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Weighing In

Velvet dAmour for GaultierSo, it's been a week -- how's the New Year's diet going?  Ever since calories became plentiful and most jobs sedentary, those of us living in industrialized societies have been putting on weight and idealizing slenderness.  Sometimes to extremes.

Starting last September, when the Asociacion Creadores de Moda de Espana banned too-skinny models from the Madrid runways, the fashion industry and its critics have once again been buzzing about the effects of unrealistic fashion images on the impressionable young girls of the world. 

Amid pious statements about healthy bodies and realistic body image, however, were overheard mutterings about the far more common issue of obesity.  Fashion's bad boy, French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, even sent plus-size model Velvet d'Amour down the catwalk alongside the usual stick insects. 

Then, in November, the unfortunately named Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston collapsed on a fashion shoot.  She was 21 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, and weighed just over 80 pounds.  Her subsequent death from anorexia may be part of a tragic wave that calls to mind The Sorrows of Young WertherIt also reignited the debate over the inner workings of the industry and its responsbility toward not only models themselves, but also ordinary young women who somehow believe that extreme dieting will enable them to attain measurements accessible only through genetic fortune or Photoshop. 

Ana Carolina RestonThis time a major fashion capital, Milan, joined Madrid.  In December, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana announced plans to require that models demonstrate that they are at least 16 years old and have a body mass index (BMI) of at least 18 before being granted a license to walk the city's runways.  The guidelines are not absolute, however; factors such as the model's ethnicity and geographical origin may be taken into account.  (Not that anyone really understands this qualification -- are Americans, say, expected to be chubbier than average?  Bring on the Coca-Cola and M&Ms!)

What, then, of the Council of Fashion Designers of America?  Thus far, the CFDA has assembled a committee of fashion and health professionals to address the issue.  Although its guidelines have not been announced, criticism has already ensued.  Let the great weight debate begin. 

In the meantime, CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg had sent out the following general statement:

As designers, we cannot ignore the impact fashion has on body image.  We share a responsibility to protect women, and very young girls in particular, within the industry, sending the message that health is beauty.  It is undeniable that the fashion industry has a huge imact on young women, so it is very important that we encourage and promote good health as beauty, and empower these women to want to take care of themselves.  The entire industry has to remain sensitive and aware of this issue, but should not discriminate [emphasis added].

Interesting point.  Could insisting that designers hire only models who are healthy, or at least appear so, constitute discrimination?  While a brief survey of federal antidiscrimination cases indicates that most issues involve overweight rather than underweight plaintiffs, it appears that an eating disorder could qualify as a disability. 

According to one federal definition, a disability is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual"  or "being regarded as having such an impairment."  29 CFR 1630.2(g) (regarding the equal employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act).  Although eating is not among the "major life activities" named in the regulations, the list is not exhaustive -- and it does include "caring for oneself," which arguably includes feeding oneself.  If that is the case, refusing to hire a model because she has an eating disorder, or appears to have one, could be actionable. 

Given the complexities of both federal and state laws related to employment discrimination, the CFDA will have to draft its guidelines with care.  Designers might be best advised simply to predicate their model hiring decisions upon aesthetics -- which is, after all, their specialty.  And if that aesthetic includes actual flesh to go along with skin and bones, so much the better. 

Speaking of aesthetics, it's also worth noting that while current fashion may favor the ultrathin, beauty does not.  Medical school professor Nancy Etcoff, in her book Survival of the Prettiest, explains that across cultures average-sized women with a waist-to-hip ratio of .7 are considered the most attractive.  This number correlates with both general health and fertility and holds true across body types -- Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn shared this hourglass proportion, albeit in different sizes.  In other words, beautiful women deposit hip fat, and its absence is an artificial departure from aesthetic norms.  Etcoff's prediction?

...extreme thinness is bound to go the way of three-foot-high hair and the eight-foot-wide skirt.  There is nowhere to go with it:  models can't get any thinner, and fashion never stays in one place. 

Perhaps formal regulation of models' heights and weights is thus unnecessary, and the fashion world is simply participating in a new trend.  One bit of anecdotal evidence supports Etcoff's thesis:  a few seasons ago, my esteemed colleague and spouse accompanied me to a fashion show consisting only of bathing suits.  (What was I thinking?!  But read on....)  Apart from one well-known supermodel, who was slender but athletic-looking, the models were walking skeletons -- the audience could count every rib and vertebra, breasts and buttocks were nonexistent, and some of the pelvic bones looked as though they would poke through the skin at any moment.  My companion's response?  Shock, disgust, and pity. 

Reader, I married him.