Why Skinny Models Could Be Making Us Fat

The specter of dangerously thin models has raised its beautiful, lolling head once again, this time at New York's Fashion Week, which ends Friday. Stung by negative publicity about boney apparitions on the catwalks, the fashion industry invited eating-disorder experts to an unprecedented symposium on the subject in the tents at Bryant Park. It was quite a spectacle. The press was regaled with tales of models living on lethally small amounts of lettuce and Diet Coke. The fashionistas declared that super thin was now "out" and promised to keep a better eye on the young waifs. But no one in the U.S. clothing biz seems eager to impose minimum weight guidelines on models, as some European shows have done. Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), added fuel to the fire when she recently told a reporter that model weigh-ins in New York would happen "over my dead body."

While the travails of the thin and beautiful almost always make for good copy, we should remember that only about 1 percent of the American population is anorexic, while nearly two thirds of adults are overweight or obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So it's not as if skinny models have inspired an epidemic of slimness. In fact, the real danger may be that the contrast between the girls on the catwalks and the girls at the mall is creating an atmosphere ripe for binge dieting and the kind of unhealthy eating habits that ultimately result in weight gain, not loss. "You always [have to] look at the discrepancy between the real and the ideal," says Cynthia Bulik, a clinical psychologist who heads the eating-disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "If [kids] see themselves gaining weight and then they see these ultra-thin models, the discrepancy between how they see themselves in the mirror and how they feel they have to look is bigger. And that can prompt more extreme behaviors."

Unfortunately, that gap between the ordinary and the elite is growing rapidly. As American women have gotten heavier, models have gotten thinner and taller. Twenty-five years ago, the average female model weighed 8 percent less than the average American woman, according to researchers. Today, models weigh about 23 percent less than the average woman. Models are also leggier than before. Usually about 5 feet 10 inches tall, they are a good five inches taller than they were 10 years ago. Meanwhile, a typical woman is about 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 155 pounds, according to a 2004 SizeUSA study. The trend is enough to make any woman feel like a hobbit in comparison to what they're seeing in magazines.

But here's the rub: thanks to technology, often not even the models themselves can compare to their portfolios. Increasingly, photos for print are enhanced and perfected to an astonishing degree. Not only are moles, acne and subtle facial hair erased from already pretty faces, but retouchers are routinely asked by editors and advertisers to enlarge eyes, trim normal-size ears, fill in hairlines, straighten teeth and lengthen the already-narrow necks, waists and legs of 18-year-old beauties. "We're always stretching the models' legs and slimming their thighs," says a photo retoucher who works for a high-end Manhattan agency. In some cases, hands, feet or even legs are replaced in photos when the subject's parts don't add up to a perfect whole. "Sometimes I feel a little like Frankenstein," says the retoucher, who would only speak anonymously because of the potential for professional backlash. The irony, she adds, is that the models and actresses pictured have usually have already been through hours of hair styling and makeup--including body makeup--to remove the slightest blemish. Yes, you heard that right, even after all of that, a 5-foot-10, 110-pound model still does not have legs that are long or skinny enough to suit some advertisers and fashion editrixes.

One might argue that photo alteration has been around for eons, but what is new is the industry shift from film to digital media about four years ago. Now it's easier, faster and more routine to clean up and "perfect" faces and figures. The doctored images are so pervasive that our eyes are perhaps becoming too accustomed to them. "The result is a culture of kids who are being socialized to unrealistic images--who need to learn to separate the real from the fabricated," says Cornell University historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg, the author of "The Body Project" (Vintage), which looks at the diaries of teenage girls from the 1820s through the 1980s. "Girls internalize this form of self- criticism and say, 'I don't look like that.' But in reality, nobody looks like that."

How do these unrealistic portrayals affect the number of people with eating disorders? It's hard to say. The statistics are notoriously difficult to track because of the shame surrounding these diseases. Experts say that sufferers are influenced by a combination of genetics and environmental triggers. But even if no one factor is to blame, for some of the 10 million women and one million men in the United States who struggle with anorexia and bulimia (and the 25 million more who suffer from binge-eating disorder), what they see in the media can, in some cases, have a pivotal impact. "Genes load the gun, environment pulls the trigger--and right now the fashion industry has their finger on the trigger," says Bulik.

Particularly disturbing are indications that the quest for perfection is reaching into younger age groups. Kids form their body images almost as soon as they can form words, and girls are now thinking negatively about their shapes in grammar school. Today, 42 percent of first- to third-grade girls want to be thinner, while 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of getting fat, according to a 2004 global study by the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign. "What we've seen more and more is an increasingly narrow image of beauty, not just completely defined by physical appearance, but a particular body type--tall, thin, maybe blond, with very little diversity," says Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard psychology professor and author of "Survival of the Prettiest" (Random House). The effects of that are striking. The Dove study found that just 2 percent of women and girls said they would describe themselves as beautiful, while two thirds said they avoided basic activities on days they felt unattractive. Those activities ranged from going to the beach or a party to showing up for work or school--even voicing an opinion.

The fact that we're making the body the central focus of our lives is no accident, says Brumberg. Rather, it's "a symptom of historical changes that are only now beginning to be understood," she writes. So what are those changes? To start, there has been a centurylong shift from concern for good work to concern for good looks, says Brumberg. And while in the 1920s, for example, girls started becoming conscious of celebrity culture--and, she says, for the first time using the word "image"--today's obsession with personal appearance is largely a result of the technology that allows us to focus on it. "[Technological] inventions increased our level of self-scrutiny," she says. "Mirrors, movies, scales--the modern bathroom. You have to have a certain environment for that obsessive concern."

Of course, environment affects each woman differently. Influences on body image range from our families and school to our peer groups or media consumption--even whether or not we take part in sports. For longtime model Carre Otis, that environment was fashion--and the pressure it placed on her to be thin encouraged a nearly two-decade battle with a host of unhealthy habits. Now 38 and healthy, Otis (who is 5-foot-10 and at times weighed as little as 100 pounds) says she worries about the pressures her young daughter will someday face. "We're living in a culture that's so physically oriented," she says. "It's really dangerous for young girls to operate under the assumption that models, in general, are the majority."

But the majority image isn't what the public wants these days, according to the fashion elites. "Fat doesn't sell fashion," says Imogen Edwards-Jones, a journalist and author of "Fashion Babylon," an insider's look at the industry. "People don't fantasize about being a size 16--they fantasize about being a size 8." So even if the public can't fit into (much less afford) a size 0 designer dress, they'll probably buy a magazine with a size 0 model wearing that dress. "It's a presentation of this fantasy, and you buy into that," says Steven Kolb, the executive director of CFDA.

Of course, that can always change. Curves were cool in the '80s (remember Cindy Crawford?) and '90s (Anna Nicole Smith). And the industry will likely swing back around to embrace them again. Already, the faces on the catwalks in New York this week are looking somewhat less gaunt. But it doesn't look like it's going to get any easier for women to convince themselves, or their daughters, to stop looking for the model in the mirror.