Changes needed in fashion industry to help eating disorder epidemic

A stylist walks through the Tim Coppens capsule collection moments before the show's opening during Men's Fashion Week, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

80 percent of all 10-year-old girls report dieting at least once in their lives, a statistically that is truly heartbreaking and shows that we as a society have absolutely failed our girls in this respect. By age 17, 78 percent of girls have issues with how their bodies look. Approximately one in 10 college women suffer a clinical or nearly clinical eating disorder, and it is no secret that the far majority of the others similarly struggle with body esteem issues. Five minutes on an Instagram newsfeed, and it is overwhelming clear that being thin leads to confidence, success, and happiness, rather than simply making the effort to be healthy and, well, happy.

Considering it can be hard for young adult women to know the difference, think about a young girl looking at the same media images with her innocent eyes. I’m sure most college women remember around the first time they’ve felt uncomfortable about their appearance – when they tried, and failed, to apply eyeliner for the first time – and, sadly, this is only happening sooner and sooner, given the increased exposure and access to social media for young girls. The glorification of extreme thinness and unattainable beauty and body standards has become a serious public health and mental health issue in our country. Not only do girls (and boys) themselves suffer, but what do we as a society lose when our children are spending so much mental energy worrying about their appearance, rather than growing into their authentic selves, character, and talents?   

Fortunately, just in time for New York Fashion Week, a first-of-its-kind study (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eat.22682/full) published Jan. 31 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders has the promise to help address this problem, drawing serious attention and potentially bringing long-overdue changes to the fashion and modeling industry. In it, researchers surveyed models that had participated in New York Fashion Week. It’s groundbreaking in how the results prove a strong linkage between disordered eating of models and pressure from agencies – which can constitute as workplace health and safety and worker rights’ violations for models. It has long been known that models are pressured to be lose weight to unhealthy levels, often agencies threatening models’ financial security, however this is the first study to provide evidence. Unhealthy weight control behaviors were far more prevalent in the model population than the total population: 71 percent had “sometimes, often, or always” engaged in dieting, 56 percent in fasts/detoxes, 23 percent in weight loss supplements/diet pills, 16 percent in stimulants/Ritalin, eight percent in self-induced vomiting, seven percent using cocaine to lose weight, and even two percent choosing to get their nutrients through an I.V. drip rather than eating. The study concludes by making policy proposals that models indicated they would be in favor of and would be feasible to implement.

“The fashion industry plays a critical role in the development and widespread dissemination of thin-ideal imagery,” the study’s authors wrote. “However, these images are sometimes created at the cost of the fashion models' health due to the pressures they experience to embody the thin-ideal, as well as the health of the wider population, particularly among adolescent girls in whom exposure to these images is associated with higher risk for eating disorders.” To think that the majority of models’ face are naturally thin, such intense industry pressure to further slim down that they develop health problems, is horrifying enough in itself – before even thinking about the ripple effect for the rest of society.

Fashion allows for the celebration of self-expression, individuality, and creativity in everyday life. However when the industry routinely and systematically promotes such extreme thinness, fashion can lose its empowering meaning. It is an honest question: why is it necessary that models be so incredibly thin? At the current sample sizes used in runway shows, an average American woman who is considered healthy but still very thin in a size two or four would be told to lose 20 more pounds – which is why oftentimes underage, pubescent models are used to model women’s clothing. This isn’t even to mention the complete lack of size diversity.

Rather, it seems the industry is willing to sacrifice the mental and physical health of its own members because it is incredibly profitable for them to commoditize the need for social and self-approval – causing many young girls and women to do the same.


Marissa Piccolo is associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marissa.piccolo@uconn.edu. She tweets@marissapiccolo.