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Someone I know well is the mother of four teenagers. On Christmas Eve she was in a tizzy because she couldn’t find the key to the lock on the closet where she stashed the presents. She locks the door because therein also resides a well-stocked liquor cabinet. “You don’t trust them?” she was asked. “Sure I do. I trust them to be teenagers.”
Teenagers as a class are not widely considered pillars of sound judgment. Thus, the modern societal norm involves some degree of supervision, traditionally by parents. In recent years, the fashion industry has been forced into a role with faux-parental overtones when it comes to securing the good health of models, a role that, while unquestionably laudable, will almost surely prove inadequate.
In advance of the upcoming collections, last week CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg partnered with Dr. David Herzog, director of the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, to pen an impassioned piece now posted on the Council’s Web site. “The industry’s hiring of prepubescent-appearing teenage girls as models of adult clothing sets an unrealistic standard; hips and breasts, the curves that define the female figure, are absent,” they wrote. “Some models have difficulty maintaining the body ideal as they move into adulthood and run the risk of engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors that lead to eating disorders.” Also last week, the CFDA e-mailed to its members and the press a reminder of the organization’s four-year-old Health Initiative guidelines. These include not hiring models younger than 16 for runway shows; not allowing those under 18 to work past midnight, fittings included; supplying healthy meals backstage and at shoots, and providing a smoke-free, alcohol-free environment backstage.
An additional component calls for educating the industry “to identify the early warning signs in an individual at risk of developing an eating disorder,” while encouraging models who may have an eating disorder to seek help; developing workshops “for the industry (including models and their families) on the nature of eating disorders, and [providing] nutrition and fitness education.”
All while making sure that the collection is something worth showing; samples are made and arrive on time; the show production is of an appropriate professional quality; the seating plan insults as few people as possible and that, ultimately, all goes off without a hitch, with each girl properly dressed and on the runway in a manner timely enough not to incite audience ire.
Fashion is populated by intelligent, professional people — including legions of smart models — the majority of whom want to do their best by those they work with at all levels, whether long term or for a single show or shoot. I recall years ago when Elle creative director Joe Zee and I worked together at W, Joe called a booker from a shoot because he recognized that a girl was in trouble and needed help. (She got it.)
Unfortunately, not all serious problems present obviously, particularly when the issue is weight. Like it or not, modeling is a career with physical requirements. Period. Yet fashion alone cannot mandate the beauty ideal of a given moment; rather, it results from a confluence of cultural movements, fashion among them. True, no one can deny that models have gotten much skinnier over the past 10 or so years; so, too, have celebrities and the most style-conscious among the general public. Nor can one ignore that adolescent and young adult eating disorders are a major public health problem. Or that fashion and media must continue to examine the messages they send. Both are answerable for those messages and their fallout, and therein lies a tremendous social responsibility.
Creatively, however, that responsibility is not black and white. Yes, fashion’s primary purpose is to make us feel good; why else spend four grand (or whatever one’s particular indulgence figure) on a jacket? But fashion has other purposes, one of which is to provoke and question the status quo, which may involve the creation of imagery at odds with popular notions of pretty. Such projects should absolutely be cast sensibly. But what other factors should play into the balance between social responsibility and creative expression? Should industry participants temper their more extreme inclinations toward perceived mainstream sensibilities, or should ultimate judgment be left to the public, as happened in the Nineties with its wholesale rejection of the heroin-chic schtick?
Even putting aside such creative issues, when it comes to promoting the good health of models, guidelines are one thing, their meaningful application, another. Simply put, what is the litmus test for action? If a girl shows up at a go-see looking tired or undone, should the bookings editor report in? If so, to whom? If a skinny girl passes on lunch at a job saying she had a big breakfast, is she starving herself or did she have a big breakfast? Only someone in touch with her on a near-daily basis — preferably someone to whom her well-being is paramount — is in the best position to know for sure.
Despite the best intentions of industry educational initiatives concerning early warning signs, among the bounty of people with whom models come in contact during the course of their work — designers, photographers, stylists, editors, hair and makeup artists, agency executives and bookers, the assistants to all of the above and on and on — who are truly equipped to make sound judgments, at least before a case reaches the obvious-to-all crisis point? These people are not medical personnel, psychologists, social workers or hall wardens. Their primary job is, well, their primary job — getting the show staged or shoot completed as exquisitely as possible; expecting them to be confident, accurate monitors of whom among the skinny girls is too skinny is asking too much.
When this issue erupted into major news in 2006, triggered in part by the anorexia-related death of model Ana Carolina Reston, all of those listed above were implicated to some degree as having turned a blind eye to the problem. Perhaps they did. In their piece, von Furstenberg and Herzog put a similar argument in positive terms: “Although models are key to affecting change, they obviously cannot do it alone. Everyone in the fashion industry — designers, casting directors, agents, fashion-magazine editors, show producers — need to join forces.” About the only constituency not called upon is the parents, though one assumes they give their minor children permission to sign with modeling agencies and leave home. Some no doubt view, often correctly, a daughter’s modeling career as the potential gateway to a better life.
Parents who are raising or have raised teenagers know it’s a challenge. That’s with your own kids, over whom you ostensibly have some control. To expect the fashion industry to function in loco parentis to legions of pretty, lanky adolescents who have been released by their parents into the care of twentysomething bookers, and who, once so released, can probably be trusted to act like teenagers, which is to say at least sometimes engage in behavior of which adults might not approve and might be dangerous — especially in such un-fun, nothing-to-do places as New York and Paris — is absurd. So, too, is the suggestion that the industry is primarily responsible when tragedy strikes.