Models in Madrid Lead to Epiphanies in Little Rock

It is a dark day in Spain for the fashion models. As I write this, I imagine they are standing in their studio apartments, gazing down at the needles on their analog scales: “I’m soooo skinny!” I envision the brunette wailing to her redheaded roommate. “I need to gain at least three kilograms!” The redhead, meanwhile, is busy tossing out seedless grapes and low-fat yogurt. “You’re not skinny, I’m skinny,” she pouts. “My thighs are like toothpicks. I’m disgusting! I’ll never find work again!” Then I imagine they cry a little and bond over gourmet cuisine, while the diet pills collect dust in the medicine cabinet.

I base my unrealistic scenario, of course, off the recent news from Madrid: Pasarela Cibeles, a major fashion show, rejected 30% of their models for being too skinny. As any high school cafeteria or Internet forum could prove, the definition of “too skinny” differs drastically from person to person. To avoid hair-pulling fights, the organizers of Pasarela Cibeles turned to staid old science. They used the BMI (body mass index) formula: basically, an individual’s weight divided by his or her height squared. Multiply it all by 703 and there you have the BMI. While admittedly imperfect, BMI is widely accepted as a decent indicator of weight problems, or the lack thereof. Women are advised to have a BMI between 18.5-24.9 in order to be healthy. The 30% of models turned away in Madrid? They were all under 18 (in BMI, anyhow; no doubt age was a different matter).

I’m half-afraid that having the phrases “too skinny” and “fashion model” in the same sentence will cause a rift in the space-time continuum. But once I move beyond the sheer novelty of the thing, I’m still left with more ambivalence than I expected. Apparently, Madrid’s 2005 show featured models so emaciated that various advocacy groups felt obligated to protest. The Madrid regional government stepped in this year, resulting in that 30% being sent packing (ostensibly to put a little meat on their suddenly unfashionable bones). The main worry is that young girls, after seeing the models, will harm their own health in a futile bid to be just as skinny. Healthier models result in healthier girls in general; or so the Pasarela Cibeles organizers seem to believe.

Let me be honest: when I first heard the news, I felt it was a silly and unnecessary gesture. “Everybody knows that fashion a fantasy world! Those girls are paid to be that thin! It’s their job!” I thought that high fashion was best left to its own quirks and caprices. After all, the fact that fashion is a fickle creature comes as a surprise to exactly no one. During the last fifty years or so, there have been many changes in the ideal female body, back and forth and up and down. In the 1950’s we had the revered opulence of Norma Jean; her curves gave way, not long after, to the knock-knees and prepubescent A-cup chest of Twiggy Lawson. More recently we’ve seen everything from Sophia Dahl’s voluptuous body splayed on velvet, to Kate Moss’s vertebrae assailing us from magazine pages. All right, I confess, none of these women is exactly plump; the scale (pun intended) ranges from “average” to “extremely thin.” But there’s enough of a variety for girls to know that basing their own bodies off media examples is fruitless and exhausting.

… Right?

Then again, here I am, naively assuming that most girls are able to ignore the unreliable demands of the entertainment industry. Maybe I’m expecting too much. In an ideal world, girls would be above such shallow illogic. But although this world is many things, “ideal” is certainly not one of them. And even the most intelligent girl can begin to feel unconfident in her body, after being deluged, on a daily basis, with images of gorgeous successful women who are also (surprise!) pin-thin. It’s subconscious and slippery. I won’t ever blame the prevalence of eating disorders solely on the media. There’s a complex psychology behind the choice to starve oneself to death, and to pretend that every woman consciously vomiting up her dinner is on a quest to look like pre-pregnancy Britney Spears âÂ?¦ well, that’s almost as offensive as it is laughable. I only wish it could be that simple. That said: a society obsessed with thinness may not cause all eating disordered behavior, but it definitely doesn’t help matters, either.

It’s well worth noting, for instance, that eating disorders are practically nonexistent outside of first-world countries. Perhaps
this can be contributed to our paradox of excess. In order to fit into their designer jeans, girls in Orange County have the luxury of turning down a meal that could save the life of a girl in Niger – a kind of morbid maturation of being forced to eat your vegetables “for all the starving kids in Africa.” But girls in first-world countries are also constantly exposed to mass-marketed, idealized female bodies with roughly the same proportions as the Grim Reaper. Between magazines and television, movies and fashion shows, girls spend countless hours watching other women being implicitly congratulated for their thin, and all too often unhealthy, figures.

So, yes, fashion is just a fantasy world. On many levels it’s nothing more than a glitzy diversion. But really, doesn’t a fantasy world reflect what we hold the most important in our reality? Models equal success equal emaciation. It’s an equation that is easy to trivialize, but, I think, too insidious to ignore. Even if it contributes to one sixth-grader pinching her thighs in the mirror, suddenly doubtful, that’s already too much damage. Even if it leads one 25-year-old to pause in typing her master’s thesis and crouch over the toilet, her fingers scratching the back of her throat, it’s gone far enough.

Who can say whether or not Pasarela Cibeles will change the fashion industry? Maybe this will just fade into the background, a silly anecdote related at cocktail parties. As naÃ?¯ve as I am, I don’t imagine that tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and find girls of Marilyn Monroe proportions gracing the covers of haute-couture magazines. Trends will come and go, and I still feel it’s the responsibility of each individual to assign her own self-worth; hopefully, a self-worth that stems from something more substantial than digital numbers on a scale. I can’t pretend to be innocent myself, by the way. I regret every second I spend measuring my waist and counting calories when I could be doing something actually worthwhile. But I suppose it sometimes takes a gesture like Madrid’s to make me reevaluate the effect the media has on my own views and opinions. For that, if for nothing more, I have to thank you, Pasarela Cibeles.

Sorry I laughed at you.

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