When I was in middle school, I became obsessed with high fashion. I spent countless hours practicing the pronunciation of designer names like Monique Lhuillier and Yohji Yamamoto, reading magazine articles on “the bold shapes and colors of this season’s dresses!”, and of course, watching model after model parade down the runway.
I became convinced that to be desirable—and to wear the beautiful clothes I coveted—I had to be tall and thin. But I’m short and athletic. My self-esteem plummeted.
And all around me, my peers were experiencing the same thing. As two researchers found in 2004, the modeling industry contributes to body image issues rampant in culture today:
“Ultra-thin models are so prominent that exposure to them becomes unavoidable and ‘chronic,’ constantly reinforcing a discrepancy for most women and girls between their actual size and the ideal body.”
While today’s women suffer the consequences of unhealthy role models, our daughters may not. “Ethical fashion” legislation and campaigning has begun showing up all around the world, from France and Denmark to Israel and America. Here’s what’s happening in each of these 6 countries:
Right now, the French Parliament is debating a law that would establish minimum weight guidelines for female models. The minimum weights are based on international BMI standards; however, French health authorities would make the final decision, after accounting for factors like bone size.
The minimum healthy BMI is 18.5. To meet this standard, the average 5’10 model would have to weigh 132 pounds. A 1997 study found the average model’s BMI was 17.6. The New York Times estimates famous model Kate Moss has a BMI of just 15 or 16.
Those who break the law would face fines equivalent to $83,000 and up to half a year of jail time.
While I applaud the spirit of this legislation, I’m troubled by the reliance on BMI. In the past few years, many experts have questioned BMI’s accuracy as a measure of health. More promising is the section of the bill that would penalize any public promotion of extreme thinness, like pro-anorexia sites.
Denmark’s push for healthy models “focuses more on peer pressure within the industry and less on legislative pressure.” The Danish Fashion Institute collaborated with Dansk Fashion & Textile, Model Union Denmark, textile trade association WEAR, the eight largest model agencies, and the country’s national association against eating disorders to produce the Danish Fashion Ethical Charter.
The charter’s purpose is to keep Danish models safe and healthy while raising awareness about eating disorders. Companies who voluntarily sign it agree to four rules:
- Every model under age 25 must get an annual health check
- Models must be 16 years or older
- Models must be served “nutritious and healthy food” at every job lasting longer than two hours
- Models must receive money for their work
So far, about 300 companies have signed.
Fashion expert Vanessa Friedman believes this campaign will be successful for three reasons. The Danish Fashion Institute requires everyone at Copenhagen Fashion Week to sign the charter, there’s an online black list of violators, and Denmark is becoming known for its ethical fashion reputation.
Like France’s legislation, the idea behind this great. However, I wish the government had decided to use a different way of checking on health that doesn’t involve height and weight.
“Force actual tests. Make girls go to a doctor. Get a system to follow girls who are found to be puking,” she said.
The other part of the law mandated Israeli publications and ads to have a “clearly written notice” when they’ve Photoshopped a model to make them look skinnier.
There were roughly 300 Israeli models at the time the law was put into effect, so it wasn’t clear if it would have a real impact. But the number of countries now enforcing similar legislation suggests it has.
In 2006, Madrid Fashion Week told underweight models they wouldn’t be allowed to walk in the annual event.This was the first time one of the big fashion shows had taken a stance on size.
Madrid used a BMI of 18 as a minimum standard of health. Around one-third of models who had participated in the 2005 show were turned away in 2006.
“The restrictions could be quite a shock to the fashion world at the beginning, but I’m sure it’s important as far as health is concerned,” said Leonor Perez Pita, director of the show.
Spain is considered to be one of France’s inspirations for “healthy model” legislation.
A couple months after Madrid’s ban on too-skinny models, Italy announced models with BMIs of less than 18.5 wouldn’t be allowed on the catwalk. In addition, models had to be at least 16. The final provision was slightly odder and banned the “anorexic” make-up look of “dark shadows under the eyes.”
At the time, those pledging said it would lead to “a model of healthy, sunny, full-bodied Mediterranean beauty that Italy has historically contributed” to the fashion world.
6. United States
America’s efforts to regulate model health put it closer to Denmark than France. We don’t have any legislation banning underweight models, but we do have a health initiative started by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA.) Back in 2007, as the pressure to change the industry was reaching its height in Italy and Spain, the CFDA teamed up with “the fashion industry, medical experts, nutritionists, and fitness trainers.”
Here are the policies:
- Teach those working the industry how to recognize the early signs of an eating disorders
- Require models with eating disorders to seek professional help and stop modeling until they get that professional’s approval
- Develop industry workshops on eating disorders
- Make the minimum modeling age 16
- Provide healthy food at shoots and shows
You can definitely see the similarities to Denmark’s charter. I think these guidelines are pretty good; the “bystander intervention” ones, in particular, are effective because they put the responsibility on the entire industry.
But my favorite aspect to the CFDA initiative is what’s missing—a BMI recommendation. As its site explains,
“The CFDA Health Initiative is about awareness and education, not policing. Therefore, the committee does not recommend that models get a doctor’s physical examination to assess their health or body-mass index to be permitted to work. Eating disorders are emotional disorders that have psychological, behavioral, social, and physical manifestations, of which body weight is only one.”
I wish more countries shared this holistic view of health.
While the fashion industry certainly has a long way to go, it’s made some promising changes in the last couple years.
I don’t want my daughter to grow up as I did, obsessed with an unachievable ideal. I’m hopeful she won’t have to.
Aja Frost is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a regular contributor to Her Campus, The Prospect, and her college newspaper. Her work has been featured on xoJane and The Huffington Post. The only thing she loves more than writing is dessert. Follow her on Twitter: @ajavuu.