The Incredible Shrinking Model

Photo: Zack Seckler

B ackstage at the Carlos Miele show, all the accents are Russian. The models are rubbing off makeup, having transformed from Miele’s glamorous jet-setters back into harried teenagers. They look skinny but not cadaverous. Yet after a week in the Bryant Park tents, I realize I can’t trust my own judgment: It’s already become impossible to see the difference between thin and thin.

I walk up to Nataliya Gotsii, who grimaces when I ask her about new industry guidelines on eating disorders. Everyone at Fashion Week makes this face when I raise the subject: After a year of media coverage criticizing the size-zero model, fashion has gotten tired of explaining itself. But Gotsii has particular reason to worry. She was one of the models whose photos have been used to illustrate the controversy—a shot of her ribs was flashed on CNN in order to elicit shocked reactions from celebrities.

“It’s all about the Ukrainian models,” she tells me with frustration. “After last Fashion Week, I hear a lot about myself, in the news! I didn’t come back here for two months because clients refused to work with me. Me and Snejana and the other Ukrainian models.” All of the runway models are thin, she points out, and she wonders why she was singled out. “Maybe, some of the girls, they skinny, but they look natural? Some of the girls, they don’t look healthy?”

Her mother cried when she saw those pictures, says Gotsii. But her body was Photoshopped, she claims. Those circles under her eyes (and I can see them: pale-brown half-moons) are genetic—her brother has them, too. “Nobody cares, they just take a name and put a lot of shit. We’re going out, we’re having dinners, everybody’s eating, there’s no anorexia in this business!”

It’s not true, of course. A week after our conversation, a perilously thin teenage model, Eliana Ramos, would die in Uruguay, apparently of a heart attack, making it three model deaths in the past seven months. In August, Ramos’s older sister Luisel died after restricting herself to a diet of lettuce leaves and Diet Coke. In November, Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died weighing just 88 pounds.

But Gotsii resents being dragged into the debate. In those notorious pictures from last season, she had worn a white halter top dangling from chains; you could count her vertebrae. In a taupe bikini she stood, hands on hips, staring into the camera, a tanned skeleton.

If she looked so terrible, if she looked run-down, it had nothing to do with food, she argues. Already today Gotsii has walked in two shows, and she has another one scheduled for tonight. Her first fitting had begun at 6:30 a.m. Next week, she’s off to Paris, then Milan. “You live for almost one month just about fashion. Fashion, fashion, fashion—it makes you tired in the head. In two weeks, maybe I will look tired again.”

I look at her and try to remember the pictures I’ve seen. Does she look too thin? She’s not wearing a bikini right now, so I can’t tell. She looks fine, if a little tired.

And then she looks me in the eye and asks, “I’m not so scary, am I?”

R aise the issue of eating disorders during Fashion Week, and someone will inevitably bring up that lost, glorious era of the supermodel: Christy, Naomi, Cindy, Linda, the four-headed stompy-legged beast with big shiny hair, the one that wouldn’t get up for less than $10,000. Those were the days when models took up space. They were stars. They made demands. And their faces were everywhere. To paraphrase from Sunset Boulevard, sometimes it feels like it’s not the clothes that have gotten small, it’s the models. (Although, of course, the clothes have shrunk, too, sample sizes dwindling from a 6 to a 4 to a 2 and below.)

These days, fashion people do not talk about models with awe. Instead, they speak of them with condescending affection, as if they were lovable circus folk. Again and again, I hear that they are “beautiful freaks,” “genetic anomalies”—girls born to be bone-thin, with giraffelike necks and the wide, pretty doll faces that are the latest visual sensation. But there is also pity for the models, who are, many people pointed out to me, basically high-school dropouts, teenagers from poor countries, whose careers last a very short time. They are infinitely replaceable. Although top girls can make up to $100,000 in a week of shows, the vast majority get nowhere near that; some of the more prominent designers pay the girls only in clothes.

Magdalena Frackowiak at the Doo.Ri show.Photo: Zack Seckler

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.”

Natasha Poly at the Oscar de la Renta show.Photo: Zack Seckler

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.”

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.)

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.

Toward the end of the week, I feel sick of it all. And the news has turned: Anna Nicole Smith has died, she of the TrimSpa ad reading simply BE ENVIED. I go home to watch a TiVo’d Ugly Betty. Rebecca Romijn is strutting and bragging, having a fantastic time, as the transsexual brother turned sister of the editor-in-chief of Mode. Here was the cocky strut I had imagined I would find on the runways. And I remembered back in the eighties, when I thought the supermodels were bad role models. Who knew I could ever miss them this much?

The Incredible Shrinking Model