It’s no secret the fashion industry has created an unhealthy perception of what the size of a woman’s body should be. And now, new research confirms what so many have believed for a long time: models are continually being pressured to sacrifice their health in order to secure employment in this industry.
A new study on disordered eating among models in the American fashion industry, released January 31, 2017 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, confirms that these behaviors are a prevalent and serious problem, and models are being pressured to jeopardize their health and safety as a prerequisite for employment.
The study was a joint effort between Northeastern University, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Model Alliance, a labor advocacy organization for models working in the American fashion industry.
The release of the study comes as the fashion industry gears up for New York Fashion Week, Feb. 9-17 , and as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is poised to observe its 30th annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (NEDAwareness Week)—an annual public health campaign that brings attention to the critical needs of people dealing with eating disorders. This years theme, It’s Time To Talk About It, will kick off February 26 and run through March 4.
Among the 85 models who were interviewed, researchers found that just over 62% said that within the past year they were asked to lose weight or alter the shape of their body by their modeling agency, a casting agent, a designer or another industry professional. And of those models, 54% were warned they would not be able to find work if they didn’t comply, while 21% were informed by their agency that they would be dropped.
“While acknowledgment of disordered eating within the fashion industry is not new, our research study shows the lengths that models are willing to take to achieve the industry’s physical ‘ideal’ and the extent to which models feel pressured by their agents and other industry professionals to compromise their health for their job,” says Sara Ziff, founding director of the Model Alliance, who co-authored the study as a Harvard graduate student.
In fact, the unhealthy behaviors reported by the models in their quest to keep their jobs is actually quite frightening. The authors found that 56% of the models reported sometimes/often/always skipping meals; 52% sometimes/always/often skipping meals, or going on fasts, cleanses or detoxes; 24% sometimes/often/ always used weight-loss supplements or diet pills; and 8% sometimes/often/always made themselves throw up.
Based on these findings, the study recommends that there not be limitations on model’s minimum body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat based on your weight in relation to your height, and that the industry provide a wider range of sample sizes for working models. On the business side, the authors have also recommend that models not be paid in trade and recommend a need to increase employment security through benefits.
In response to this study, a diverse coalition of 35 noted models have written an open letter calling on fashion leaders to emphasize the health of their models and to represent diversity of race, age and size on the runway. “Together, we are challenging you to make a serious commitment to promote health and diversity on the runway. Through our social media platforms, which collectively reach millions of people, we will recognize the industry leaders who step up to this challenge,” the letter says.
“By acting collectively and mobilizing their followers to support brands that share their values, models are leveraging social media platforms in an unprecedented, coordinated effort to spur consumer activism,” says Ziff.
Regulating the fashion industry in the United States won’t be easy thought. The average runway model has a body mass index (BMI) of 16, which the World Health Organization classifies as severely thin (they classify a BMI under 18.5 as underweight).
But advocates from organizations like NEDA and the Model Alliance are hopeful that the results from this study, combined with models joining forces to write an open letter, will help expose the dangerous industry standards and encourage those in the business to look to other countries who have instituted regulations in the modeling industry.
“Our study findings help to shine a light on the working conditions these young models are facing and offer insights for how we can do better,” says Dr. Rachel Rodgers, Associate Professor, Department of Applied Psychology, Northeastern University. “The American fashion industry has the opportunity now to join France, Israel, Milan, Madrid and others, where governments have taken important steps to protect the health of models,” adds Rodgers.
In December of 2015, France passed a reform bill that places a BMI restriction on its fashion industry. The law also requires a model show up to work with a doctor’s note that certifies she is in good health. “Every model deserves a guarantee of safe and healthy working conditions and these are reflected in the images that young people see,” says Rodgers. “It’s a healthier environment for everyone,” she adds.
And the two groups are not just working to protect the models health and employment, they are also looking to change the way consumers view fashion. “Not only is this a serious labor issue within the fashion industry, this is also a far-reaching public health concern that reflects damaging attitudes in our society that need to be addressed,” says Ziff.
If you would like to challenge the fashion industry to make a commitment to promote health and diversity, uphold the understanding that models under the age of 16 do not belong on the runway, and observe child labor laws in New York State, which require that models under 18 years old have proper documents and schedules, then please sign the petition today.