Caroline Nokes MP, head of the All Party Parliamentary Group on body image, is discussing the possibility of legislation on ultra-skinny catwalk models. The inquiry officially begins in November. Nokes has been working in this space for some time, and has worked closely with All Walks Beyond The Catwalk.
This follows a petition by model Rosie Nelson for the government to introduce a law “to protect vulnerable young girls and boys in the industry”. Nelson writes about the great pressure that is put on her, as a model, to get thinner, and how agency figures tell her she needs to get “down to the bone”. The petition has so far reached over 50,000 signatures.
Similarly a Swedish model, Agnes Hedengård, recently posted a youtube video that went viral of herself in a bikini, showing what agents had described as “too fat”.
We talk a lot about the effect on young girls and women seeing the images of these models, but we don’t often talk about the models themselves. A model’s life can be very difficult. It’s a very competitive industry, and that competitiveness can lead models to double down on unhealthy habits. It can also, as we know, often lead to anorexia and other eating disorders.
An anonymous industry insider has described her discomfort meeting models. “Many of these models have terrible skin, nails bitten close, sunken eyes, and terrible breath. They have unhealthy habits and unhealthy lifestyles”, and claimed that it’s getting worse year and year.
Erin O’Connor, the great model and muse of McQueen, in 2007 set up The Model Sanctuary, a space during Fashion Week where models can consult nutritionists and psychotherapists. Erin O’Connor, who also co-founded All Walks, should be applauded. But we should also take a moment to think about the fact that we live in a world where that’s necessary.
Every Fashion Week, for years and years, there have been calls for the industry to address the problem of models who are dangerously thin. And yet, every year, the models only seem to get thinner and thinner.
There have certainly been some improvements in the past few years. Some high street brands are really taking notice, like M&S, which has included models of diverse sizes, shapes and ages in their marketing. We’ve seen Ashley Graham and other “plus-size” models gaining fame and rocking the catwalk at NYFW. We’ve also seen a lot of body-positive campaigns gain ground on the internet.
Despite all this, things in the world of high fashion don’t seem to have changed. In fact, couture seems to have doubled down and gone in the other direction, hiring ever thinner and ever unhealthier models.
Some in the industry have defended their use of thin models. Karl Lagerfeld, no stranger to controversy, reminds us that fashion is supposed to be aspirational and insists that people don’t want to see “round women” on the runway. Karl Lagerfeld takes this stand, though, by using not just thin models but dangerously thin models.
Many others in the industry use the argument that they’re creating art and the best place to hang their art is on tall, thin models. Again, there seriously needs to be a distinction between “tall and thin” and “undernourished”. But there also needs to be a more honest conversation in the fashion world as to how we’ve gotten to a situation where models are underweight and often afraid to speak out. Are we really supposed to believe that all clothes look best on predominantly white, very skinny women who have high cheekbones? Are there no designers who are interested in designing clothes for other body shapes?
It’s easy to think it’s always been this way, but it hasn’t. Cindy Crawford, one of the greatest models of our time, was a UK size 10 in her heyday. That means that a young Cindy Crawford would not be able to find much work on a catwalk in 2015.
What’s more likely is that it’s not so much about art, it’s about industry inertia. Nobody is bothered to make the change, to think differently.
So, what can we do to address it? What would legislation look like? It’s hard to know. In France, legislation has been introduced to combat anorexia and ensure that fashion models aren’t undernourished. Their solution involves models not being able to dip under a certain BMI index. The move divided the fashion world. Some saw it as an overreach of the law, while others saw it as a step in the right direction, particularly considering Paris’ symbolic importance in the fashion industry.
Ideally, of course, the fashion industry would do something about it of its own accord, without requiring government’s to step in. But if the fashion industry won’t respond to the problem, the government might have to force the fashion industry to respond.
It might not be wise to borrow France’s law. The BMI index is outdated and notoriously unreliable in terms of reflecting whether a person is healthy. It could also open a Pandora’s Box. Should we require brands to ensure racial diversity? Age diversity? Again, it’s hard to know.
What is good is to move towards a world where catwalks reflect the beautiful diversity of humanity, where designers excitedly deal with the challenge of making clothes that suit different types of bodies, and where models come from all kinds walks of life and walk the catwalk healthy and happy.