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.

Graham Brady illustration
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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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