness of anorexia and bulimia – until it is revealed that the initiatives are wholly voluntary. With that detail in mind, the CFDA’s initiative seems more like a nod to the latest industry fad than a concrete commitment to change. And until fashion’s leaders realize that beauty weighs more than 100 pounds, the same images and standards will dominate.
Perhaps a visit to the Chelsea Art Museum’s current exhibition, Dangerous Beauty, should be a required stop on the fashion week circuit. A work by artist Jacob Dahlgren, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” is on display, consisting of a tile floor made of working bathroom scales. If only one of Fashion Week’s leading lights would be so bold as to make a similar statement on the runway.