As Fashion Week begins in New York today, the glitz of the runway is being dimmed by talk of a sober topic: eating disorders.
Long criticized for fostering unrealistic ideas about beauty, the fashion industry has come under increased scrutiny since an 88-pound Brazilian model died in November of complications from anorexia.
This week, a New York state lawmaker proposed establishing weight standards to protect child actors and models. And on Monday under the storied Bryant Park tents - where designers such as Carolina Herrera and Michael Kors will show their fall 2007 collections - the Council of Fashion Designers of America is sponsoring a body image symposium. Designers, models and others will talk publicly about anorexia and bulimia, disorders that exist in the industry but are rarely discussed.
"This is mostly to get a dialogue going," said Danielle Billinkoff, a CFDA spokeswoman. "Change isn't going to happen overnight."
Which is why insiders are expecting talk but not significant change on the runways at the eight-day fashion extravaganza.
"The members of that council are the ones that at the end of the day are pressuring the people," said Amanda Kerlin, 22, author of Secrets of the Model Dorm, a fictional account of events that occurred during her six years as a teenage fashion model in New York. "They are the ones you go to see who say, 'She's great, but can you get her a little thinner?' If it wasn't for their standards of what beauty and fashion is, then we wouldn't have these problems."
Other countries have begun to alter how their fashion industries do business. Italy barred models younger than 16 and now requires models to submit medical proof that they don't suffer from an eating disorder. Several months ago, Spain banned models with body mass indexes of less than 18.
The American fashion industry has been hesitant to issue mandates, opting instead for voluntary guidelines that, among other things, require models identified as having eating disorders to receive professional help.
The recommendations by the Council of Fashion Designers of America include:
Supplying healthy snacks and water backstage and at shoots, and providing nutrition and fitness education.
Developing workshops on the causes and effects of eating disorders.
Educating the industry to identify the early warning signs of individuals at risk of developing eating disorders.
Most fashion shows are booked too far in advance for the guidelines to have much effect this season, said Elizabeth Centenari, director and vice president of T.H.E. Artist Agency, which represents models and stylists in the Washington area.
"But it's the start of at least putting the information out there that we need to take this seriously within our industry," Centenari said.
Many have criticized the seriousness of the CFDA guidelines, which stop short of recommending body mass index - a relationship between a person's weight and height, that correlates highly with body fat - as a factor in determining a model's approval for bookings.
Harry Brandt, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Towson, said one thing he dislikes about the suggestions is that they encourage treatment for models who are "identified" as having eating disorders.
"They're hidden illnesses," said Brandt. "They're not illnesses where people readily come forth, particularly if they know there's going to be scrutiny."
CFDA needs "to take a little bit more of a proactive stance," Brandt said. "If [models] drop below a certain body mass index, then they should be required to substantiate that they don't have an eating disorder," before being allowed to work.
Brandt said he'd rather see the industry follow the guidelines the Academy for Eating Disorders released to American fashion officials two days before the CFDA recommendations. The academy's recommendations are tougher and more specific than the CFDA's.
In a rare move singling out one industry, the academy recommends that models have a minimum body mass index of 18.5, as well as medical certification that they are free of eating disorders. It also urges magazines and designers to use "models of varying weights and body types," and pushes advertising agencies to stop using computer enhancement and retouching in pre-teen and adolescent campaigns.
"I really think those should be banned throughout the entire fashion industry," Brandt said. "Why are we taking these thin models and making them look even thinner? We're creating an image that doesn't even exist in reality."
Fearing that young models strutting down the runways in New York are too skinny, Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera said this week that he wants to create a state advisory board to recommend standards and guidelines for the employment of child performers and models under age 18 to prevent eating disorders.
Others seem to feel that the talk about unhealthy models is overblown.
Last week, organizers of London Fashion Week said they would not bar ultra-thin models but that they had asked designers to use only "healthy" people in runway shows.
And Didier Grumbach, president of the French Federation of Haute Couture, Ready-to-Wear and Designers, said last week that he was not in favor of tougher guidelines for models.
"We must inform people, but above all not regulate the sector more than it already is," he said.
Imogen Edwards-Jones, a London-based journalist who studied the fashion world for 18 months for her book Fashion Babylon, said designers and others probably will only "pay lip service" to the American fashion council's guidelines, because too many models are nameless, faceless and considered expendable.
"The supermodel is dead. The only famous model anyone can really name now is Gisele [Bundchen] or Kate Moss. These days all the models are thin girls from Russia and Eastern Europe, and they've become increasingly disposable, so people don't really care about them as much. People don't look after them. These are young girls, away from their mothers, who eat things like tissues, to fill up their stomachs, or survive on things like gummy bears - just for little shots of sugar throughout the day."
Susan Ice, vice president and medical director of the Renfrew Center, a residential eating disorder treatment facility in Philadelphia - and a member of the CFDA committee that created the health recommendations - said the fashion industry is often "targeted and blamed for being an unhealthy environment for models.
"Yes, there have been some stories about deaths and models," Ice said. "There are stories about people [outside the industry] who die with eating disorders that never make it to the press. But just because it is such a high-profile industry, it is going to get recognized."
Ice said eating disorders stem from issues more complicated than simply a desire to be thin.
"There are so many antecedents that go into the development of an eating disorder," she said. "It's not just about weight. It's really a bio-psycho-social illness."
Balance on the runways and in magazines might help, said Brandt, of the Center for Eating Disorders in Towson.
"It's not just about guidelines," he said. "It's changing the mindset in the industry and in our culture to have more realistic images of women who can be considered beautiful."
But experts are doubtful that such a "realistic" view of the world will ever be seen in fashion circles.
"I don't think it'll ever happen," said Donna Reamy, associate chair in the Department of Fashion at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Clothing looks much better on tall, thin people. It's just that they've gotten to a point where they're bone-thin, and I don't know if they can get any thinner."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
August: Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos, 22, dies of heart failure while participating in a fashion show during Fashion Week in Montevideo. News reports say her diet consisted of lettuce leaves and Diet Coke.
September: Madrid Fashion Week bars models with a body mass index less than 18. According to the World Health Organization, a BMI of 18.5 is considered underweight.
November: Ana Carolina Reston, 21, a Brazilian model, dies from a generalized infection caused by anorexia. Her BMI was said to be 13.5.
December: Italian fashion industry agrees not to hire models younger than 16 and to require models to submit medical proof that they do not suffer from an eating disorder.
A New York state lawmaker, Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera, proposes establishing weight standards to protect child actors and models.
London and Paris decide not to take any action regarding models' health.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America issues voluntary guidelines "about awareness and education, not policing," the council says.
Keep models under age 16 off runways and don't allow models under 18 to work at fittings or photo shoots past midnight.
Educate those in the industry to identify the early warning signs of eating disorders.
Require models identified as having an eating disorder to receive professional help and allow those models to continue only with approval from that professional.
Develop workshops on the causes and effects of eating disorders, and raise awareness of the effects of smoking and tobacco-related disease.
During fashion shows, provide healthy meals and snacks, while prohibiting smoking and alcohol.
[From staff and wire reports]