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?