Models and health professionals came down hard on the Council of Fashion Designers of America's partnership with Organic Avenue, a company best known for its juice fasts, which gave models a 50% discount during fashion week.
"It's extremely concerning and confusing," said Dr. Evelyn Attia, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Monday night. She was speaking on a panel of health experts and models, including Crystal Renn and Amy Lemons, who came together as part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week to address the problem of the fashion industry's extreme standards when it comes to body shape and weight.
CFDA CEO Steven Kolb defended the deal with Organic Avenue prior to New York Fashion Week by pointing out that the company offers plenty of solid-food options that would also be discounted. "Organic Avenue is well known in the fashion industry and we believe they are aligned with our message of beauty is health," he told Fashionista. "They have amazing salad, soups, wraps, and tacos."
But Attia argued that while that may be so, the messaging was off because the company is primarily known for its juice, which it markets as a liquid-only diet.
"When you've got an industry where you know there's an occupational hazard" — meaning, the pressure to maintain a very low weight — "put that together with a fad diet, and real commercial interest regarding these juice cleanses, and we really have double reason to worry," she said.
Moderating the discussion was Sara Ziff, founder of The Model Alliance, a labor organization that fights for better working conditions for models, who also expressed concern about the Organic Avenue deal. "People were worried, myself included, because you go on the website and the first thing you see are juice cleanses, which require liquid-only diets."
Ziff also cited a study that showed 64% of models had been asked to lose weight by their agencies, and that "a significant number lost weight by going on these juice cleanses."
The panel was a reminder that the industry's troubling size 0 ideal has felt largely static over the past several years, despite the breakout success of "plus-size" faces like Renn and Lemons. Chris Gay, the president of Marilyn Model Agency in New York, described his frustration with the reality that the high-fashion market — which includes runway shows and very high-end campaigns — almost always demands a size 0 frame. "The industry standards are ridiculous," he said. "They're not standards I think a woman can [maintain] throughout the course of her life or career."
Gay continued, "Girls can come in and they can fit a dress they can walk down a runway — you don't have to have a lot of skill set to be able to do that, you just have to have the body type." Yet he said it takes two to three years for girls, many of whom are scouted at 14, 15, or 16 years old, to become "exceptional models." Many get pushed out around the age of 17 or so, when their bodies begin to change and their hips begin to fill out. "And at that point," Gay said, "you're just replacing good models with new models, and a lot of that has to do with unrealistic standards."
The industry has proved unable to regulate itself. There have been efforts, like the CFDA's ongoing Health Initiative and its misguided Organic Avenue deal. But nothing has changed the scarily thin body type that has dominated the vast majority of runways and magazine editorials for the past decade.
The panelists on Monday night proposed a few solutions. Renn argued that designers should work with a size 8 sample instead of a size 0 or 2. "By having a size 8 sample, you are giving freedom to a designer," she said. If the standard is a size 8, "most of the models are going to be size 6s and 8s, and you could have 10s, and if a really amazing model walked in who was a size 0, you would tailor the dress down to her."
Ziff believes the solution lies in enforcing existing laws governing child labor and making sure the regulations for models are similar to those for other performers, like child actors. If models were subject the same regulations as child actors, they'd have to have a tutor on set and a chaperone present — she believes clients wouldn't want to pay for all of this and would start hiring older girls. "There would be a noticeable change in the kinds of images the industry produces," she said.
Ashley Mears, a former model and assistant professor of sociology at Boston University, said that since the size 0 problem has festered for so long in the business, "legislation is probably the right way to come at it." She also suggested consumers boycott brands if they're unhappy with the beauty ideal put forth on their runways. So if you don't like what you see in Calvin Klein's runway show, don't buy its perfume, sunglasses, or underwear.
But at the end of the day, "modeling is about beauty, but it's also an energy," Renn said. "That's not a size."