As part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, NEDA and the Model Alliance co-hosted a panel at Pace University on Monday, called "Inside the Modeling Industry: A Conversation About Health and Beauty in Fashion."
Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff moderated the event, which featured models Crystal Renn, Katharine Schuette, and Amy Lemons, as well as former model and assistant professor of sociology Ashley Mears, president of Marilyn Models Chris Gay, and eating disorder specialist Dr. Evelyn Attia.
Each of the models present shared compelling personal stories about their struggles with weight and body image in the modeling industry. Amy Lemons said that when her body started changing at 17, her agent recommended eating just one rice cake a day, and if that didn't work, cutting back to only half of one. Katherine Schuette, who also studied nutrition, stopped eating even though she knew the dangers. "I knew down to the chemistry what was happening to my body when I tried to get to that size ," she shared.
It was Crystal Renn, who has publicly shared her struggles with eating disorders in her book Hungry, who spoke most passionately about the subject. After being signed by a model scout who told her to lose ten inches from her waist and advised her to look to Vogue for standards of what she should look like, Renn entered into years of obsessive dieting and exercise to get down to a frightening 95 lbs. "What I found," Renn said of that time, "is that I felt nothing except hatred for myself."
And the problem isn't just with model agents; Ashley Mears says the problem lies much more in the editorial side of the industry. Chris Gay agreed, expressing frustration with industry standards set by designers and editors that he deemed ridiculous. "They're not standards a woman can keep through her life or her career," May said. "You're replacing good models with new models because of unrealistic standards."
The conversation turned, as was almost inevitable, to the now-infamous "juice cleanse" partnership between the CFDA and Organic Avenue during this past fashion week. The partnership, which offered models a 50% discount on Organic Avenue products, raised a lot of eyebrows both inside the industry and in the media.
Dr. Evelyn Attia called the partnership "extremely concerning and confusing." Attia added that eating disorders and a pressure to maintain thinness are an "occupational hazard" of modeling; for her, to "put that together with a fad diet, and real commercial interest regarding these juice cleanses...we really have double reason to worry.
CFDA CEO Steven Kolb has previously dismissed these concerns, telling us in January, "Organic Avenue is well known in the fashion industry and we believe they are aligned with our message of beauty is health. They have amazing salad, soups, wraps, and tacos."
"We are not promoting a juice only diet," he insisted.
Ziff clarified her position on the partnership.
"While I'm sure that the CFDA has the best intentions, and I know that they've done a lot of good work," Ziff told us, "I was concerned that it sent a mixed message that their choice of partner was one that profits from precisely the kinds of restricted diets that are part of the problem."
The panel attempted to end on a positive note by offering solutions to the issues plaguing the modeling industry. Being a complex problem, the group seemed divided on what changes were most important: For Ziff, child labor laws were the linchpin of the movement, while others suggested health legislation on the national level.
Renn's suggestion, which seems almost painfully obvious in its simplicity, is for designers to change the sample size to a size 8. She argues this could accommodate bodies between sizes 6 and 10, or tailored down to a size 0 if the designer wanted to hire a girl that thin. Renn posited that some designers feel pressured to keep their sample sizes small because that's what industry leaders are doing–she of course made an exception for close friend Zac Posen.
"There are some people who lead," Renn said of the designer's attempts to diversify his runway, "and Zac Posen is one of those people."
While Monday's panel was certainly fascinating, the subject of eating disorders in the industry is such a deeply complex and tangled issue that the surface can barely be scratched in one hour-long discussion. We hope this is just the beginning of a welcome discussion which could better the industry.