Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Madrid Models Controversy

I applaud the designers in Madrid who banded together to insist that every model in the Fashion Week show had a BMI of at least 18. As theater, it was a highly effective device. As a way to call attention to eating disorders, it succeeded. The blogosphere is now abuzz about stick-insect models and irresponsible designers.

But those of us who have had personal experience with anorexia know that the controversy over runway models is something of a red herring. Yes, the media has power and influence; yes, images of cadaverous models in the pages of magazines, on billboards, and TV make for unhealthy role models. But fashion doesn’t cause anorexia, any more than critical mothers cause schizophrenia or food coloring causes AIDS.

Not many 10 and 12-year-olds are catching the latest runway show or reading Vogue. But they are walking the hallways of school, where—at least if their school is like my younger daughter’s middle school—they will see exhortations to lose weight. They take dance and gymnastics and cross-country, where their teachers and coaches will praise the “line” of a thinner girl’s body, the need to shed pounds to gain speed.

Most important, they’re in the backseat of the car, listening to their mothers and other adult women talk about how fat their thighs are and their latest diet. From the time most girls are old enough to feed themselves, they’ve listened to the women in their lives obsess about food and dieting. They’ve learned that there are good foods and bad foods, that it’s important to deny yourself, that there’s something shameful about the enjoyment of food. They’ve learned that hating your body is not only acceptable, it’s de rigueur, that physical self-loathing is a rite of passage among American women.

They’ve also heard the compliments that their mothers and older sisters get on a daily basis. They understand at a tender age that there is no more welcome or powerful phrase among women than “You look so thin!”

None of these things in and of themselves cause eating disorders, of course, any more than emaciated models do. But the everyday role models in a girl’s life exert a much more powerful influence than models on a runway in Spain. And that kind of influence can be part of how an eating disorder develops: A young teenager goes on a diet or gets sick; she loses a little weight, and the compliments come pouring in. She feels good about herself, so she loses a little more weight; maybe she runs a few more miles a day, does more sit-ups and push-ups. If she’s unlucky enough to be one of the 1 percent or so of adolescent girls who are genetically and psychologically susceptible to an eating disorder, she will find that the weight loss takes on a life of its own. It quickly becomes a compulsion, not a choice; it morphs into an obsession, something over which she has no control. It becomes full-blown anorexia, which stems not from cultural ideas of beauty but from the physiological, psychological, and emotional effects of starvation. It becomes a terrible disease that will cost her, on average, five to seven years of her life—if she recovers.

Recently my 11-year-old daughter got into an argument with a friend her age over being skinny. The friend (who, like most girls their age, is just starting to develop) often skips breakfast and lunch; her mother diets, and the family never eats pasta or potatoes. Now the friend was explaining to my daughter that being skinny was something to aspire to. My daughter, who is neither overweight nor skinny, replied, “I’d rather be too fat than too skinny.” Her friend insisted, “Thin is good. The thinner, the better!”

That night, as my daughter reported this conversation to me, she cried with frustration. She had good reason to feel upset; for the last year her brave, smart, funny, wonderful older sister has been struggling with the physical and mental hell of anorexia. Though we tried to shield our younger daughter, she, like us, had endured the hospital visits, tormented meals, suicide threats, crying bouts, and other symptoms of self-starvation. It was an awful year, but her older sister was now, finally, well into recovery.

I told my 11-year-old she’d said the right things. That it would take more than a comment or two to change her friend’s opinions. The Spanish designers have made a good beginning—now the rest is up to all of us.