Weighty matters

The British government plans to take on heroin chic in a Body Image Summit this month.

By William Underhill

Published June 7, 2000 7:48PM (EDT)

An important style tip for traveling fashionistas: If you plan to visit Britain this summer be sure to pack a hair shirt or two and maybe some sack cloth. The "skinny model" debate has leapt from the papers into the (appropriately plump) seat of government and a little show of penitence might be wise.

Yes, I am quite sure you have heard much of this before. How all those magazine pictures of pallid, panda-eyed models with coat-hanger shoulders are sapping the confidence of girls who can never hope to resemble Jodie Kidd or Kate Moss. How the struggle to shrink -- and stay shrunk -- is producing a generation of agonized and underweight underachievers.

But the level of hysteria here has reached a new high -- or low, depending on your orientation to the matter. The latest attack on extreme thinness comes from the British Medical Association (BMA), not some preachy pressure group. With typical precision, the BMA has announced that models and actresses in the late '90s carried just 10 to 15 percent body fat, while the average for healthy women was 23 to 26 percent. And yes, constant exposure to "unachievable" images can trigger eating disorders. Conclusion: "More realistic body shapes need to be shown on TV and in fashion magazines."

Tired as these breakthroughs might seem, they appear as fresh policy fodder to the government, which has decided to take a strong stand. Downing Street has summoned fashion industry leaders -- teen mag editors, fashion model bookers and the like, as well as experts on anorexia -- to a Body Image Summit later this month. Heading the agenda will be the link between "inappropriate body images" and women's self-esteem. As many as 40 panelists are expected, including eating disorder expert and onetime Princess Di confidante Susie Orbach, as well as unnamed representatives of the (bring your cameras!) Storm model agency.

Quite naturally, the government's minister for women, Tessa Jowell, isn't talking about anything so crude as blame; but we all know who'll be sitting on the sunny side of the table.

And this won't be just a chance to brainstorm. Oh no, no. The government is talking about "action." It has identified a real menace and it means business. Who knows, the next Labour election manifesto could contain a pledge -- this is a government that loves targets -- to raise women's self-esteem by 50 percent over the next five years. Quite possibly the summit will mark the start of a whole new era of good sense in which Barbie dolls have hips, men pull their weight in the kitchen and world peace is restored.

Why the cynicism? As a father of preteen daughters, maybe I should be grateful. After all, something is badly wrong when 57 percent of the nation's 12- to 15-year-olds put "appearance" at the top of their worry list. Maybe I should support any serious attempt to correct the notion that only the truly svelte deserve happiness and success.

But a government-sponsored "summit"? First there's the question of motive. Any politician knows that fashion mavens make an easy target. We may buy the magazines but we distrust the folks behind them. These are the people who have grown rich by trading on our vanity and insecurity, who have persuaded my children to waste their (my) cash on tricolor sneakers. Now we learn that they are conspiring to ruin our health and well-being.

Voters will always support a government initiative that offers a chance for a little righteous indignation. (The truly skeptical might also like to note that an election looks likely next year and even that new baby might not prove enough to revive Prime Minister Tony Blair's sagging popularity with women voters.)

But this is really none of the government's business. The aspirations and eating habits of young women are the business of parents or the young women themselves, not the über-daddy state. The very idea of a national summit suggests that we can't be trusted to know best. (No surprise there. Under Tony Blair, we're getting used to a hectoring, clean-your-teeth-twice-a-day tone from government as bad as anything we endured under Mrs. Thatcher and the Conservatives.)

And the word "summit" is both chilling and laughable. Doubtless the PR team that drafted the press release wanted to convey the serious nature of the event. They attempted, in the choice of one word, to let us know that this gathering wouldn't be just another publicity blatherfest.

Bad choice. That's just what "summit" means these days. A summit is a marathon of prepared speeches, empty declarations and photo ops; an occasion where the powerful gather to talk platitudes and then go home to continue degrading the environment, undermining each other's economies and generally doing whatever best suits the national interest.

So maybe "summit" is all too apt. This certainly won't be the kind of confrontation that produces remedies. More likely, it will be a chance for all parties to flaunt their "concern." What "action" could the government take anyhow? Even this government couldn't seriously decree a minimum weight for models or ban 30-day bikini diets. The best we can expect is a voluntary code of conduct -- just like the voluntary codes of conduct for the press that have failed to curb the excesses of tabloid snoopery.

One can expect the usual hand-wringing and excuses from the fashion friendly who attend this affair. (What do you wear to a body image summit anyway?) Nobody catches anorexia off the page, they will remind us. The magazines are only supplying what the readers want. Besides, diets are outré detox cures and cleansing regimes are the order of the day. And "heroin chic" is out. Models really are getting a tad stouter. Just look at the latest Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen (certainly no waif but most of the serious poundage is on the chest).

Sure that's all part of the truth. But the fashion industry isn't a powerless servant of public taste. The editors of women's magazines can -- but don't -- refuse to run ads or other shots showing models with jutting shoulder blades. Perhaps they know that it doesn't take government guidance to recognize jutting shoulder blades as freakish.

My (well-rounded) 8-year-old certainly has such powers of discernment. If she's to be convinced that her worst enemies aren't pizza and ice cream, what's needed isn't a summit, it's more intemperate ranting to induce a sense of shame.

William Underhill

William Underhill is a freelance writer based in London.

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