The Ministry Of Thin

Posted: June 6, 2013

Do we need to take a stand against insecurity about our bodies and the way they look? Are we being manipulated by the fashion industry and by visuals of thin perfect bodies? Do you feel a dip in your self esteem after you turn on FTV or flick through the pages of Vogue? You’re not the only one.

It’s necessary to fight these stereotypical images of beauty, achieved at great cost to the models who starve themselves for more work, as health and looks are tossed by the wayside. Some of them even lose their lives – a couple of years ago an international model died after a series of meals consisting only of salad leaves and diet Pepsi. Perhaps she convinced herself that she was getting some greens which qualified her diet as healthy. What of the models who eat cotton balls to feel full? Doubt that there’s any food value in a cotton ball. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

stereotypes of beautyModels are being encouraged to do cocaine, because it speeds up the metabolism and keeps them thin! Russian model, Kira Dikhtyar told Fox News that “packs of cigarettes, daily colonics, laxatives, Phentermine diet pills, Adderal, prescription drugs that suppress the appetite” are just some of the techniques employed by her colleagues to stave off hunger.

“I’ve heard stories that some modeling agents encourage girls to do speed and cocaine in order to speed up metabolism and eat less. And all kinds of injections are becoming more and more popular, from HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) injections that go with a 500-calorie diet plan to T3 thyroid injections that healthy models inject in an attempt to speed up their thyroid function, which results in a faster metabolism.” The 24-year-old model also claimed that some models resort to eating cotton balls in order to fill their stomachs, before saying that she has only been turned away by one designer – Elie Tahari – for the upcoming New York shows for being too thin. Read the full report here.

Stronger women, with better sense and self esteem are working at raising awareness about the issue. In the UK Body Gossip (an NGO) is organizing flash mobs on the 28th of June to draw attention to body  issues with devastating effects on the health and well being of women. The concern regarding this is not new – as early as 2010 Mark Fast – a fashion designer decided to use, amongst the conventionally thin models, size 14 models to showcase his creations. A brave decision in an industry that believes that you can never be too thin. It seems like a smart business decision too, there are many more ‘normal ‘sized women than stick figures who would like to buy beautiful clothes.  But then perhaps designers don’t design for real women. Their creations are just that – creations, fantastical garments to be draped on hanger like women or mannequins, unpractical, unwearable and only beautiful to look at. Sometimes not even that.

Some painfully thin model photo shoots are used by pro Anorexia (yes, there is a such a thing!) websites. Watch the video – she’s beautiful, but is that the ideal of beauty we want to follow?

U.K.-based fashion brand River Island has released photos of a very thin model wearing Georgia Hardinge’s  designs, that provoked the comment,  “having a model this thin is immoral and repugnant,” according to The Daily Mail in addition to tons of online criticism over its uber skinny models in its latest collection’s lookbook. The promo video for the collection features a model contouring and transforming into one of the geometric dresses — her protruding spine and ribs prominently on display. I couldn’t find this promo video – perhaps it’s been removed due to the reactions it evoked.

Former Australian Vogue editor Kirstie Clements  exposed the dark underbelly of the fashion industry with her 2013 book – The Vogue Factor where she tells of models who ate tissues to stay thin. And this in Australia, which has a better reputation for good sense and a recognition of real beauty.

Now a Sydney modeling agency has opened a division for healthy, everyday body shapes, following The Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph’s campaign to encourage the fashion industry to use larger models.

Right now The New York Fashion week is underway. It began with updated health guidelines for models. “Each Fashion Week season the issue of models and their weight is brought to our attention. Whether it’s the latest industry initiative to stop designers using unhealthily thin models or society’s shock that underweight models remain the physique of choice for the majority of designers, you can guarantee that it will cause a furore one way or another.”

It would seem that all the attention  by people like size zero campaigners is making a dent though. Their unrelenting gaze is bringing the right reactions from people who matter in fashion.

High street fashion giant H&M, had been using very skinny models. Karl-Johan Persson, the “young, handsome CEO” of H&M, recently gave an interview to Metro, during which he finally addressed the longstanding industry problem of anorexia. “We have a huge responsibility here. We’re a large company, many people see us, and we advertise a lot. I don’t think we’ve always been good. Some of the models we’ve had have been too skinny. That’s something we think a lot about and are working on. We want to show diversity in our advertising and not give people the impression that girls have to look a particular way. By and large, I think we’ve succeeded: we’ve many different kinds of models from different ethnic backgrounds. In our last campaign we had a somewhat more buxom model, and now we’re having Beyoncé, who’s a bit curvier as well. I believe that the models in our advertising should look sound and healthy. There are models who’re too thin or obviously underweight, but there are also those who’re just thin, and they’re the ones we should keep working with, as long as they look sound and healthy. We can get more disciplined, because sometimes there have been mistakes. “  Great speech, although it seems that despite using a curvy woman like Beyoncé, they tried to airbrush and photoshop her images. She would have none of it and they had to use the originals.

Well it’s a relief that attitudes are changing, if even a little, to include women like Beyoncé. The curvy songstress recently gave this advice to young readers at Teen Vogue:

“The best thing I can say to young ladies is accept the body you’re in. If you have curves, love your curves. The thing to strive for is to have the best healthy body you can have. It’s really not about being skinny or being curvy. What matters is that you love yourself and you are taking care of your health.”

Other advocates for women with normal bodies are Miley Cyrus and Rihanna.

After Miley was criticized for being full-figured in 2011, the star spoke out on Twitter about destructive beauty standards. “By calling girls like me fat, this is what you’re doing to other people,” the star tweeted, along with a photo of an unhealthily thin woman. “I love MYSELF & if you could say the same you wouldn’t be sitting on your computer trying to hurt others.”

Rihanna has spoken out about the industry standard of being super-skinny. “You shouldn’t be pressured into trying to be thin by the fashion industry, because they only want models that are like human mannequins,” she said. “But you have to remember that it’s not practical or possible for an everyday woman to look like that. Being size zero is a career in itself so we shouldn’t try and be like them. It’s not realistic and it’s not healthy.”

Author Emma Wolf has written The Ministry of Thin – how the pursuit of perfection got out of hand. It’s a book I am definitely going to order.

The emphasis of feminists is on health and well being, rather than beauty. If you diet, it should be because being overweight is making you ill. There’s no dearth of healthy diets you can follow, that take longer to bring results than eating cotton balls, but ensure you remain alive. If dieting is your way of being disciplined about what you eat and how much of it – go ahead. But. Please. Examine your reasons for dieting. Is it only about looking good? And what place does exercise have in your scheme of things? Try incorporating that too.

Should you find yourself feeling disheartened after flipping through a fashion mag, hunting for cover-ups like salwar kameez, in the belief that your body is not ‘good enough’ – write to that magazine and berate them for publishing photos of such thin and perfect looking people.

How relevant is all this to the Indian fashion industry? Maybe we haven’t quite hit the bottom of that downward curve of thinness that has become such a health hazard. Have you noticed though, that there is an increasing emphasis on using western models instead of Indian ones here in India? Is it because they’re thinner? Could be, although there are other reasons too.

Each one of us has a role to play in idealizing the fashion myth of a perfect body. Say ‘no’ to this by looking at yourself honestly in the mirror, and appreciating yourself. Anorexia and thin models isn’t only about those fashionable girls – it’s about how you perceive yourself when you measure yourself against them.

Pic credit: Santiago Alvarez (Used under a Creative Commons license)

A freelance journalist and teacher, Kalpana is a feminist, an animal rights activist, passionate about

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