The skinny on anorexia chic

Following Madrid's ban of ultra-skinny runway models, designers and agents are quick to shirk blame.

Published September 22, 2006 6:23PM (EDT)

The announcement by officials in Madrid, Spain, that models with a body-mass index under 18 would be banned from the city's Fashion Week has everyone weighing in on who's to blame for anorexia chic. Yesterday in the New York Times, DNA Models CEO David Bonnouvrier declared the fashion industry "minutes away from a catastrophe," pointing the finger at designers and bookers who enforce ultra-thin ideals. Agencies, he said, are hamstrung: If he tried to monitor a model's weight, she would leave his agency.

But designer heavyweights weren't forthcoming with the mea culpas, either. Today Giorgio Armani -- deemed "the world's most famous designer" by Reuters -- deflected blame for perpetuating the ultra-skinny trend: "I have never wanted to use girls that are too skinny. I prefer girls that show off my clothes in the best way. Unfortunately though, the stylists and also the media have interfered and they now want models that are incredibly thin." Even the world's most famous designer can't successfully throw his weight around to exclude emaciated models. And stylists are surely moments away from announcing that they blame consumers, bringing us right back to square one: Who's responsible?

Some point to Madrid's actions and call for the U.S. to take similar steps. But Times blogger Judith Warner isn't convinced that it's our government's responsibility or right to regulate the runway. As Warner noted Thursday (subscription required), the Madrid regional government subsidizes the city's Fashion Week, thereby "earning the right to call the shots." Warner wrote, "Though it's tantalizing to note that New York's Fashion Week takes place in a public space -- Bryant Park -- and that taxpayers do foot the bill for the police presence the shows require, trying to drive that major revenue source out of the city for the sake of meatier models probably wouldn't be desirable. I don't think our government wants to get into the business of telling designers how to run their business." Pretty persuasive.

Warner suggested that female politicians take a note from Madrid's outspoken leading ladies and "take a step toward redefining what's good, what's bad and what's ugly in the landscape of young female possibility." She further pondered the unlikely possibility of Sen. Hillary Clinton attending a Fashion Week event and lamenting the abundance of emaciated models. "There's a lot of good that could be done here if only some of our country's most visible female role models would stick out their necks, and lead," Warner wrote.

Today's Times features an editorial calling for an end to "the parade of the starved and sickly," while safely avoiding the question of exactly whose responsibility it is to end it. The piece dramatically compares fashion models with purebred dogs, arguing that there would be an outcry over similarly underfed show dogs, and invokes the death last month of a runway model who died after subsisting on lettuce and diet soda for months.

But critiques like these aren't much good if this short-lived media storm sees designers, model bookers, agents, fashion magazines and show organizers lamely passing the buck without acknowledging responsibility. The scandal will just become a useless annual exercise in media criticism, and next year we'll read more Fashion Week articles that verbally gawk and point at models "so gaunt and thin that their knees and elbows were larger than their concave thighs and pipe cleaner arms, and their bobbling heads looked as if a slight breeze could detach them from their frail bodies." Here's hoping the fashion industry folks are internalizing more of the criticism than they let on -- and that consumers from Clinton on down start expressing their opinions of anorexia chic with their wallets.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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