Regulating skinny chic

Should the fashion industry require that models meet a minimum body mass index?

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published January 11, 2007 12:46AM (EST)

The announcement that a caucus of American fashion designers had generated health guidelines for the industry wasn't enough to pacify staunch critics of anorexia chic. The Academy for Eating Disorders has responded with its own list of suggested guidelines, which, unlike the designers' resolution, actually sets a minimum body mass index of 18.5 for a model to be employed. It also recommends "an overall ban of the use of photographic manipulation techniques that artificially slim images of fashion models throughout the entire fashion industry"; discouraging the use "all non-healthy weight control behaviors" like laxatives and diet pills; educating models about the health risks of being underweight; and setting an age limit of 16 for all models "so as to reduce the pressure that adolescent girls feel to conform to the ultra-thin standard of female beauty."

"I am surprised every time that people say overly thin models do not cause eating disorders," Lynn Grefe, the chief executive of the National Eating Disorders Association, told the Times. "Their response looks like a P.R. cover on a real problem. It is like saying tobacco advertising does not cause lung cancer." It's a hyperbolic metaphor, to be sure -- but the industry does essentially sell a standard that most people can't attain without extreme and unhealthy methods.

Still, one of the arguments against the academy's guidelines is that some women are naturally very thin. On Tuesday, Slate's Explainer raised an interesting question: Is it possible to be rail-thin and still healthy? The answer seems to be yes, but "only if it's completely natural -- and that's rare." Still, BMI measures only the ratio of a person's weight and height. "Doctors say direct fat measurements -- via skinfold calipers, for example -- tell you more about someone's health," according to Slate.

Because eating disorders plague the fashion industry, it seems reasonable to consider instituting a base BMI -- or, perhaps, a more direct measurement of body fat -- that falls beneath the ideal health standard, but reasonably above what might be a serious health risk. Still, I'm a bit disturbed by the idea of regulating appearance. Could a BMI cap be instituted to protect unhealthily overweight comedians who employ their heft for laughs? Should plastic surgery addicts -- who risk their own health by repeatedly going under the knife -- be banned from the pages of skin mags?

Certain protections may be warranted. But it's unrealistic to expect the reality-challenged fashion industry to ban unrealistic airbrushing or Photoshopping. At the risk of sounding totally granola, designers are playing to consumers; if we're offended by a designer's use of emaciated models, then we shouldn't buy his or her clothes.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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