In the great anorexia debate, models are talked about but rarely heard. Which is why it was so startling when Natalia Vodianova, one of those great and silent beautiful ones, the Cinderella from Russia, rose to speak at the Council of Fashion Designers of America panel on eating disorders. It was Monday, the first day of Fashion Week, at 8 a.m. There was an air of anticlimax in the room, since the group’s guidelines—released to the media weeks before—had already been picked apart like a chicken sandwich. Whereas Madrid and Milan had passed rules barring models whose body-mass index fell below 18 and 18.5, respectively, the U.S. organization presented nonbinding suggestions. Designers should offer healthy food backstage, eliminate drinking, and ban smoking. They should stop using models under 16 and should not keep them up past midnight (a suggestion that made the girls sound a bit like gremlins). The guidelines seemed at once a good first step and a bit of preemptive ass-covering, but even these mild suggestions were unlikely to stick: Could an industry devoted to unrealistic standards of beauty really recognize an eating disorder, let alone prevent one? Already, designers like Karl Lagerfeld were grumbling about “politically correct Fascism.”
Things proceeded with muted goodwill for half an hour. There was Dr. Susan Ice, the medical director of the Renfrew Center, an eating-disorder-treatment organization, who emphasized that these were “biopsychosocial illnesses” rooted in childhood and genetics. Fitness guru David Kirsch pledged to “educate, enlighten, and empower all.” Joy Bauer, the nutritionist for the New York City Ballet, offered workshops to debunk weight-loss myths and teach models “to eat for increased energy levels, for optimal beauty, for better skin, hair, teeth, muscle tone, debloating—things that I know they’re interested in.”
Then Vodianova stood up, with her sad and enormous eyes, her beautiful wide face familiar from the cover of Vogue and ads for Calvin Klein. She began by quoting Oscar Wilde: “ ‘To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance’—a very wonderful and inspired saying. But I hope you will agree that no relationship comes that easy.
“I come from a poor background,” Vodianova told the carefully vetted crowd of fashionistas and their critics. Anna Wintour sat to her right, face concealed by the familiar bob. “I ate because I wanted to stay alive, and it never occurred to me to think of food in any other way.” In 2000, when she arrived in Paris at the age of 17, she discovered that her fellow models were obsessed with weight. “At first I kind of sneered, thinking that this would never affect me. But as I began working, I began paying attention to my body shape for the first time … Eating was secondary. But I found a lot of new friends who were living the same lifestyle, and things were far too exciting to worry about it.”
At 19, Vodianova gave birth to a son and quickly became skinnier than ever, impressing the fashion world. At five-nine, she weighed only 106 pounds, her hair was thinning, she was anxious and depressed—and she was a runway star with her first major advertising contract. After a friend confronted her, she sought help and got healthier, adding on a few pounds. But when she got up to 112 pounds, her agent sat her down: Designers were complaining she wasn’t as thin as she used to be. “I defended myself, saying it was crazy to consider measurements like 33-27-34 to be normal. I think because I was one of the girls most in demand it helped me to be able to forget the incident quickly. On the other hand, it makes me think that if I had been weak at the time, I can really imagine how it could have helped me endanger myself.”
The models she had met on her way to the top, she told the audience, were more malleable. “They were very young, a lot of them were very lonely, far from home and their loved ones. Most came from poor backgrounds and were helping their families. They left their childhood behind with dreams of a better life, and for most of them, there was nothing they wouldn’t do to live those dreams.”