An Image to Die For

The deaths of several models in three months inflame the fashion debate anew

Young girl Danielle Connolly, who idolizes Nicole Richie, posted this cell phone picture on her blog | Photo: Top News

The Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos in August, the Brazilian models Ana Carolina Reston Macan in November and the 14 year-old  Maiara Galvao all died of starvation – clinically speaking. They actually died for their jobs.

“Thin is In” still applies to the ‘rich and famous’ of today’s media world, however recently, this ideal has become stained by the reality of cases like Macan’s. What’s glamorous about being weak and frail? Where does beauty draw the line between slender and sick?

Teen magazine, having previously ignored the problem, now screams crisis from its covers: “Kate Bosworth is only a shadow of herself;” “The Skeleton Sisters need Therapy, Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen in Rehab.” But inside, pages are still filled with photographs of Hollywood’s latest “darlings” and all that goes hand in hand with a life in the limelight — bony backs, droughty arms and emaciated legs.

During Fashion Week this past September in Madrid, the show’s organizers demanded a BMI (Body Mass Index) of at least 18, which translates into a 1,75 cm model weighing 56 kg. Five girls who could not meet this requirement were not allowed to participate in the shows. According to the media, these standards cause many models to fear for their future. Other fashion metropolises considered jumping on the bandwagon – and then changed their minds.

The fashion world’s veterans have been unmoved.

“I don’t know what the big deal is. The girls just have nice slim bodies,” said top designer Karl Lagerfeld in a September interview with the French daily Metro.

“Only because they are not bursting at the seams doesn’t mean they are aenorexic or bulimic. I think people should pay much more attention to the majority who are simply overweight than on the 1% of young girls who are just slender.”

Marcia Cross, a lead actress in the TV series Desperate Housewives, disagrees. There is more to it, she says, than “just being slender.”

“The fashion and the movie businesses are the hardest ones you can ever choose. You are constantly surrounded by competitors,” she said. “There are always more beautiful, younger and, most of all, thinner girls and women. The pressure to be hip forces you to torture yourself. ”

Celebrities have to meet certain expectations, the main one being good–looking, which, these days, means being thin. The more stars try to satisfy these standards, the more they contribute to the pressure not only on each other but also on the young girls and women who are confronted with pictures of perfect bodies everyday in their normal lives. Thinness represents beauty, happiness, success and friends – at least of a certain sort. The beauty ideal of a full-figured woman like Marilyn Monroe has been  changed to the wish for the body of a 14- or 15- year old.

Nichole Richie was once the little, chubby accessory to the tall, blond and slim Paris Hilton. However, hardly had she lost most of her “excess” body weight then she became one of the most sought-after young celebrities in America – designers, clubs, magazines and TV productions all wanted her.

With a height of 5’1”, she now weighs about 37 kilos and is only a skeleton. She was recently quoted in the American Elle Girl as saying that she is aware that she is too thin, but that she definitely does not have an eating disorder.

The issue has become so controversial that one might even say it is ironic. Stars do everything to satisfy the requirements for which they get hyped as the elite of beauty. They may get criticized, but continue to earn millions of dollars, because their faces and bodies cause such a stir. In the German magazine Gala, experts warned that taking such women as examples leads to a vicious circle. The article contained several photographs of the emaciated bodies of female celebrities.

But then on the next page was an interview with the former top model Liz Hurley. How did she manage to keep this unbelievable amazing beautiful body, the reporter wanted to know? She eats only one real meal a day, a big salad – otherwise how could she fit into all of her designer clothes?

The omnipresence of perfect bodies triggers eating disorders in many girls, especially impressionable, young teenagers.

Many turn to the Internet. The pro-ana, pro-mia Internet community (“ana” meaning anorexia and “mia” meaning bulimia) is a place of refuge for girls with eating disorders (or ED). It depicts clearly the mind-set and role models of people with this condition.

“I’ve gone all day on just 3 cups of black coffee,” one blogger boasts. Each member of these communities has a user name, for instance “Thinspo,” “starving for perfection” or “eating is my enemy.” Some girls post pictures of themselves showing their “progress” – calculated in ribs. Others post pictures of Nicole Richie, the Olsen twins, Kate Moss or other skinny models.

Pictures of ribs, sunken abdomens or emaciated full body shots accompany notes encouraging members to “stay strong” or “keep up the good work.” The inspiration girls get from the fashion and celebrity world is hard to miss.

Alexandra Schmidt (names have been changed for privacy), 21 years old from Germany, suffered from Bulimia for 2 years, starting at the age of 14.

“At first, I just wanted to lose only 2 kilos but then, somehow, I became obsessed with the thought of losing weight,” she says. “You get so skinny that people [are] shocked. But when you are sick, you don’t see how thin you are anymore. You just pay attention to the parts [of your body] you think are too fat.”

Another factor was that she longed for the perfect, mostly computer enhanced, bodies of the supermodels. “I finally realized that I needed therapy,” she says today. “I now know that it was stupid, but if you are affected by Bulimia you just don’t see what other people see.”

Actress Scarlett Johansson has repeatedly lashed out at Hollywood’s stick thin actresses. The Match Point star, famed for her curvaceous body, says the industry is obsessed with weight and admits she is worried about the pressure to stay super slim. On ‘,’ Johansson appealed to her colleagues to make peace with food, because “there are far more important things happening in the world that deserve attention.”

Another comrade in arms in the battle against “Thin is In” is Kate Winslet, who had already resisted the pressure during the filming of Titanic, and has successfully pursued her career “despite” her curvaceous body.

Though the decision of the Madrid Fashion week organizers is encouraging, regulations don’t change a mind-set. As we have seen from prohibition and laws against illegal drugs, they can make the forbidden more desirable.

Who’s to say if designers will change the universal dress size of 32-34 on the runways?  As long as the business breeds anorexic celebrities, not much will change, and the media will continue to emphasise their perfectness – while criticizing them at the same time.

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