The skinny on thin

Fashion As the biannual round of fashion weeks kicks off in New York, the skinny-model debate rages on. The Gulf, however, is bucking the trend.

A model walks the runway during Fashion Week in New York City in February.
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How thin is too thin? It is the issue that will not die in fashion circles, and invariably flares up when the international fashion shows are on. The spring/summer 2009 collections are now showing in New York, all eyes are on the tall, willowy creatures strutting down the catwalk, and the international press are poised to pounce on the first protruding clavicle they spot. Because where Paris, Milan, New York and London lead, the advertising, media, broadcasting, retail, cosmetics and filmmaking worlds will follow. And things aren't looking good for hungry models.

While London's Model Health Inquiry, created by the British Fashion Council, had been determined to introduce a raft of regulations aimed at reducing the industry's reliance on underweight models, including a demand that all catwalk models produce a certificate of health before working in Fashion Week, the international response has been distinctly underwhelming. In fact, the idea has been dropped. Self-regulation is the fashion world's action of choice, but whether designers and model agencies will have the discipline to do anything about the problem remains to be seen.

Western fashion has been the perpetrator of countless female injuries over the centuries, whether it was the trend for applying white lead to the face in the 16th century or wearing rib-crushing corsets in the 19th century. But since the iconic model Twiggy was first photographed in 1966, with her 79cm chest, 56cm waist and 81cm hips - naturally slim at 16 years old and 168cm tall, having grown up on the limited diet of post-war Britain - the fashion industry's obsession with thinness has rarely been out of the papers.

Of course, with all this scrutiny, this might be the year that bucks the trend. The pendulum does swing back every so often, as when the splendidly amazonian supermodels ruled the late Eighties - Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford - or when the voluptuous Sophie Dahl was feted as heralding the end of waif fashion. But the backlash is always harsh, with Crawford being vilified as "fat" in the early Nineties, when the young Kate Moss's convex thighs were causing a sensation, and Dahl responding to fat jibes with rapid weight loss.

The so-called "heroin chic" of the mid-Nineties, which aimed for a skeletal figure, cadaverous pallor and dark, exhausted eyes, spawned a fresh burst of hand-wringing and concern over the issues of eating disorders in the West, which were beginning to take on a life of their own with the development of websites that were "pro-Ana" (promoting anorexia) and "pro-Mia" (promoting bulimia). Models such as Jodie Kidd were harangued in the press for giving teenagers unrealistic expectations - vilification that many in the industry are still experiencing: the supermodel Erin O'Connor, who campaigns for models' working conditions to improve and has been involved in London's recent Model Health Inquiry, has expressed fury that she and her colleagues should be persecuted over designers' and stylists' choices.

Last September, the new Italian brand Nolita gained instant notoriety with its poster campaign, shot by the always-controversial photographer Oliviero Toscani (of Benetton fame), which showed the anorexic French actress Isabelle Caro posing nude in a deliberately shocking parody of fashion's skinny obsession. There was, inevitably, an outcry from all quarters, with pious condemnation and approval in equal measure.

Yet until recently the fashion industry in the Middle East has remained aloof from this preoccupation with convex thighs and countable ribs. The prevailing ideal for a womanly figure here is voluptuous. Local designers create clothes for the curvier figures of Middle Eastern women and choose their models accordingly, says Beverley Milner, of the Bareface modelling agency in Dubai. "When we send girls across for the designers here, they always go for the curvier look - there's absolutely no need for size zero models in this country. In fact, if we send over thinner models, they tend to get turned away."

The Dubai-based designer Sohad Acouri says, "For me, the use of a model is to highlight my dress, to fit my creation, in a very feminine way. Showcasing an evening gown on the perfect curved body is the only solution to sell my dresses. Anorexic bodies are not welcome in the couture industry here: busts, hips and a sharper waist are the tools for the perfect look." Another of Dubai's most popular designers, Ayesha Depala, says that the size of the model is not a big issue here. "We look for models who exude a relaxed personality and versatility. Size is not the essential factor as long as they are toned and in proportion. Usually we work with a size 8 or a 10 depending on their height. But I don't think this is an exclusively western issue. Women the world over are obsessed with being skinny. When anything becomes an obsession, it spells trouble. To me, skinny and obese are equally unhealthy."

One of the Middle East's biggest fashion players, Sheikh Majed Al Sabah, emphasised recently just how different the market is here. "We do always ask [designers] to adapt and to modify certain styles for Villa Moda, especially sizes. We go up to a 50 or 52 Italian [UK 18 to 20], which some brands don't go to, because we have bigger women in this part of the world. I don't like skinny models - I'm someone who wishes that the fashion industry would go back to the supermodels era of the Eighties - Naomi, Christy, Cindy. These women were real women, and beauty is in voluptuous women rather than chopsticks. To me what the agencies pick now are like plastic mannequins: they don't have any spirit, any soul. Our women are very attentive to their body, they are always going to yoga classes, they are very aware of their well-being, but they don't dream of being flat-chested, skinny-looking, anorexic. For them that's not beauty."

The contrast with the West's approach couldn't be greater: the catalysts for the latest round of soul-searching in the West have been both the "size-zero" furore, which highlighted ordinary women attempting to wear extraordinarily tiny clothes, and the tragic deaths of several models from what appears to have been starvation. The Uruguayan sisters Luisel and Eliana Ramos, 22 and 18 respectively, died within months of one another in 2006 and 2007, both having survived on little more than lettuce leaves and Diet Coke, while the Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, 21, died in 2006 due to kidney malfunction brought on by anorexia. The result has been a series of voluntary codes adopted by fashion organisations in London, Milan, Paris and New York that promise to be aware of the health of their models, and, most controversially, Madrid's ban in 2006 on models with a Body Mass Index of less than 18. France's National Assembly passed a draft law in April proposing to prohibit incitement to excessive dieting and anorexia, to the disgust of the French fashion industry. But, though the subsequent report was adopted by the Senate in July, no penalties will be imposed for breaking the law.

Designers and model agencies have, as ever, been vociferous in their objections to legislation, the most common arguments being that obesity poses a bigger problem than eating disorders and that legislation would unfairly discriminate against naturally thin models. The voices that have only recently been heard, though, are those of the models, and the tale they have to tell is of an industry that exploits its youthful employees by preying on insecurities and rewarding its victims' complicity. Models-turned-whistleblowers include Ali Michael, 18, who after one successful season of high-profile catwalk shows, during which she was suffering from eating disorders, returned the following season 3kg heavier and in recovery and was told her legs were too fat.

One of the catwalks' most successful figures, Coco Rocha, gave a talk to the Council of Fashion Designers of America in June, in which she told the following anecdote: "They said, 'You need to lose more weight - the look this year is anorexia, and although we don't want you to be anorexic, we want you to look it'. My question is, how do you look anorexic unless you actually are?" Karen Elson, interviewed in the current UK Vogue, says, "I remember once I came back from a job in Paris and the stylist said to me, 'Have you been eating too many croissants, Karen?'" And even Kate Moss has recently admitted, in the US magazine Interview, "When I was doing shows ... nobody ever fed me. I didn't eat for a long time. Not on purpose ... I remember standing up in the bath one day, and there was a mirror in front of me, and I was so thin. I hated it. I never liked being that skinny."

There are two issues here, of course: the treatment and exploitation of (usually teenage) models as a workforce; and the possible effects on impressionable girls of the unrealistic images being peddled by designers and magazines. Regarding the former, Monja Wolf, 26, a model based in Dubai, has worked in all of the major fashion cities for the likes of Armani and Dior, and appreciates the more relaxed approach in this part of the world.

"The countries you work in have different demands. In Tokyo, they state your measurements in your contract, and every week they measure you, and if you have changed by one centimetre they may cancel your contract and send you home. I've been pretty lucky, but I have seen other models have issues. Some girls have the gift to be very skinny, but I did have a couple of friends who had problems. And remember that some of the girls are very poor, like those from Eastern Europe, and they will do anything to keep the job so they can send money to their family. They will do anything to fit. It starts to have an effect. But I think if a model arrived here with runway measurements it would not be appreciated. When I came six years ago, they would not even take my measurements, because it would not matter - it's a much more friendly environment."

And is fashion to blame for eating disorders? The jury is still out. In a country whose most pressing health problem is considered to be obesity and the resulting diabetes epidemic, it came as something of a shock to learn that the West's other food-related scourge, anorexia nervosa, may also be tightening its grip on the young women of the Emirates. A recent report in The National highlighted a widely acknowledged increase in the incidences of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, with one Emirati girl reported as weighing just 27kg. Though, in the absence of official figures, experts are obliged to rely on their own experiences rather than empirical evidence, the finger has already been determinedly pointed at the fashion industry - as it has in the West over the last 30 or 40 years. Some surveys do connect an increase in Western imagery with an increase in anorexia in previously barely affected populations. But there remain other studies that consider fashion merely a conduit for a pre-existing tendency towards obsessive disorders.

Louise Foster, the editor of Grazia Dubai, is ambivalent: "Most medical wisdom dictates that anorexia is a psychological disease and not connected to the desire to look thin for fashion, but is all about wanting to exert control," she says. "Having said that, it would be naive to say that being faced with super-skinny celebrities every day does not have an impact on women's view of ideal body sizes. However, the recent body transformations of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow suggest a shift towards a renewed appreciation for an athletic silhouette with shapely limbs and real curves - think 1990s Cindy Crawford.

"I don't believe legislating against the use of ultra-skinny models is effective - the fashion industry is by definition subversive and if you tell designers what to do, they'll rebel. However, for commercial success, designers need to realise that they have to make clothes which look good on real women with real curves who are over the age of 30 (as they tend to be the ones who can afford them)."

It seems unlikely that the Emirates can resist the lure of western fashion. With the malls filled with the boutiques of Chanel, Dior, Gucci and myriad others, and with local editions of magazines such as Harper's Bazaar and Grazia on the shelves, the presence of fashion's many delights can only intensify. But while the joyous pleasures of clothes, shoes, make-up and celebrities are manifold, it will pay observers, readers, shoppers and fashion lovers to enter that world with their eyes open to the dark side of the photoshopped, brilliantly styled, beautifully lit images within.