Fashion Industry and Eating Disorders

The problem is the common practice of models in magazines, commercials and runways being exceedingly thin. This is a problem because it is unrealistic for most individuals to reach and maintain such a low weight and maintain their health.

Our youth now face a world more complicated than ever before. They are subjected to constant bombardment of advertisements displaying extremely thin models. These vulnerable individuals are determining who they are and how they want to be perceived in the world. They sit at the feet of the fashion industry scrutinizing images of models, comparing themselves to these seemingly very cool and successful people and determine that they need to look like these models in order to live the dream of health, wealth and success. It does not take a rocket scientist to determine the predominant message is “I need to be ultra thin and beautiful to live the good life”.

Our youth, particularly in developed countries, look toward these models as an example of what they should aspire to look like. Hence:

1. The typical 14-year-old girl, who is in puberty and experiencing weight gain that is natural and part of the physical maturation process, often concludes that she is fat when she compares herself to these images.

2. The typical young male feels he should have a six pack and very lean frame as exemplified in the perfume and cologne ads in magazines, the extremely lean models they see on TV commercials, and the runway models who may have dangerously low weights.

These young people often then proceed to restrict, diet and exercise excessively to try to live up to the idealized image of themselves that they carry in their heads, largely influenced by media images screaming at them to be thin and beautiful. They may lose weight, tone up and receive positive feedback from their families and peers that they are looking good. This feels great and they continue the behavior to be leaner and more toned. For some, this becomes an unhealthy obsession and they carry it too far.

We know that 20 million women and 10 million men, in the United States, struggle with an eating disorder during their lifetime. (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). Many of these eating disorders were predicated by an attempt to lose weight and restrictive eating. Why did these folks start dieting? Often because they saw the media images (heavily influenced by the fashion industry) and concluded that they could look more acceptable, be more effective, successful and well liked if they too, were thin like the media images they see.

The solution is well stated by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in their carefully crafted health initiative. Here they outline five initiatives to transform our fashion industry into a more health honoring and realistic standard for models. This document stresses the importance of educating the fashion industry about eating disorders and the early warning signs. It suggests that workshops be given to all members of the industry empowering these individuals to understand, recognize and know the health consequences of eating disorders. The CFDA Health Initiative document goes on to encourage the fashion industry to be on the look out for models who have eating disorders and refer them to professional care, as well as require a release for those with eating disorders to continue to work in the field. It also states that healthy snacks, water and educational information about eating disorders be available at fashion shoots. Lastly, the initiative suggests that models under 16 years of age should not be on runways, models under 18 years of age should not be required to work past midnight, and that all models should be provided adequate breaks and rest.

The solutions outlined in the Council of Fashion Designers of America appeals to me because these are suggestion rather than legalistic mandates. It seems more realistic and more likely to have a positive end result, if we work with one another to change the trajectory of the modeling industry standards for weight rather than attack or force the industry to comply.

I like the reasonable standards suggested and they honor both sides of the table. It is a diplomatic approach to curbing unhealthy influences on our youth while also respecting the fashion industry and its concern for the well being of their models. There is likely much more to be done, but this is an important starting point.

Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, is the Founder & President @ Eating Disorder Hope