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Can thin-model debate have real-world effect?

Mental health officials see the current “skinny-model” debate sweeping the fashion industry as a positive step — one that may eventually help lead to a healthier body image for young girls.
/ Source: The Associated Press

She was a 16-year-old honors student, keenly interested in politics and eager to work for her candidate in last fall’s congressional elections. But when election day came around, the girl wasn’t on the campaign trail. She was in the hospital, with anorexia.

“By then, she wasn’t thinking about the political issues,” says her psychologist, Ann Kearney-Cooke. “She was thinking about how many calories were on her lunch plate.”

The girl is now recovering, but her story is only one of many. Which is why Kearney-Cooke, who’s been treating girls and women with eating disorders for 25 years, sees the current “skinny-model” debate sweeping the fashion industry as a positive step — one that may eventually help lead to a healthier body image for young girls.

“This is such a waste of young people’s energy,” the Cincinnati-based psychologist says of the ever-intensifying obsession with being thin, an affliction she’s seen in girls as young as 5 or 6. “Teenagers should be figuring out who they are, how they feel about Iraq, about abortion. Instead, the question ’Who am I?’ has been replaced by, ’How do I look?”’

With Fashion Week currently in full swing in New York, the debate over thin models is on the front burner. The Council of Fashion of Designers of America recently issued voluntary guidelines to curb the use of overly thin models. Officials in Madrid set a minimum body-mass index, and Milan tightened restrictions. Efforts gained urgency after 21-year-old Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died of anorexia in November, at 88 pounds.

Surely, models have always been thin — Twiggy was a phenomenon in the ’60s for her waifish looks. But recent years have seen a trend toward the emaciated, with younger models displaying protruding hip bones, sallow skin, and stick-like legs with knees wider than the thighs.

“A lot of models today, you’re just worried for them,” says Suze Yalof Schwartz, executive editor-at-large for Glamour Magazine. “They look so vulnerable.” (She notes, however, that some models are naturally skinny.) In the ’90s, she points out, the sample size used by designers was 5 feet 9 inches or taller and a size 6 to 8; now, it’s the same height, but a size 0 to 2.

And it isn’t just models embracing the trend. Hollywood actresses, now often canvases for hot designers, are getting thinner and thinner too — a development that likely impacts young women far more than the goings-on in the elite fashion world.

“It amazes me,” says Janice Min, editor of the celebrity magazine US Weekly. “The whole world has shrunk!” Among the many stars with no discernible body fat: Ellen Pompeo of the ABC hit “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Keira Knightley of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The once more substantial Angelina Jolie (remember her buff Lara Croft?) has gone for the more skeletal look. One result of all this: if you have the slightest tummy, the world now thinks the stork is around the corner. As Min puts it, “If they can’t see a clavicle, they think you’re pregnant!”

And if they really are expecting, there’s a whole other pressure: “To be super-thin until just before your baby comes, and two minutes after,” says Rita Freedman, a psychologist in Harrison, N.Y. who treats women with body-image disorders.

Freedman is skeptical that efforts to get healthier-looking models on the runway will have any impact on ordinary people. “My experience is that things aren’t getting better, they’re getting worse,” she says. “It’s distressing,” she says, “but as a professional, do I think this will have a long-term ripple effect? I doubt it.”

Min notes that at least it’s a step. “For once, an establishment has set forth that there is something wrong with this,” she says. “Things may not change completely, but women may look and say, ‘maybe there’s something wrong with THEM, and not me.”’

That’s the message of an ad campaign from Dove, the beauty products company. Its “Campaign for Real Beauty,” launched in 2004, featured a one-minute video, hugely popular on YouTube late last year, of a nice-looking woman in her early 20s with uneven skin. She gradually transforms — through hairstyling, makeup and extensive photo-shopping — into a billboard goddess. “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted,” the filmmakers note at the end.

Kathy O’Brien, Dove marketing director, says the campaign was created after a study commissioned by the company found that only 2 percent of thousands of women surveyed worldwide described themselves as beautiful. “Our mission is to make more people feel beautiful,” says O’Brien. She adds that the company, whose parent is Unilever, has seen a steady increase in market share since the campaign began, though she doesn’t give numbers. Another much-noted element of Dove’s advertising: print and billboard ads last summer featuring “real women,” of all shapes and sizes, posing in their underwear.

Tyra Banks, former supermodel and current TV host, didn’t pose in her underwear last week, but she came close: She opened an episode of “The Tyra Banks Show” in the same bathing suit that had just brought her a heavy dose of Internet grief, with paparazzi photos showing her looking heavier than usual.

Banks used the incident to rebuke her critics. “I have one thing to say to you,” she said, her defiant tone suddenly turning into a teary shriek. “Kiss my fat ...” The audience leaped to its feet.

Drama aside, there was undeniable truth to Banks’ assertion that, given the names she’d been called — “America’s Next Top Waddle,” for example — she’d probably be “starving myself right now” if she had lower self-esteem, something she seems not to lack.

All that sounds familiar to Kearney-Cooke, the Cincinnati psychologist. Some of her younger patients have expressed a desire to look like the notoriously skinny Olsen twins — one of whom, Mary-Kate, herself underwent treatment in 2004 for an eating disorder. “They tell me, ’I’ll be popular if I can look like that,”’ says Kearney-Cooke.

“Our country needs to take this seriously,” she says, with a hopeful nod to both the current fashion debate and initiatives like the Dove campaign. “We need to widen the spectrum of beauty, so that these people can feel that they’re in that spectrum, too.”