Model scouts outside anorexia clinics highlight fashion's own don't ask, don't tell policy

Eating disorders are still not really regarded as diseases in the same way as cancer or malaria or measles - and in part, that's because of the work of the fashion industry to fetishise the ultra-skinny.

Sarah Houston was 23 when she died after taking diet pills infused with the industrial chemical DNP, which she had bought over the internet. 

The medical student had struggled with eating disorders for most of her life, crippled by the idea that she needed to lose just a little bit more weight to be passable. In absolute secrecy, she ordered the dangerous supplements which contributed to her death. Looking at the supersized pictures of this young woman gracing the tabloid news sites, you can see for yourself that she was completely beautiful; she had, to put it bluntly, model looks. But it didn’t matter, because the illnesses got her. And anorexia and bulimia are illnesses. It just so happens that the way a woman dying from them looks very much the dominant western model for female beauty.
 
Sarah Houston's death made the news that model scouts have been targeting patients outside the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders seem, if possible, even darker. "We think this is repugnant. People have stood outside our clinic and tried to pick up our girls because they know they are very thin," a doctor at the clinic told a Swedish newspaper. One of the patients approached was so ill that she was in a wheelchair; another was just 14.
 
The kind of person who would do such a thing is frightening in their lack of moral compass but also completely ridiculous. You can imagine them approaching a dying, emaciated girl, whose friends and family more than anything want her to get better, to put even the tiniest morsel of food in her mouth and chew. You can see them looking into her enormous eyes as they protrude from her starved face and telling her that her legs look fabulous. Give me a call.
 
It’s difficult to imagine any other disease being fetishised in a similar way – or indeed, any traumatic mental state being presented with a modicum of accuracy by the fash pack. We’ve seen weeping models used in fashion shoots, their glamorous, silken tears glistening beautifully before the camera lens, but we’ve yet to see ounces of snot pouring from a runny nose pictured on the pages of Vogue.
 
When women suffering from anorexia, straight from the eating disorders clinic, march through the door and into the face of a waiting camera lens on the arm of a talent scout, the effect will be the same: shine a flattering light on the angular cheekbones. Fade out the painfully defined spine and the angry tailbone covered by a film of translucent skin that renders sitting down an exercise in agony. Celebrate the tiny ankles, delicate and fawn-like in a pair of Louboutins. Hide the telltale signs of osteoporosis that lurk further up. 
 
Airbrushing a picture of anorexia into acceptability has become as second nature to some in the fashion world as perfecting the ‘perfect crying face’ that nobody ever manages to pull in real life. Fashion’s fondness for strange, contorted positions has, after all, never manifested itself in the form of this season’s coveted hernia. But what’s next on this grisly conveyer belt? Perhaps cancer patients: they’re skinny, after all, and could carry their excised tumours around like handbags, trailing tubes from chemotherapy drips wrapped seductively round their arms like bracelets. 
 
That image is crass for a reason. Anorexia and less common eating disorders are still, despite all we know and all the horror stories, not really regarded as diseases in the same way as cancer or malaria or measles. It’s as though there’s something silly and feminine about this decision not to eat, as though it’s frivolous and even, in this world of plenty, a special sort of spoilt.
 
This is possibly one of the reasons why fashion continues to get away with offering tired excuses for their worship of thinness: they say the clothes look better on thin women, but as Alexandra Shulman has pointed out, that's because they’re made that way. It’s been argued that the very thin ‘photograph better’, but such an argument is obviously nonsense: we just aren’t used to seeing the normal wobbles of flesh many of us carry around with us reflected in the pages of a magazine - and, as the new Debenhams look book demonstrates, when we do, it can look just as beautiful.
 
The Debenhams look book.
 
The problem is that, even as model scouting veers on the self-parodic, even as the ‘mainstream’ for models becomes more narrow, even as young women die from the illness that one industry refuses to take seriously, the old adage that ‘it’s just boundary pushing’ always lies just around the corner.
 
Fashion has a special sort of get-out clause in that respect, which is why it’s important to keep calling it out. Because a business model built around the idea of continually ‘being outrageous’ can get hideously bent out of shape in the wrong hands.
 
A report on fashion scouting in Jezebel once described it as ‘deliberately opaque’, which seems an appropriate summary. It’s the catwalk’s own ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy: the truth remains the same, but nobody wants to talk about it lest everybody get their Damaris knickers in a twist.
 
But the act of not asking or telling is downright insidious: should this model be receiving artificial nutrition on a hospital ward, rather than artfully posing with a size zero T-shirt falling off her bony shoulders? Is she underage, even prepubescent? Is she being exploited? Will this uniformity of images, those that glorify the idea of a complete bodily lack of pinchable skin and relegate the actual norm to the shameful shadows, potentially harm the people who view them? Ssh. Turn a blind eye and take the money. These sorts of issues are for doctors or politicians or sociological researchers to tackle, not the fashion experts, never mind that they all too often happen to be the perpetrators.
 
The time has come to lay these problems at fashion’s door, because they must take their fair share of responsibility. Whoever inevitably passes the buck about what goes on outside the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders will demonstrate the industry’s unwillingness to ever involve themselves in anything beyond how a gypsy skirt hangs. But something has to change.
 
While there are myriad reasons why people develop mental illness, as well as a slew of pressures to stay slim, young and perky that don’t solely emanate from fashion photography, shirking all accountability is just plain cowardly. Scouting for anorexia may be a minority activity, but it’s representative of a wider malaise: one that has the potential to gnaw away at all of us every day - and one that, despite all of fashion’s protestations, could easily be fixed.
 
When do thin models become unhealthy models? Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.