But, of course, these two explanations are diametrically opposed. In the first vision, the models must be thin so people look at them. In the second, they must be thin so that no one will notice them. And when I ask the buyers and the customers, they seem baffled about the reason for it all.
“Our clients aren’t this thin!” says Lance Lawson, the owner and buyer for Jake, a high-end designer store in Chicago. When you see the actual runway samples, he adds, “it looks like children’s clothing. We’ll say, ‘What size is this?’ and even in the showroom they laugh: ‘Oh, that’s not a size.’ ’’
The truth is, no one really has a good explanation for the change. The sophisticated fashion observer notes that this is just how fashion works: The Gibson girl gives way to the flapper, then to the big-shouldered forties girl and her busty fifties counterpart, and on to Twiggy, the eighties Amazons, Kate Moss, the waifs, and heroin chic—and for the past ten years, thinner and thinner, younger and younger, in what can feel like some sort of terrifying endgame. Celebrity culture has added its own catalyst, that parade of starlets dwindling competitively in US Weekly. Women’s bodies have always been theater, and this is just another act.
Fashion historian Valerie Steele wonders if this isn’t the flip side of the obesity crisis: “As everyone is blimping up, we’re idealizing thinness. It can’t be separated.” But unlike many fashion observers, Steele isn’t willing to acknowledge that models are especially thin at all—or, if they are, that it’s the outside world’s business. “When there’s a thin actress or singer, no one says we have to fatten up actresses and singers! No, it’s fashion that’s the whipping boy. You know: ‘It’s so criminal that fashion employs underage girls in the Third World!’ ” she argues. “Well, so does the electronics industry.”
That’s true, of course. It’s all true: that gymnasts get eating disorders, too, that Hollywood is also a problem, and why aren’t we talking about world hunger instead? But finally, the conversation shrinks to a tautology: The clothes are on very thin girls, so clothes must look best on very thin girls. And there are questions it is hard to ask in Fashion World, too bumptious and too basic: Aren’t clothes intended to flatter those who purchase them? What kind of message does this send to young women? And, the electronics industry aside, isn’t there something a little creepy about using teenage girls from poor countries to model gowns that get bought mainly by incredibly wealthy adult women?
After the CFDA meeting, I met with Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina, who had come to judge the industry’s efforts in person. She wasn’t impressed. “When Dr. Ice”—the official representative of the eating-disorder treatment community—“said that you can be healthy at BMI 14, I practically swallowed my tongue. That’s emaciated! Did she really say that?” (She did.)
Being thin means, symbolically, that you are rich, young, beautiful, and powerful. Yet the models themselves seem like the weakest people in the room.
The critics aren’t asking for scales backstage, insists Bulik. All they want is a yearly medical checkup, something that would combine BMI with an overall health examination, performed by a doctor, not an agent or a stylist. “Why not make it a doctor’s responsibility?” asks Bulik. “The agents and designers don’t have the skill set to make the diagnosis. But they are in the position to say, ‘You need to have a certificate of health.’ ”
At the panel discussion, Diane Von Furstenberg told a story about a model who had seemed overly skinny the last time she saw her. The model called to attend this year’s casting, and the designer worried she would have to reject her. “And she showed up—and she was actually healthy! I could see it! What I think happened is that with everyone talking about it”—the anorexia issue—“she realized she wouldn’t be getting a job. I didn’t address it with her; she didn’t address it with me. But I felt so good.”
It was an oddly touching story—I could hear the relief in Von Furstenberg’s voice. She seemed to be expressing fashion’s deepest wish: that with no one actually doing anything, the models themselves would get the message. It might even be true: A year of public shaming seems to be nudging the industry toward something, even if it’s just a matter of token gestures, like putting Jennifer Hudson on the cover of Vogue.
Yet despite the jockeying for blame—Are the agents responsible? The magazines? The designers? The stylists?—it’s the models who will inevitably be the fall girls, embarrassing the industry when they go one step too far and become thin instead of thin. At times, the issue doesn’t seem to be about food at all. It’s about the discomfort everyone feels when the girls in the gowns become visible, exposing not just their ribs but the strange vulnerability of their lives.