Backstage at Vera Wang, I run into Tanya Dziahileva, who might as well be the younger version of Natalia Vodianova. She’s 15 years old and has been working since she was 14. She’s from Belarus. Vodianova had described herself as wearing “some kind of pink glasses” when she began modeling, and I can see that Tanya is wearing them too. After days of watching metronomic struts and thousand-yard stares, I realize she’s the first model I’ve really seen smile. It’s not just a smile, either: She is beaming with excitement, her words pouring out of her like Champagne.
“The models is models, it’s not like normal people, you know? They have to be beautiful, with good skin, and everything perfect.” The girls who got sick, she thinks, “were just models who were so stupid, to don’t eat food, you know? You have to eat good! I eat gorgeous food. I eat sushi, I eat meat, I eat steaks. I eat more than you, I’m sure.
“You know, it’s actually really nice, that people take care about the models,” she says softly, when I tell her about the CFDA guidelines, which would ban her from the catwalk. “But I’m 15 years old and I feel like I can do this. And I don’t want to stop it! I don’t want to stop it for one month, I don’t want to stop it for one day. Some girls, you know, they look so young, and so, I don’t know—I feel that I need to come to their home and help them go to sleep! But I can’t say I feel like I’m 15. I feel like I’m 20. I feel like I’m 30! Because I feel great. My life is gorgeous! Who at 15 years old can see all the world, you know? It’s just incredible, it’s beautiful, it’s amazing, it’s—Fashion World!”
On Thursday of fashion week, I went to the far West Village to see Marchesa, the label designed by Harvey Weinstein’s … girlfriend? (No one can finish the sentence for me.) There was no runway. Instead, the models were perched around the space in live tableaux: one of them balanced on a spiral staircase above a reflecting pool; others standing in pairs, gazing above the heads of the guests, like a glamorous variation on the Buckingham Palace guards.
“I was still eating,” says Marvy Rieder. “But really not enough.” Her roommates could make a can of corn last a day.
It was awkward, and accidentally funny, to act as if the models standing three feet away from us were mannequins. André Leon Talley strode through, gesturing at the outfits, shouting “You must buy all of these!” at a pretty socialite he was steering by the elbow. A handsome young man walked straight up to a model and looked her up and down. The moment felt uncomfortably erotic—she couldn’t move, he could—but then he seemed embarrassed and moved away, back to his girlfriend, and they laughed.
If Fashion Week is about reinforcing hierarchies, skinniness has always been a way to compete. Being thin means control and, symbolically, that you are rich, that you are young, that you are beautiful, that you are powerful. And yet the models themselves, who are skinnier and younger than anyone, seem like the weakest people here: manual laborers with short shelf lives. And whatever their eating habits, the girls in the gowns attract, like anorexics, an unstable mix of envy, anxiety, and scorn, a cultural response reserved for women reduced (or maybe elevated) to their bodies.
And for observers of the catwalk, there remains the nagging question: Why this skinny? Why now? Why are designers casting bodies that are, if not actively anorexic, practically indistinguishable from the girls at Renfrew?
I hear two dominant theories. The first is that fashion is aspirational. There’s makeup; there’s lighting; it is intended to be extreme, not realistic—to inspire envy, by providing a vision of an impossible life the audience member would love to live. One editor I spoke with wondered if the tiny socialites, the demographic that can afford these expensive garments, naturally prefer to see even tinier girls on the runway, so they could have something to aspire to. According to this theory, we would all love to be that thin.
The other theory is that the girls need to be skinny because they need to be invisible. Clothing stands out best when the body is a blank. And the better the clothes are, the more extreme the skinniness must be. Certainly, the glittering sacks that many designers are featuring these days flatter only a body that recedes inside them (like the Mary-Kate Olsen look, these puffy garments have an unnerving resemblance to the extra-large sweatshirts I remember anorexics wearing back in college).
“Models are quote-unquote hangers,” points out Kate Armenta, the booker for Vogue—although she is also eager to detach her own publication from any responsibility for this issue. “Honestly, I have to give credit to Anna,” she tells me. “She’s always been very outspoken against thin models. Vogue has never tried to perpetuate that look.” (A perusal of the magazine would seem to indicate otherwise.)