Copyright photo: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
The fashion industry requires from us models that we have a low BMI score (Body Mass Index), but at the same time, with good intentions, banishes us from the catwalk with the same score; the so-called ‘skinny model ban ‘. It’s an attempt to get a grip on eating disorders among models as well as the public.
The use of a BMI threshold is, if you would ask me, ineffective and towards models even unfair. This, however, while there are more effective and fairer ways to get a grip on eating disorders among models. Moreover, scientific research suggests that there is a more effective and fairer method to influence the development of eating disorders among the public.
Purpose of the BMI threshold
The BMI threshold is meant to lower the number of eating disorders among models and to create a ‘healthier’ media image to reduce the negative effects of the appearance of ‘thin’ models in the media on women. A well-intentioned initiative: it is true that girls and women who work in an industry where weight and appearance play an important role are at increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
In addition, a higher percentage of models than non-models have ever been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Moreover, images of ‘thin’ models in the media have negative effects on women and adolescent girls: these images are associated with extreme dieting behavior and the development of eating disorder symptoms, which may develop into an eating disorder. It is clear that something must be done. This is fortunately realized by the fashion industry. But does it work out well?
BMI threshold through the years
The Madrid Fashion Week organization took the lead in taking responsibility by introducing the BMI threshold. This happened in 2006, a month after the death of the 22-year-old Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos, who died from the effects of anorexia nervosa. Models with a BMI score of less than 18 were screwed: the Madrid catwalk was off limits to them. Italy followed the Madrid policy and banned the ‘size zero’ from its catwalks during Fashion Week that year. Six years later, Israel took legislation that prohibits models with a BMI score below 18.5 to carry out their work. Finally, as an ultra-lightweight, you’d better forget about ever appearing in Vogue magazine.
Shortcomings of BMI threshold and a ban on “thin” models
Although I am convinced of the good intentions of the BMI threshold, in my view, it has a number of shortcomings. For example, the BMI score only states a persons number of kilograms per square meter and is an eating disorder a mental disorder, of which a low BMI score is only a possible consequence. Having a low BMI score does not automatically mean someone suffers from an eating disorder. Furthermore, many models are in their puberty, a period in which being underweight is not unusual or automatically unhealthy and most models are naturally thin.
In fact: I know models that would gladly gain weight, but simply don’t succeed. A model with a BMI score below 19 is therefore not necessarily unhealthy; a model with a BMI score of 16 might be in greater health than a model with a BMI score of 19 and vice versa. BMI score can therefore not be used by itself to decide whether a model suffers from an eating disorder. Therefore, a BMI threshold that determines whether a model may or may not carry out her work seems unfair towards models and ineffective when it comes to the lowering the number of models that suffer from an eating disorder.
Furthermore, the construction of the body determines a person’s BMI score, making it possible that two models with a similar BMI score may look completely different from each other. Handling a BMI threshold to create a ‘healthier’ media image therefore also seems ineffective. I therefore plead to search for an effective, “model friendly” solution, to bring down the number of models that suffer from an eating disorders and to reduce the negative effects of images of ‘thin’ models in the media on the public.
A “model-friendly” solution
Scientific studies indicate the effectiveness of labels on these images to reduce these negative effects. Therefore, my suggestion is to follow the example of Israel’s current legislation, in which it forces the media to add an information label to images when the model is digitally altered to make the model look skinnier.
Furthermore, use observations to indicate eating disorders among models, don’t assess whether a model suffers from an eating disorder solely by criticizing physical appearance and using a quantitative measurement. This is a much fairer solution towards models, an effective method to bring down the number of eating disorders among models and an effective way to influence the development of eating disorders among than (solely) making use of a BMI threshold.
If you want to find out more about the effectiveness of labels on images of ‘thin’ models, you can find further information and research about this topic here (written in Dutch).