No more waifs on the runway?

Fashion insiders fight anorexia with "a national manifesto of self-regulation."

Published December 8, 2006 10:13PM (EST)

Somewhat to our surprise, we're back to talking about super-skinny models again. And so, it seems, is the rest of the world this week, since there's some indication that the recent spotlight on anorexia chic -- no doubt driven in part by the public's sometimes perverse fascination with sickly thin women -- is fomenting some actual change within the industry.

The biggest -- or at least most ambitious -- announcement came this week from fashion trade organization Camera Nazionale. The organization is drafting "a national manifesto of self-regulation" as a means of fighting anorexia, according to the New York Times. The manifesto is unfinished, but Mario Boselli, the organization's president, said it would include "very balanced rules" consistent with the World Health Organization's guidelines for a healthy body-mass index. Boselli also communicated this novel notion: "Italian fashion means elegance, style and, most of all, lifestyle. This means to show, promote and communicate the image of a Mediterranean, healthy woman, that is to say an image of joy and wellness." In other encouraging news, officials announced Thursday that models younger than 16 would not be able to participate in next month's São Paulo Fashion Week. This rule beefs up Brazil's existing restrictions for models; they're already required to prove that they are medically healthy before modeling.

What's interesting here is the controversy's impressive shelf life, despite the general consensus that the skinny-model uproar would be merely a flash in the pan. Initially, Madrid officials' move to ban underweight models from the runways in Spain didn't spark actual debate so much as it inspired desperate finger-pointing among industry insiders. Modeling agencies blamed designers and bookers; designers blamed stylists and the media, and so on.

But it seems the issue has actually prompted some insider reconsideration, perhaps because of some combination of repeated media attention, a cultural fascination with anorexia and the deaths of two anorexic models. (Or, for the seriously cynical, maybe the industry has just perpetuated the controversy to draw attention to itself between major shows.) "From what I can tell, there is a growing insight among designers, or people are beginning to see the negative effects of what dangerously thin young women are going through," Steven Kolb, the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, told the Times. "It is something that they were aware of and were processing. Now the issue is coming to a point where the industry is more collectively focused on it."

As Robin Givhan points out today in the Washington Post, "anorexia is a thousand times more complicated than a desire to fit into runway samples. Still, being pounded over the head with the belief that thin, thin, thin is beautiful can chip away at the fragile self-esteem of a young girl  and at the confidence and spirit of smart and accomplished women." And, Givhan argues, with the ideal look devolving from skinny to malnourished to cadaverous, "what comes next could be truly ghastly."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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