The Fashion Industry and Eating Disorders

05Jan10

I started posting on fat acceptance because of a personal revelation about how I interact with people (in fact, that’s how I generally begin posting on most subjects).  I intend to continue posting about it because, as I continue to research and read about it, I am realizing how important it is.  The post today is going to seem to be a bit of fluff at first, but I’ll wrap up with something more serious (not that fluff is bad, mind you).  But, before I continue, I need to clarify something — I am pro-body acceptance in general.  This means all sizes.  I won’t be putting down thin people for being thin (I reserve the right to put certain ones down for being bigoted, cruel, rude, or offensive in any way to me, but that is reserved for individuals, and does not include a shot at all people in that size range).  I don’t think there is anything wrong  with being skinny, and I want to make that very clear before I continue with this.  I am focusing on fat acceptance in particular because, in our society, that is really the area to which people tend to apply their misconceptions about weight in an oppressive way.

Now, to the post.  There’s been a recent movement in the fashion industry in support of “plus-sized models” — who, by the way, are really the size of the average woman, if not smaller (average is in the 12-14 range, models are considered plus sized if they are above a size 6).

My favorite right now is from an article that ran in Glamour about confidence.  The photo was chosen because the model (who is absolutely gorgeous) was so comfortable in her own skin.  This wins the spot as my favorite because the magazine did not edit her into oblivion as they often do.  They casually ran her picture, as is, in the article about confidence.  No fanfare, nothing about her stomach, nothing about her size (she is, as difficult as it is to believe, considered a plus-sized model by the way).  It sends such a good message, and one that people need to see presented in such a nonchalant way.  She is normal, and the fact that they didn’t find it necessary to make a big to-do about running that photo was wonderful.

And the response to the photo resulted in Glamour running this, and making a statement that they would, in the future, be using more models like Lizzi.  A good business move on their part, considering the overwhelming favorable response they received.

This next shoot is from V, and was done to purposefully highlight the models’ weights (they’re doing several shoots like this, but I’m featuring this one because I like the way it was done).  I chose this picture because it shows all the models, but the entire thing deserves a look.  I really love that they didn’t pose them to hide the features that are generally considered unflattering, and instead posed them as they would their thinner models (you can see more of that in the other pictures from the shoot).  I have to add, the fashion of this shoot is so very not my style, and I think the clothing choices could have been better…but still, I loved the bared stomachs of the girls who aren’t the thinnest of the bunch, and the skinny jeans for girls with their legs.

Alright, I couldn’t resist featuring this shoot, although Crystal Renn is a pretty well-known “plus-sized” model.  Dear god I love these photos.  They are proof that size has nothing to do with glamour and beauty.  You do not have to be size 0-2 (the size of most “normal” models) to look sexy and untouchable.  The mystique of a shoot like this is not lost with an increased size.  Women will still be lusting after these designs in the hopes that they, too, can be that surreally beautiful…and, perhaps more importantly, they will not brush the look off as something they can never achieve.  (For some reason I really love the two-page spreads when they are split up…something about just the legs dominating a page has such appeal.)

And now for why I think it is so important that magazines are willing to run these photos.  This isn’t just about feel-good fluffing-up of self-esteem.  The Fantasy of Being Thin (term courtesy of Shapely Prose) is having some incredibly detrimental effects on the women who are so exposed to it.

  • In the United States, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. Millions more are struggling with binge eating disorder (Crowther et al., 1992; Fairburn et al., 1993; Gordon, 1990; Hoek, 1995; Shisslak et al., 1995).
  • Because of the secretiveness and shame associated with eating disorders, many cases are probably not reported. In addition, many individuals struggle with body dissatisfaction and sub-clinical disordered eating attitudes and behaviors. For example, it has been shown that 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance (Smolak, 1996).
  • Anorexia nervosa has the highest premature fatality rate of any mental illness (Sullivan, 1995).
  • 40% of newly identified cases of anorexia are in girls 15-19 years old.
  • There has been a significant increase in incidence of anorexia from 1935 to 1989 especially among young women 15-24.
  • There has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930.
  • The incidence of bulimia in 10-39 year old women TRIPLED between 1988 and 1993.
  • Only one-third of people with anorexia in the community receive mental health care.
  • Only 6% of people with bulimia receive mental health care.
  • The majority of people with severe eating disorders do not receive adequate care.
  • Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005).
  • Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005).
  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991).
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991).
  • The average American woman is 5’4” tall and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5’11” tall and weighs 117 pounds.
  • Most fashion models are thinner than 98% of American women (Smolak, 1996).
  • 46% of 9-11 year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and 82% of their families are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992).
  • 91% of women recently surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting, 22% dieted “often” or “always” (Kurth et al., 1995).
  • 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years (Grodstein, et al., 1996).
  • 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders (Shisslak & Crago, 1995).
  • 25% of American men and 45% of American women are on a diet on any given day (Smolak, 1996).
  • Americans spend over $40 billion on dieting and diet-related products each year (Smolak, 1996).

The more the Fantasy of Being Thin is perpetuated in the media, the more women and young girls will try to force themselves to fit the ideal — even if it is not healthy for them to do so.  As much as the media likes to act otherwise, eating disorders are no joke.  Even women who recover from them can have lifelong health issues.

Health At Every Size (HAES) is something I am incredibly supportive of.  It promotes being healthy for your own well-being — which does mean exercising and eating well (although not punishing yourself when you don’t eat well, and, in fact, not saying you have to eat nothing but “healthy” foods all the time), but does not promote eating (or not eating) and exercising for the purpose of losing weight.  I think it’s a crucial difference, in no small part because it means eating what your body needs, and not depriving yourself to meet an ideal.  With HAES, there are no weigh-ins, and there is no guilt.  It is something to do because you want to do it.  It is something that does not promote congratulating yourself on passing on dessert, or staying under a certain calorie intake. (By the way, there’s a reason most people who diet gain back the weight in 1-5 years.  People have a body weight that they tend to naturally hover around.  In order to keep losing weight, or even to just keep off weight you lost past your natural “set point,” you would have to continually decrease your calorie intake.  This goes in the opposite way for naturally thin people trying to gain weight.  Which is not to say that no one is able to lose weight and keep it off, but is to say that it’s extremely difficult for the large majority of people.)

I’m personally not a magazine-reader.  Magazines just don’t appeal to me as much as novels or comic books (not that comic books don’t have their fair share of promotion of the Fantasy of Being Thin, among other physiological impossibilities).  But it is important to me, despite the fact that it’s pretty doubtful I’ll be paging through the myriad of models, that the myriad does include an even amount of “plus-sized” models (and that women above a size 6 are no longer referred to as “plus-sized”).  My own experiences are not the only ones I should be worried about.  My own interpretations are not the only important ones.  Women, especially young girls, need to know that they are not out of the norm if they don’t fit into a certain size range (as I said before, this goes for all sizes — I don’t want size 6 and above to monopolize magazines the way size 0-2 models do now, I want diversity).  The truth is that weight does not define health or beauty, and that truth needs to be prominent in media, for the good of all who engage in it.  I cannot be certain that diversifying the size range of models in magazines will lower the prevalence of eating disorders, but it is absolutely my opinion that it will.  May I stress again that health is infinitely more important than weight?  Because it is.  Food should always be nourishment, never punishment.

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4 Responses to “The Fashion Industry and Eating Disorders”

  1. Great post. It’s okay that you began with “fluff” because I really enjoyed that reminder journey through those great plus-sized model features – and wonderful job bringing it back around to what’s important: behavior is more important to our health than our weight is. The deleterious effects of emphasizing weight as supremely important are a shame, and you’ve listed so much of the result with those statistics. I’m glad to see that you’re supporting Health at Every Size, and I hope you continue to discuss it so worthily.

  2. 2 Marcie

    I’ve always been a fan of fuller-figured models. There’s a great site with many images of Crystal and other plus-size models here:

    http://www.judgmentofparis.com/

    They’re all gorgeous.

    The site’s forum also has thought-provoking discussions about body image and the media.

  3. The Association for Size Diversity and Health is an international professional organization committed to the principles of Health At Every Size (HAES). We wanted to recognize and commend your recent post embracing the HAES approach to health and wellness and the awareness you are raising about the devastation of eating disorders.

    Emerging research confirms that taking care of oneself without pursuing weight loss leads to better long-term health. We are seeing empirical documentation of the health impact from stigma and discrimination toward larger people and the deleterious effects of medical bias and barriers to care for people with higher BMIs. We also see research that illustrates the influence the stigma has on perpetuating eating disorder behaviors. As professionals from diverse disciplines we recognized the need for a weight-neutral approach to addressing health issues for people across the weight spectrum.

    We encourage you to explore our website at http://www.sizediversityandhealth.org. If we can be a resource to you for future exploration of the HAES paradigm, please do not hesitate to contact us.

    Sincerely,

    Deb Lemire, President
    The Association for Size Diversity and Health

  4. 4 Edman

    I have nothing to add to this wonderful post, other than that I’ve noticed the Fantasy of Being Thin creeping into male circles, which is really to us just a subset of the perennial Fantasy of Being Built. You can’t thumb through a men’s magazine such as GQ or Details without being inundated with idealized versions of How You Should Look.

    Needless to say our culture has done a damn good job of creating and marketing to both sexes’ fears of sexual inadequacy.

    On a lighter note, take a look at Rob Liefeld’s comic art for more examples of … creative anatomy. ( http://www.fistofblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/liefeld-cap.jpg )


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