Fashion Modeling: Moving Away From Size Zero

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American designer Marc Jacob caused a storm at Paris fashion Week.  His crime?  Using models of all ages, races and shapes – including a model who had just given birth.  It was one of the most diverse ranges of models in recent times, and this new approach to fashion came a season after we saw Canadian knitwear buff Mark Fast use plus-size models on his catwalk.

Fashion has long been a staple of insecurity throughout history.  From the Elizabethan ruffle collars and puffy sleeves of the 16th century to the mini skirt of the 60’s, women’s fashion trends have focused on how their clothes represent them to other people.  Sometimes, this meant looking bigger – so as to show wealth and healthiness – and since the 90’s, the trends have been concerned with looking as thin as possible.

During the 90’s, there was huge interest in a look that later came to be known as heroin chic.  Pale skin, prominent bone structure and dark circles underneath the eyes signified this trend.  Tom Ford, who was working as the Creative Director of Gucci at the time, was quoted as saying: “The goal is to look like you’ve seen everything, done everything, been everywhere.  It’s an intimidating look, and the drug thing is a continuation of all that.  If you look like you’ve been out all night, it conjures up all these images in your head.”

Whilst other fashion trends seemed to disappear eventually, heroin chic stuck around for a good few years, peaking in 1993 with a Calvin Klein advertising campaign featuring Kate Moss. It eventually faded in the late 90’s with the accidental overdose and death of fashion photographer David Sorrenti, who was well-known for photographing fashion in the style of heroin chic.

The fully-fledged size zero debate did not begin until 2006, when Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos died on the catwalk, due to complications arising from anorexia. In response, Madrid’s Fashion Week then banned models whose BMI (body mass index – an indicator of healthy weight) was below 18, which is classed as “underweight” and used to diagnose anorexia.

Anorexia affects one in 100 women in the US and 1 in 20 in the UK.  It can cause osteoporosis, infertility and potentially organ failure.  Mary George, spokeswoman for BEAT – the UK’s leading charity for eating disorders – said: “Anorexia is treated as a serious psychiatric condition; not the result of a diet gone wrong or a fashion fad. The illnesses usually come about as a result of dealing with difficult thoughts, emotions and trauma.”

A survey conducted by Marie Claire last month found that 18% of women aged 18-25 have had an eating disorder in the past, or still do – and 62% of those asked say they feel pressure to be slim. Mainly from peers, celebrities and magazines.

This unhealthy obsession with being thin has often been blamed on the heads of the magazine industry.  But as it turns out, they are not so much in control as also victims of the fashion industry.  In 2009, the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, wrote to all the major fashion houses imploring them to make their clothes bigger.  She said that the clothes samples were getting so small that she had no choice but to use super-thin models.

In March this year, Anna Wintour – editor of the American Vogue – took part in a talk about eating disorders. She said beforehand: “Creating guidelines within the industry to know what to do when they see a girl with a problem was an important first step.”

While some designers such as Marc Jacobs and Mark Fast seem to be doing all they can to publicize bigger bodies, others are defending the corner for thin models just as hard.  Karl Lagerfeld is one such supporter – he was quoted as saying: “No one wants to see curvy women [on the catwalk]. You’ve got fat mothers with their bags of chips in front of the television and saying that thin models are ugly.”

In spite of rallying against using plus-size models from the likes of Lagerfeld, the fashion industry has started to move away from using thin models as consistently as it used to.  Plus-size models are now being used more frequently, and, with new online clothes shops for bigger women, the era of thin-is-beautiful seems to be ending

Co-director of Bournemouth modelling agency LMP Models, Emma van Lindholm has seen the change slowly happening.  “There are plus size models being used on the catwalk, which there weren’t five years ago or ten years ago.”  But, she hints, the problem may well be self-inflicted.  “As long as the public have their way, as well as designers, I don’t see it changing dramatically any time soon. But it’s not super-waif any more; it’s not as bad as it was.  Two or three years ago, the ‘super-waif’ was a really big problem.”

According to Emma van Lindholm, modelling agencies are also becoming more conscious of how the models they use can impact on their reputation. “You can’t send girls to clients who aren’t eating and they’re going to pass out, or they’re anorexic.  We’re very involved with our models, we have a very good relationship with them in all aspects, we help them with professional problems and we’re always there for them.  You can’t have someone on your books with an eating disorder and you don’t want to be seen to encourage it.  If it happened, we’d suggest that they take some time out and we’d get in contact with their family and support them.”

All of the companies and individuals involved in fashion have a role to play, but the core element of fashion is the designers themselves.  Even if some of them are trying to change the models used on their catwalks, while designers like Lagerfeld speak out against it, and fashion houses force magazines to use thin models, nothing will change.  However, these appear to be the first steps to challenging the views that every woman should be a size zero.

Written by Jane Luck

Photo credits:  Designer:  Stephane St. Jaymes / Avante Couture Fashion Show / Photography : Jim Jurica