The horrors of the fashion world are right before our eyes

Who could possibly see beauty, creativity and inspiration when the human beings selling it are in such pain?

Kirstie Clements, former editor of Australian Vogue, has written an exposé of what goes on behind the scenes in the fashion world. That’s assuming anyone needs telling and can’t see what’s right before their eyes, which is that the catwalks are populated by models who are starving. And what a dull thing to write, models who are starving. How lacking in imagination and vision. So the beautiful people eat tissues, balls of it choked down to suppress the gnawing of their concave stomachs. So what? We always knew they weren’t like you or me.

Every year we head the same old gasps of horror in response to London Fashion Week’s latest bag of bones. Every year the same old pledges and initiatives while the rest of us struggle to decide whether it’s an issue worth caring about at all. After all, these people are an elite minority. They are paid to look unlike anyone else. Each time a fashion editor poses as whistle blower, you can’t help wondering whether it’s merely to create a distraction from all the other obscenities of the fashion world: the adoration of money, the sweatshops, the laissez-faire attitudes towards racism and anti-semitism. So you’ve decided that from now on all your models will be over 16, but can’t make up your mind whether a BMI of 18 is all that important. Fine. We’ll just leave you to it. That Dorian Gray world of yours is just beyond redemption.

Fat prejudice is insidious, aiding and abetting the classism, racism and misogyny of haute couture. It’s hard not to think of the tissue-eating models as co-conspirators. They chose this path or even if they didn’t – even if they are too young, even if they had few opportunities back home, wherever it was in the world they were plucked from – they remain complicit. It’s their bodies we see, endlessly reinforcing the association of thinness with wealth, glamour and achievement. These bodies, obscenely fragile, become fixed in the brain as “how the privileged look”. They’re not, of course – the link between obesity, thinness and class is nowhere near as clear as our preachy government ministers imply – but we buy it all the same. The writer Barbara Ehrenreich once described low-fat diets as the penance of the rich, “the hair shirt under the fur coat – the daily deprivation that offsets the endless greed”. In the UK this may be true for women – the thinnest of whom tend to be the richest – but amongst men thinnest tends to mean poorest. The lean, disciplined aesthetes don’t inherit the Earth; as ever, the plain old rich people do, merely using the emaciated ladies as window-dressing (but for that we won’t ever forgive them).

On the catwalk and in the pages of Vogue, unless they’re desperately frail, skinny bodies soon lose the power to shock. It’s the larger ones – the “plus” sizes, 8, 10 – that look most out of place. I see pictures of models who starved to death – Ana Carolina Reston, Luisel Ramos, Eliana Ramos, Hila Elmalich – and find myself thinking “well, they weren’t all that thin”. After all, they don’t look any different from the others, the ones who are still getting to live out their half-lives before the camera, dreaming of bread and sugar. I harden myself to it, deciding the experience of anorexia must be different for models. Some of them die but for the others it’s not real. It can’t be, otherwise we wouldn’t still be watching. I guess part of this is due to my own experience of the illness. I fear being tainted by association. Sufferers have a hard enough time dealing with the perception of anorexia as a disease of privileged little girls (hence not a “real” disease at all). Turn anorexia into a disease of privileged little girls who want to look like models – who perhaps are models – and I fear everyone will lose patience with us, we starving prima donnas. Hence I’d rather not think of this as authentic suffering. It’s as though, like the too-small clothing samples for which no one claims responsibility, these women appeared from nowhere. They’re not genuine human beings at all.

Of course if fashion models were actual people we would be horrified. You can’t convey in a picture what true hunger feels like, nor the ways it takes hold of your mind. You develop a host of rituals to keep yourself from despair. Despair still comes but intermittently, every now and then as you scrabble along from one meagre eating opportunity to the next. You spend your whole life scouring supermarkets, recipe books and online shops, looking at food labels, planning meals you’ll never eat, missing tastes you once despised, trying to remember what it feels like to be warm. The thought that your experience of the world could be otherwise never crosses your mind. There is no space for it. You are too hungry, even in the midst of plenty. You are a walking metaphor for the ingratitude of wealthy nations. Of course you are ashamed, but you are also terrified (I bet the tissue-eaters steer well clear of Kleenex Balsam. I bet the uncertainty of what might be in it makes them quake with terror). Anorexia might capture a whole host of prejudices, leaving more in its wake, but it is not rational. At its most basic level it is entrapment and fear.

Who would ever create a job in which enduring this became essential? How could any of us look at magazine cover in the same way? Above all, how could anyone see beauty, creativity and inspiration when the human beings selling these concepts were in such pain? 

The Simone Rocha runway at London Fashion Week. Photo: Getty Images.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle