The Fashion Industry And Eating Disorders Essay

It’s September, which means – exciting! – it’s fashion Groundhog Day again. This consists of fashion weeks starting up, followed swiftly by the announcement of a political initiative to protect women against this evil on the catwalk. (Another feature of fashion Groundhog Day, incidentally, is a slew of articles by male columnists expressing bafflement at why the models are so thin, which can be summed up as: “I don’t find this sexy, so why?!” However would we know how to look without men telling us what turns them on?)

Anyway, the latest initiative comes courtesy of the Women’s Equality party, which has launched a campaign demanding, among other things, that British designers and retailers stop using size zero clothes in shows and photoshoots. This, the WEP claims, “will tackle negative body image issues and eating disorders”.

I’m going to ignore the all-too-predictable connection between fashion models and eating disorders here, because I’ve written enough for this lifetime about how absurdly reductive it is to suggest that a mental illness is caused by Vogue. Instead, I’ll say this: the WEP is perfectly within its rights to address this issue, but – spoiler alert – it will not make a blind bit of difference. There have been efforts to legislate against fashion’s obsession with skinniness in the past; these laws, wherever they’re passed, always get a lot of play, because the media love a story that allows them to run a photo of a skinny model at least as much as the fashion industry likes the skinny model herself.

So it would be understandable if you were confused as to why things haven’t changed. The problem is not only that the laws are rarely enforced, but also that they are the equivalent of rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs. For a start, fashion is too international for one country’s legislation to make a difference – especially, I’m sorry to say, when it’s this country doing the legislating. With the exception of Burberry, British-based fashion companies simply do not spend enough on international advertising for any laws to have an effect; the rest of the world won’t even see the photographs. Slapping legislation on a tiny British brand will not change the aesthetic if Chanel and Prada can carry on as before.

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While fashion represents the connection between skinniness and perfection in its purest form, it is also the end point. By the time a woman is looking at fashion photography, she’ll have gone through years of indoctrination that the less of her there is, the better. It’s there in all the children’s books and films, in which the evil women are plump and the nice ones are slender (Roald Dahl is especially bad on this). It’s there in pretty much every film ever made (the only person I’ve interviewed with an evident eating disorder was not a model but an actress). And it’s there in the general atmosphere of being female today, the things you grow up hearing the adult women around you saying about their bodies, the way they decline dessert. According to a report just published by the Children’s Society, teenage girls are unhappier than ever, especially with their bodies, which they compare unfavourably with those of their friends and celebrities.

This masochistic tendency towards self‑erasure is a complicated issue, something a well‑meaning but overly simplistic campaign against thinness in fashion can’t fix. The WEP has also suggested including body-image lessons as part of the school curriculum, which is a better idea (and, tellingly, it has had less pick-up, what with it lacking the vital excuse for a photograph of a model). But instead of fussing about the meaningless phrase “size zero”, or conflating thinness with anorexia, the WEP would be more effective if it looked at the prevalence of eating disorders in the fashion industry and exposed this. Instead of pretending it can tell fashion editors what to put in their magazines, the WEP could talk to them to get a more realistic sense of the problem, and get them on side.

If we really want to end the association between female skinniness and female aspiration, women need to be doing this on an individual, focused level, not leaving it to politicians to act on an amorphous, collective one. Look at the way you talk about your body and what you eat, especially in front of young girls. Call out publications that condescend to larger women and feature photographs only of slim ones. Remind your female friends and your daughters that their jeans size is not a measurement of their personal value.

It is easy to damn the fashion industry for promoting skinny as the feminine ideal. It’s harder to admit that it is only echoing back too many of our own darkest thoughts, our own self-loathing.

Contributor: Elizabeth Bloomfield-Deal, MA, PLPC, Elizabeth is a therapist at McCallum Place Eating Disorders Center in St. Louis.

America is a culture that is inundated with images. Websites, magazines, television, and advertising have come to serve as a manual for how we should look, dress and live. The images we see attempt to show us what is desirable to the opposite sex, and how to achieve that look.

However, we are not the same. Women, especially, range dramatically in size, shape, and appearance. Throughout life, our bodies are in a constant state of change. The fashion industry in particular perpetuates the myth that we can, and should appear in a certain likeness to what we see on the page and screen.

The Shrinking Cultural Ideal

The truth is the female body exists in an infinite variety of sizes and shapes, but in fashion magazines and on the runway only one shape is represented: tall and thin. The average American woman, according to women’s health expert Dr. Pamela Peeke, is 5’4” with a waist size of 34-35 inches. She weighs between 140-150 pounds, which equals a dress size of 12-14, which is drastically different than the average fashion model.

According to the New York Better Business Bureau, high fashion models need to be, “between 5’9” and 6’ and weigh between 110-130 pounds, with eyes widely spaced.” Let’s take a moment to look at reality. If a woman is 5’9 and weighs 110 pounds, her BMI is 16.2, which is considered underweight. In 1968, the average fashion model was 8% thinner than the average woman. Today models are 23% thinner. Our cultural ideal is shrinking.

The Attempt at Maintaining an “Ideal” Body

To attempt to become and maintain an unrealistic body size and shape can be torturous. When someone deprives themselves of whole food groups by declaring them bad, they begin to experience cravings which can lead to binges, and ultimately feelings of guilt and shame about not being good enough to become the image that is desired. This is a dangerous and deadly cycle often resulting in the onset of an eating disorder.

Mary Pipher, PhD, and author of Reviving Ophelia; Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, said the following. “I think anorexia is a metaphor. It’s the young woman’s statement that she will become what the culture asks of its women, which is that they be thin and nonthreatening.”

This statement rings so true with the fashion industry. In ways, marketing tells us who and what to be. Our voice as women is absent. Our individuality and uniqueness is replaced by the image of a thin, emotionless and starving woman. In reality, women’s bodies are soft and curvaceous. We possess hips that expand to give birth to a child, and breasts to feed our children. Even if we chose not to use our bodies for motherhood, we are born with bodies equipped for that purpose.

Restrictions Come to More than Just Food

When women starve themselves to achieve an ideal, they are not only restricting calories, but pleasure, balance and health. However, with all of the negative side effects, eating disorders do serve a function. They are effective in the short term. Eating disorders can be seen as a defense against uncomfortable feelings.

In the beginning, an eating disorder can even be exhilarating…until it is not. After running on low fuel for an extended period of time, bodies begin to break down. A malnourished brain causes one to feel anxious, depressed, confused and tired. At this time, some patients with eating disorders keep going due to motivation of a false sense of power and control.

Thin Enough Doesn’t Happen

As an eating disorder therapist, it is not at all uncommon for young women to sit across from me in a therapy session or group, and declare that they will only be happy if they are thin enough. Therein lies the problem; when someone is suffering from an eating disorder, there is no such thing as thin enough.

The truth is that the thinner one becomes, the more anxious, depressed, cognitively impaired, distorted and physically weak they also become. Those who deny themselves food, and purge or fast to lose weight, will deplete their bodies of electrolytes and fluid necessary for normal heart, kidney, and liver function…rapid weight loss can mean metabolic collapse and/or sudden death (Roberto, 1993).

Someone suffering from an eating disorder is simply unable to see themselves in a realistic light.

The Fashion Industry Is a Factor, Not a Cause

It’s important to state that the fashion industry is not the cause of eating disorders. We are a culmination of our life experiences. The natural stresses and losses in life mixed with our culture’s notions of beauty are a toxic combination.

When women shop, whether it’s online, from catalogues, or in a store, we are confronted with an onslaught of unrealistic and unsustainable body shapes that have become the cultural ideal. The images are unrelenting. Even if one chooses not subscribe to fashion magazines or watch television, the images cannot be avoided.

The Inescapable Media

Billboards, the covers of magazines in the check-out line, advertisements that pop-up on Facebook and frequently used websites are nearly impossible to escape. It’s important to remind ourselves that the images we see are not always real, and certainly aren’t sustainable in a healthy way.

Katherine Zerbe, psychoanalyst and author of Body Betrayed, states, “At some point we all must deal with illness, aging, and the finiteness of life itself. To prepare for this confrontation with life’s vicissitudes, we must find meaning and purpose that transcend the acquisition of thinness and beauty.”

Beauty takes on many different forms, in what ways do you see beauty within yourself and within others?

  1. Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia; Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. New York: Random House Press.
  2. Roberto, L. G. (1993). Eating Disorders as Family Secrets. In Secrets in Families and Family Therapy, ed. E. Imber-Black. New York: W.W. Norton.
  3. Zerbe, K. (1993). The Body Betrayed: Women, Eating Disorders, and Treatment. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press.

About the Author:

Elizabeth Bloomfield-Deal, MA, LPC

Elizabeth is a therapist at McCallum Place Eating Disorders Center in St. Louis. She received her Bachelor of Science in English and Community health from Southern Illinois University and her Masters in Professional Counseling from Lindenwood University. She worked as a therapist at the Schiele Clinic of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute and has completed the Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Program at the Institute.

She is a member of the American Counseling Association. Elizabeth enjoys facilitating groups such as sexuality, life narratives and family systems. Elizabeth uses psychoanalytic theory to help the patients utilize the therapeutic relationship as a place to explore the function of their eating disorder. She works to help the patients use their strengths to find balance and joy in their lives.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 15th, 2015
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