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Two Shocking, Dehumanizing Reasons Runway Models are so Thin

Two Shocking, Dehumanizing Reasons Runway Models are so Thin, and Why we Should Never Aspire to Look Like Them

March 12, 2014
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In 2006, after stepping off the runway in Montevideo, Uruguay, 22-year old model Luisel Ramos died of anorexia-related heart failure. The public was outraged, and they demanded that fashion executives re-evaluate their hiring practices.

Nonetheless we find today that it has been eight years and runway models are not getting any heavier or healthier. In fact, the average size and weight of models in the fashion industry is at an all-time low (even while the US Council of Fashion Designers instituted an 16 year old age limit in 2012). According to the British Association of Model Agents, the minimum height for a female should be 5’8, which the most acceptable range being 5’9-5’11. This woman should be approximately 115 pounds, and she should measure, bust to waist to hips, 34-24-34. At 5’9, this makes for a body mass index measurement of 17. 18.5 is where women become infertile and ill. 16 is where the WHO says it gets severely dangerous. 15 is where they often die.

luisel-ramos

A famous shot of Ramos before her death in 2006.

As a culture, we know this is unhealthy. We know that model extremity is one of many cogs in the complex gears of slender body image norms. We know none of it is right. Nonetheless we cannot seem to shake our attachment to extreme thinness.

Taking a good, hard look at the fashion industry reveals some powerful answers to the question of why models are so thin. These answers so powerful that they collapse whatever validity we had previously ascribed to thinness in the fashion world in the first place. They demonstrate that the fashion industry treats and depicts women as less-than human. Less-than-human is not valid. Less-than-human is not worth our attention and adoration. Less-than-human is something to reject and overcome, not something to aspire to.

These are two of the bizarre, harmful rules by which the fashion industry plays.

  1. Models are made to fit clothes; clothes are not made to fit models.

 The primary aim of fashion designers is to sell their product to retailers. This means that clothing is designed to drape and hang however it is most appeals to the human eye, no matter how drastic the body size its design requires. The longer, more flowy, or better draped an article of clothing is, the more likely a retail executive’s eyes will pop out of his head, and he’ll scramble to place thousands of orders. Krystle Kelley, a former model turned president of the Desert Models Agency, said of this phenomenon in an interview with Fox News that “people that pick up magazines are consumers. They want to see people that relate to them, which will make the consumer more eager to buy products. But designers are showing their garments to the majority crowd who are mostly retailers. The collections are also considered drafts, and those drafts are fitted to a mannequin that is size 0 or 2 dress size. The other concern of the designer is for the garments to flow as well as be mesmerizing on the catwalk and the way to accomplish that is for the dress, pants, gown etc. to be long. The only way to fit a long garment is with a model who is thin and tall.”

 Donna Karan New York - Runway - Fall 2013 Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

Image credit: stylite.com.

So clothing is designed for its own appealing shape, not for how it fits actual human beings. Models have often been called “hangers” for this precise reason. They are valued first and foremost as objects. They are useful for their measurements. They are bones and angles off of which clothing is meant to hang, not living, breathing, vibrant human beings.

This problem is best demonstrated by the role of the “fit model” in the fashion industry. The fit model maintains a precise, tiny shape that fits to exact measurements. This enables her to be the first mannequin in the production line, the tiny size—or the “skeleton” in the words of once Vogue Australia editor Kirstie Clements–off of which all of the larger sizes are modeled. Clements remarks in an excerpt from her book The Vogue Factor published in the Guardaint in July 2013  that one model described her roommate as “’[being] a fit model, so she is hospital on a drip a lot of the time.’” Executives in the industry often confide the same perilous status of their own models to Clements. Sometimes they even resort to strategically arranging a model’s limbs during a shoot because she is too starved and exhausted to move.

 steffi11-719020_0x440

(Steffie Soede. Image credit: vogue.it)

After the design process, runway models must fit into these skeletal clothes. After that, the clothing is made available to the press to use for shoots. This forces the industry’s thinness norms down the throat of magazine editors and the popular presses (who nonetheless retain their own culpability in this process).

Models in the popular presses must fit into the sizes already produces: the fours, twos, or zeroes that come directly off the backs of women – hangers – on the runway. There are no bigger samples available, and it doesn’t matter much anyway, says Clement, since the industry knows that long, lean clothing sells, even if it will never drape off of a “normal” woman the way it does the fit model or a mannequin.

So models are so thin because they are hangers who are forced to squeeze themselves down to the size of pencil sketches. Models fit clothes; clothes don’t fit models.

2) Models disappear so clothing can shine.

Much as we might think of models as impossibly beautiful, they are not necessarily chosen for this fact. Yes, they must have a particular “ferocity” or “verve.” They must have the stage presence a designer is looking for. But if they were too beautiful or too buxom they would be distracting. Fashion executives fear that instead of focusing on the brilliant cut of a particular piece of clothing on a runway or in a fashion magazine, people would be drawn into lustful, envious thoughts of flesh. And they cannot possibly have that! Emmy Award-winning stylist and author David Zyla affirms this point in an interview with Fox News. According to Zyla, so much is at stake in runway shows that curvy, healthy, vibrant women would “upstage” a designer’s creations.  “As a result,” says Zyla, “the models chosen are typically slim and androgynous…so that audiences are not distracted by a curvy hip or full bosom.”

 modelsonrunway

Image credit: complex.com

This is a particularly potent aspect of the fashion industry we need to think deeply about. Models are so slim, so young, so angular, and so often the antithesis of healthy body shapes because industry executives deliberately want them to be invisible. They are not chosen for sexual appeal. They are not chosen for their astounding womanhood or beauty. They are not chosen to be beacons of vibrancy or health. They are chosen for their potential to be a hanger…An object…something that is not seen. If that’s not reason to buck the fashion industry’s heavy-handed anorexia-mongering, I don’t know what is.

 adriana lima 2

(Adriana Lima, VS fashion show 2013. Image credit Zimbio.com)

Of course, many of the female bodies we idolize in popular culture such as Victoria’s Secret models are not at risk of death by anorexia nervosa, but nevertheless the fashion industry is problematic because its drastic aesthetic preferences perpetuate the myth of leanness as a necessary component of beauty far and wide. The fashion industry is partly why even the curvier Victoria’s Secret models are themselves still so tall and thin. The fashion industry is partly why mannequins are so tall and thin. The fashion industry is partly why women and girls flip through magazines and develop negative body images issues and disordered eating behaviors. Extreme thinness is not a standard of beauty for the ages. It’s not a norm founded in health and empowered womanhood. It’s not even a standard that treats women like human beings. It is arbitrary, and it is cruel. Recognizing this fact can help us move forward into the future thinking more realistically about what makes a woman beautiful,

I do not have all the answers on beauty. But I suspect it has something to do with health. I suspect it has something to do with personality. I suspect it has something to do with goodness. And I am certain it has something to do with dignity and inherent worth. These are not values the fashion industry offers–they are ones we must develop and stand up for ourselves. But we can do this with courage, forgiveness, and love, and with passionate indignance at the injustices perpetrated against women everywhere in the production of fashionable clothing.

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Managing director of Paleo for Women and author of Sexy by Nature.

20 Comments

  1. Still waiting on that unequivocal denuncuation of Nikoley (your latest comment on his site was disturbing to say the least). I would also appreciate an apology as well as a general aacknowledgment of all the women you’ve disempowered along the way. For starters…

  2. Yeah…And if anybody’s still aspiring to that kind of body, I can tell you if you actually *are* that thin, people are about evenly split between thinking you look terrible but not saying anything (usually men) and openly expressing envy and jealously, with an edge of meanness (usually women). Because yes, I definitely lost all this weight on purpose to make you feel bad about yourself. My life-threatening illness was just a means to an end. /sarcasm

  3. Thinspo is an actual ongoing thing for many young girls who have no clue whatsoever about nutrition and the potential health- damage of being underwheight. This is a well- written article and although I have sort of heard it all before, the puzzle never quite came togheter until I read this. Sounds like the models are the victims of an inhuman money-machine,wich in turn afflicts everyone else. And, sadly, on top of it, I hear these victims say they consider themselfs soo lucky to be a part of this big “adventure”. They are so brainwashed! We all are.

  4. While I agree with your sentiment, I think you’ve left out a crucial part of the argument. These women choose to be treated this way! It is their choice to go into a toxic industry, knowing what will be expected of them. As long as these models are willing to go along with dehumanizing expectations, the practice will continue. There are many other career options available. I would never encourage or enable my daughter to become a model for the very reasons you pointed out.

  5. This has totally changed how I think about body image.

    Old mindset- So you see another women, and her jeans are just BAM, jeans. All detail, tight seams… all you see is how great her jeans look. Then you wonder why, and you realize, oh, of course, she is teeny. /sigh. I need to be teeny.

    New mindset- But no. I don’t. Because I just noticed that her jeans looked good. I didn’t even notice HER except as an afterthought. She is a hanger, advertising the clothing. And now when I would get jealous of someone’s body (which is silly unto itself), I am now contemplating if she looks good because she actually looks good, or if I’m just jealous of clothes that fit.

    To me paleo is about looking good naked. Everyone has different standards, sure, and we’re really, really not here to judge each other, even though we do. This post just put a lot of ingrained body-image habits into flux for me.

  6. The fashion industry is exactly that .. an industry anchored on fashion and if the experts and designers feel thin is the best way of getting their wares exposed and appreciated, who are we to say otherwise. At the end of the day it’s a business. Besides the issue of anorexia could be an entirely isolated thing.

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  8. In order to keep great shape you have to develop healthy eating habits. I’ve read somewhere that even if you attend gym every day but keep eating junk food – you are wasting your time. Lots of useful advices on proper nutrition I have found here militarygradenutritionals.com/blog/military-for-women/. They provide special tips for women and lots of motivative ideas!

  9. Not only is it easier to design clothes for people with zero curves, its much easier and quicker to sew them for people with no curves. Part of the reason I even got good at sewing back in the day was working with and accepting my own bodacious self. That being said, it’s SUPER annoying for consumers to see an outfit that “works” on someone who’s stick thin to only see that it is just a bit much on anyone with natural, feminine curves… or even a BMI of 19 and up. Needless to say, with no more time to sew, I’ve accepted that doing alterations myself or taking ready-to-wear clothes to the tailor is just a part of my reality… Granted, if I see a celebrity like JLo wearing something, there’s a greater chance that it’ll fit right!!!!!!

  10. Dear Stefani – Thank you for this article, it resonated with me since I used to diet hard – whether it be the diet-coke-and-salads-only diet, or a super strict, zero carb paleo diet + IMF, coupled with tabata intervals…

    Oy. Anyway, my body shape became less womanly over a few years of doing this stuff (as in less of the healthy fat around the hips). And it was all in an attempt to get the so-called beautiful female body.

    I’m recovering from that now. An article of yours from last year, I think one on hypothalamic amenorrhea, helped start me down the right path. To quote you, “consider eating a fuck ton of calories” LOL. Best advice.

    Also, this article brought to mind something:

    Artist Immortal Technique’s song Natural Beauty.

    “These magazines got you caught in a hustle,
    Cause when you starve yourself,
    Your body doesn’t burn fat it burns muscle,
    And men who don’t even like women control the business,
    That’s why the women look like men and the men like bitches…”

    • It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to Immortal Technique. Thanks. This is going in my “quotes” doc.

  11. I’m absolutely disgusted in this article. The second picture is captioned with “A famous shot of Ramos before her death in 2006″, when it’s actually a shot of Magdalena Frackowiak. How is the shot famous when it’s not even of the model you’re writing about? How dare you write such an uninformed article where you try and pass of a photo of one model as one of another, anorexic model just before her death.

    • This is quite interesting… because this photo is floated around the feminist / modelling blogs as Ramos. All the time. I see it all the time. I never in a million years thought it would’ve been another woman. My apologies.

  12. I like the article; although, I disagree with pinning the “fashion industry” as the culprit of unhealthy eating practices, when human beings have been obsessed with female body images for thousands of years. If you look at Ancient China, South Korea and even Japan, being “thin”, delicate and helpless was a staple for women that persists even to this day, where women are expected to look and act a specific way in order to capture the attention of a potential marriage partner. The cultures where having more curves is the norm is African, African-American and Latin-origin cultures. Eurocentric standards of beauty is – in all honesty – where the “thinspo” revolution came from. Even now, you go to Africa, and curvier women are seen as better capable of bearing children, go to Latin based countries and look at their television shows and their models are curvier, their actresses are curvier. Honestly, and this is not a white-versus-minority thing, but the impossible beauty standard of thinness is more of an off-shoot of whiteness, Eurocentric beauty standards and white-washing in the “Fashion Industry”. Furthermore, it is the result of humanity constantly opining certain beauty standards for men, as well as women – because men face just as many tribulations in fashion as the women do. So, you can blame fashion all you want, but you have to look at the historical context and also look at us, the consumers, to see how we are perpetuating this endless cycle by buying into the idea of this Eurocentric beauty standard and “shoving [that] down the throats” of the fashion industry.

    • well, of course.

  13. I think the desire to be thin has increased each decade with the rise in obesity each decade. Even in the 1950 standards were different, and the last wave of “real supermodels” in the 90s were healthier looking., even though there were still clothes to display back then. I thank you for describing the process by runway clothes reach the public. I think you are entirely right that they become a standard because of the industry around fashion. But I don’t think these sizes would be accepted by the general public in magazines and movies if we were not culturally responding to an epidemic, which makes evolutionary sense. Those least affected by the epidemic might end up in better health over time? Also, I don’t like the how people use the word curvy to mean chubby to fat these days. I know you probably do not mean it this way, but if someone gains a lot of upper body fat and proceeds to call themselves curvy because of chest fat, then where does that leave slender people who are actually curvy like in their bone structures or have a lot of glandular tissue etc…? I think the term is too vague. Most models are androgenous but some can be curvy, even if they don’t have much fat.

    • You are right – it is too vague. I meant CURVY. And also, not androgynous. But not unhealthfully large either.

      Very complicated semantics in the world of bodies. :)

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  15. that first picture you used that is supposed to be ramos before she died is actually Magdalena Frackowiak

    • Thank you! The internet all over the place says its Ramos… I looked EVERYWHERE for more pictures of her.. thank you.

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