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The Incredible Shrinking Model

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Natasha Poly at the Oscar de la Renta show.  

A ll through Fashion Week, the models told me they felt persecuted by the media conversation, as if they were being blamed for their bodies.

“You know, I don’t sing because I don’t have the voice,” said Flavia, 22, with a sigh. “If I don’t have this body, I could not be a model. I eat like a pig!”

“I’m this kind of person who can eat whatever I want,” echoed Eva. “I’m so happy that I still can eat ice cream and everything.”

“There’s always going to be that one somebody who has taken it too far,” Sophie told me. I asked her if she knew of anybody who had. No, she said. “All the girls in my model apartment eat everything. We stuff our face.”

But another model, Marvy Rieder, told me she had no patience for that kind of talk. “It’s b.s.,” she said flatly on the phone from the Netherlands, where she was busily packing for a photo shoot in Zambia. A Dutch model who has worked to educate the public on the subject of eating disorders, Rieder beat out 20,000 girls to be the face of Guess watches. Then she came to New York, where she was told that if she wanted to do runway work, she needed to lose weight. She dieted and exercised, but that wasn’t sufficient.

“I started skipping things. I was still eating, but not enough, really not enough, and going to the gym every day.” Her roommates in the model apartment were eating a can of corn a day, Rieder said. “Or an apple. Or whatever. And that’s just one of the things I’ve seen.” I asked Rieder if models are open about restricting food. No, she told me. “They hide it. By saying, ‘I just ate so much at home, I’m not hungry anymore.’ I’ve heard it a million times.”

Why do models not speak out about these issues? “In my opinion, I think it’s because they’re afraid of losing work,” said Rieder.

Sabrina Hunter, 27, agrees. I found the gorgeous Afro- Caribbean woman not strutting the catwalk but working the Cingular booth in the pavilion outside. She’d left runway modeling, she told me, because the pressure was so intense that it required her to eat in a disordered way. At five-ten, Hunter was expected to be “115 or lower, preferably.” After she signed with an American agency, she was given a choice: Lose weight or gain and be a plus-size model. After trying to gain unsuccessfully, she went the opposite direction, eating 600 calories and jogging five miles a day. “It made me extremely moody and depressed. And I looked it, in the face. But that’s how all the models look,” she says.

Both Rieder and Hunter have known models who are naturally skinny. But many of these girls are exceptionally young: A model who is effortlessly flat-chested and hipless at 14 will start to struggle as she hits her late teens. If she’s already rising in the industry, she may find that she needs to take more- extreme measures to continue to fit the bony aesthetic. And that goes double for the new breed of models, many of whom come, like Vodianova, from the poorest regions of Eastern Europe. For these girls, pressures to stay thin may be a small price to pay for escaping the small towns they came from.

“One of the interesting things about these models today is that they get used and spit out so quickly,” says Magali Amadei, a model who has been open about her recovery from bulimia. “The era of the supermodel is over, so girls working today don’t have the earning power. These girls come into the business young, and they are disposable. On top of that, people often talk about your appearance in front of you, as if you can’t hear them.”

Such pressures can be the most intense on girls who walk the runway, a job that possesses a strange, Catch-22 quality. Models must not distract from the clothes, and yet their chance to succeed is to stand out. If she gets noticed, a model can grab the big prize—a major ad campaign. These contracts offer financial security and celebrity, which translates to a modicum of power, although nothing compared with the days when models rather than celebrities commanded the covers of fashion magazines.

“It’s a far more complex issue than people realize,” Suzy Menkes, the fashion writer for the International Herald Tribune, told me. “You know, many of these girls were brought up in the postcommunist years on an extremely bad diet. From childhood, they’ve not been properly nourished. That may make them very appealing to designers, but they don’t start off with a healthy body. And nothing is simple. I think it must be incredibly difficult to come from a vegetable stall in the Ukraine and find yourself in Paris amongst Ladurée macaroons. People have to accept that it’s a much bigger picture than terrible fashion folk starving to get into frocks.”


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