Models Discuss Anorexia Over Pastry

Though one can feel confident that Fashion Week is the occasion for more degenerate late-night merrymaking than your average dental convention, it’s hardly the moveable feast of Caligulan vice that popular fantasy supposes. It wasn’t, therefore, an outright sham that today’s panel discussion on eating disorders and the garment trade—an hour-long meeting devoted to the new health initiative of the Council of Fashion Designers of America—began at 8 a.m. Designers, editors, and casting agents indeed turned up early to witness, over weak coffee, one of those pieces of theater beloved by corporate-responsibility officers, politburo members, and their ilk since time immemorial.

The members of the panel—a group including an M.D., a fitness trainer, and a nutritionist—were gathered to talk about the issue of unhealthy thinness among models. Remember, we’re talking about problems within the fashion industry here, so you might need to recalibrate your definitions of such terms as “thin” and “health”: In a hallucination sequence in the new, compulsively smirking Sarah Silverman Program, the Loch Ness Monster tells Sarah that she looks so skinny that he worries she’s been ill, and she glories in the compliment. That’s not the kind of health we’re talking about.

We’re talking, for instance, about Ana Carolina Reston, a Brazilian model who died of complications from anorexia last November, and about the Association of Fashion Designers of Spain, which has banned models with a body mass index of less than 18. American designers have declined to follow suit, arguing variously that BMI isn’t a reliable indicator of good eating habits and that regularly weighing the girls might itself contribute to the psychological pressures on them. And rather than issue any mandates, the CFDA put forward some “guidelines” a few weeks back: Keep models under 16 off the runway; don’t let those under 18 work after midnight; don’t feed any of them alcohol at work; “raise awareness.” Can’t argue with that.

But arguing about the issues in any depth was, to the occasional frustration of even some panelists, a mere footnote to the panel. It was a piece of theater to express Sensitivity—an Oprah-era microdrama—and, as such, a modest success. The star was a model, of course. Natalia Vodianova spoke of her own struggle with eating disorders with conspicuous grace, quoting Oscar Wilde and elsewhere saying that her attitudes about food had been straightforward as a girl growing up Russia: “We ate to survive.” This struck one as mordant wit … and then one started wondering what Fashion Week might have done to his irony meter.

Soon it was question time, and an unfocused discussion unfurled in a manner familiar to anyone who has ever turned on C-SPAN2 or gone to college. A woman stood up, identified herself as the mother of a girl who died from an eating disorder, and sincerely lauded the CFDA for its effort. (Oddly, sadly, one person vigorously applauded her applause.) Another woman stood up to give the CFDA the obvious business about the half-measures it was taking, and the rebuttal, which said nothing, was artfully couched. Donna Karan ventured that the bulk of the responsibility for the problem lies with the modeling agencies. And then it was over, and the croissants and danish had gone mostly untouched.

“Nice turnout,” said one insider to another.

“Well, it’s a hot-button issue. This week.”