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The Skinny

February 14, 2007

I was hoping to abandon libertarianism for libertinism this week but my dominatrix stood me up. (You just can’t get good help these days.) And so I find myself going once more onto the breach for the sake of individual liberty and personal responsibility. Or perhaps I should say once more down the runway. For this week’s target of unwarranted government and societal intrusion are those waifish clothes horses (no, that’s not a mixed metaphor – where I’m from there are lots of undernourished street horses) who trot down the catwalks of the global fashion industry.

Something of an international movement has emerged to ban those models deemed too skinny from fashion show runways: “Size-zero” models – those not conforming to a designated height-weight ratio – have been banished from fashion shows across Europe after two models died as the result of eating disorders; the drastically svelte are verboten in Madrid and Milan; the British Fashion Council recently got tongue-lashed for not following suit during London Fashion Week; and in my own home town of New York, Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan) introduced a resolution urging the organizers of New York Fashion week to do the same (misreported in various places as an effort to impose an outright governmental ban).

The argument is as follows: extremely thin models project an unhealthy and unattainable image to impressionable young girls who look up to them as, well, role models, inspiring a dangerous obsession with weight and increased incidence of eating disorders. The high fashion industry should therefore exercise more responsibility and refrain from using such models, thereby promoting a healthier concept of beauty.

Sounds reasonable enough. So let me tell you why it isn’t. First, the argument rests on some dubious factual assumptions. It has become conventional wisdom or common knowledge that young girls wish to emulate skinny runway models and see them as the paragon of beauty. I suspect, however, that if this was ever true it’s rather an outmoded analysis – a holdover from the 90’s heroin chic, Kate Moss days that no longer holds. My sense is that young girls are far more interested in looking like Jessica Biel or Beyonce than they are in looking like the catwalk wraiths whose names they probably do not even know. Granted, I have no empirical data to verify that suspicion, but I’ve yet to see any of the skinny scolds present any empirical data to back up what is, without it, merely an assertion.

Instead, we appear to be on the familiar ground of fairly groundless hysteria – the type of panic that swirls so often around teenage girls, tut-tutting that they are all engaging in fellatio from the moment they put down their Bratz dolls or chatting to an army of prowling sex offenders online (for a fascinating discussion of the empirical gap between commonly held assumptions about sex offenders and the actual data, see Predator Panic: A Closer Look). Running through all these various paranoias is the one constant that teenage girls – and even young women of age – are weak vessels, essentially incapable of rational choice, precious enough to be protected at every turn but lacking the strength to make up their own minds. Instead of the dignity and respect inherent in assuming that most young women can fend off challenges to their self esteem (itself the essence of self-esteem), we get outrage at the bullies of media and fashion for assaulting the defenseless.

To insist that the forces of fashion conform to a “healthier” or “more responsible” aesthetic vision is itself an assault on creative freedom. Fashion designers desire that runway models be tall and slim because they are pursuing a specific aesthetic effect, a pursuit to which they are entitled. I don’t know that I find many a catwalk model “desirable” or “attractive” but their appearance is certainly striking. Why should government or the community at large foist its demands on a specific artist’s creative vision? We would not demand the same of directors or painters. When actors like Robert De Niro or Christian Bale put their long-term health at risk through rapid weight gain or weight loss, we praise them for their commitment rather than scold them for setting a poor example.

Skinny models, it is claimed, present an “unrealistic” or “unattainable” image of beauty. But this is false. By their very existence, they prove that the image is obtainable. It is simply exceedingly rare, as are all forms of beauty – by definition an exceptional quality. As much as we try to make it so by enshrining the sentiment as a cliche, not everyone can be beautiful. A movie star’s looks, a pro athlete’s talent, a runway model’s height – these things are exceptionally hard to have or to obtain. Implicit to the critique of skinny beauty as “unhealthy” is a distaste for inequality and extraordinary distinction, like that of the Handicapper General in Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron who guns down the title character and his ballerina dancing partner as affronts to her egalitarian dystopia. “Unhealthy” here is a synonym for “unfair.”

Indeed, the strongest argument in favor of a ban on skinny models is that the pressure to be thin jeopardizes the health and welfare of the models themselves, though this doesn’t seem to be the uppermost concern of the ban’s advocates. To be fair, however, some of the proposed standards of conduct are entirely reasonable – ensuring that healthy foods are available to models at fashion shows for instance. In a high pressure industry such as that of fashion it makes perfect sense to be vigilant and conduct comprehensive health evaluations to ensure that models are not putting themselves in immediate mortal danger by eating too little.

But there is a significant difference between what is not optimal to long-term health and that which puts a person in grave danger of death or serious injury. Smoking and drinking are detrimental to long-term health too but models should not be prohibited from doing either. The bans imposed on skinny models forbid any model with a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 from walking the catwalk. According to Councilwoman Brewer’s resolution “if a person’s BMI is below 18.5, the person is considered underweight.” Being somewhat “underweight” is probably rather unhealthy in the long-term, but a far cry from dangerously thin. And BMI strikes me as a rather crude indicator of overall health given that my BMI puts me in the “obese” category despite the fact that I am healthier and in better shape than many people my age.

As such, the ban’s standard seems rather arbitrary. And those being banned supposedly for their own good are not being pushed into an impossible choice by their couture employers. This is hardly the suffering of the sweatshop (though I imagine their employers are responsible for some of that). Elite fashion models are not being forced to choose between work or starvatio…ah, hmm, well – you get the point. The death of two models as a result of eating disorders is tragic, and no doubt others could benefit from earlier intervention. But I’d wager that far more models have died from drug overdoses than bulimia or anorexia and I see no similar campaign to watch out for their drug habits as for their eating habits. Hypocrisy and hysteria are not a pretty sight. Here’s hoping the misplaced rage over skinny models is just a passing fad.

To read other blog entries by Hasdai Westbrook or others at GUERNICA click HERE

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