Fashion Modeling - Issues and Problems

Once again, Barbie was one of the best-selling toys this past holiday season. Mattel's world-famous fashion doll has become a cash cow, selling nearly $2 billion of merchandise each year. Barbie has also become part of many a girl's childhood.

Just before Christmas, however, a team of British researchers announced that many young girls mutilate and torture their Barbie dolls. According to University of Bath researcher Agnes Nairn, "the girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity....The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking, and even microwaving." The reason, Nairn said, was that girls saw Barbie as childish, an inanimate object instead of a treasured toy.

What's this? Aggression against the beloved Barbie, the beaming plastic icon of (allegedy) idealized beauty? Could it be that society has misinterpreted how young girls view Barbie? For decades, journalists and social critics have assumed that young girls idolize Barbie dolls, but little actual research has been done on the topic. In the absence of evidence, assumption and speculation ran rampant.

Barbie has been blamed for a variety of social ills. Time magazine columnist Amy Dickinson claimed in 2000 that "Women my age know whom to blame for our own self-loathing, eating disorders and distorted body image: Barbie." In her feminist best-seller The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf bashes Barbie, and views the doll as an imaginary "ideal" woman. Boston College sociology professor Sharlene Hesse-Biber also believes that Barbie "is the perfect figure presented to little girls as 'ideal.'" The claim is echoed in hundreds of books, Web sites, magazine articles, and television programs.

Yet recent evidence, including the University of Bath study, suggests that the "Barbie ideal" may be a myth. Just because a girl plays with a Barbie doll does not mean she idolizes it or views it as a physical role model. Critics cite statistics such as that if Barbie were real, she couldn't walk upright, or bear children.

But of course Barbie is not real, and was never intended to represent a healthy body or physical ideal. While Barbie has long been badgered about her "unhealthy" shape, no one complains that Mr. Potato Head's tubby physique is even less healthy. Girls are far more intelligent than Barbie critics give them credit for; they know their dolls are just that: dolls.

The girls in the British study are not alone. One adult woman in an informal survey reminisced, "Mostly I helped my brother decapitate Barbies and threw limbs in neighbors' yards. No one told me I should look like Barbie and I never felt like I should look like her." Said another, "I never regarded Barbie as a model for a real person. I actually hated her shape because it made it hard to put clothes on her."

The claim that Barbie can cause eating disorders also rests on shaky assumptions. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are serious diseases that cannot be "caught" from playing with dolls. Research has shown that the disorders are strongly influenced by genetic factors, not thin dolls or media images.

It seems that not a single survey, poll, or study has shown that girls actually want to look like Barbie dolls. In the rush to criticize Barbie and thin images, the assumptions got ahead of the scientific evidence. Eating disorders and self-esteem are important issues, but have little to do with Barbie dolls. So parents can relax: the kids are alright--even if they torture Barbie now and then.
Fashion models at Canada's Montreal Fashion Week (Oct. 9–11) take note: You won't be allowed to strut the runways if you're too thin.

The move reflects a growing concern in the fashion industry. Show organizers in Paris, Milan, and around the world are responding to criticisms about the women who model each season's fashions. Recently the British Fashion Council recommended that models be screened for eating disorders; starting September 2008, models will be required to provide a medical certificate showing that they are not anorexic.

In principle, it sounds like a good idea. But the reality is that testing fashion models is little more than an unnecessary, cosmetic fix.

There is no way to physically "screen" models for anorexia. Instead, the women would be asked a series of questions, which—like drug use or any other topic the model may not want to admit to—could be easily evaded. It is possible to determine if the models are malnourished, but that doesn't settle the issue. While thinness is often associated with malnutrition, many thin (even anorexic) people are properly nourished—and even obese people can be malnourished.

Not only is the health screening impractical, but in America, such measures might be illegal. An employer can't fire someone from a job or discriminate against that person because he or she has a disease.

The efforts to curb anorexia are well-intentioned but often misguided. Deaths from anorexia are very rare, even in the fashion world. Models are in far greater danger of being killed in a car driving to the fashion show than dying of anorexia. Though anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disease, only one-half of one percent of anorexics die from it each year, and many of those deaths are actually suicides.

Nor will keeping very thin models off the runways do anything to curb the disease at large. Anorexia is widely misunderstood, and while thin fashion models are often blamed for contributing to eating disorders, the link is based far more on assumption than fact.

Anorexia is a complex psychological disorder; young women can no more "catch" anorexia from seeing thin models than they can "catch" depression from watching an actress cry in a film. Furthermore, if thin models somehow caused anorexia, why is the disease so rare? Hundreds of millions of American girls and women see thin actresses and models every day in the media, yet fewer than one percent of them develop anorexia. Decades of research suggest that the disorder is primarily genetic, not environmental.

The real tragedy is that, because of the many myths about anorexia, much of the public's attention is being misguided. If the money and resources spent screening fashion models went to study the real causes of anorexia instead, we would be much closer to finding effective treatments.

Research on Eating Disorders in Models


            There is no authoritative scientific study on the real incidence of eating disorders in models.  However, the most recent, and largest study to deal with the issue concludes that fashion models have no more problems with eating disorders than the general population (in this case, in Canada).  A report of a study included the following statements:

            Not unexpectedly, the models scored an average BMI of only 17.4, compared to a more "normal" 22.7 for the students. But their eating and exercise habits showed little difference, and more than 80% of both groups had normal, healthy eating behaviours and displayed positive attitudes toward food. The other 20% or so don't necessarily have eating disorders but may have some questionable eating habits such as skipping breakfast . . .