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Pressures that can lead to disordered eating prompt response from fashion models

February 6, 2017
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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While a significant prevalence of disordered eating behaviors in the modeling industry might not be considered breaking news, a new study has offered greater insight into the relationship between pressures felt in the industry and these behaviors.

The study, published last week in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, found that being asked to lose weight or to change one's shape over the past year was associated with higher odds of engaging in behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting/cleansing, or using weight loss supplements. The data were based on survey responses from 85 female fashion models (average age: 22.7) participating a year ago in New York Fashion Week.

Forty-four percent of the models reported that they were often or always told by their modeling agency to tone up, while 36% were often or always told to lose weight and 32% were often or always told to adopt a new diet and exercise regimen. Thirty-seven percent of the models said they were frequently told in the past year that they would be more successful if they lost weight, and 11% were told their agency would not continue to represent them unless they lost weight.

The surveyed models reported that in the past year, they had at least sometimes engaged in these behaviors: dieting (71%), fasting/cleansing/detoxing (52%), using weight loss supplements or diet pills (23%), and self-induced vomiting (8%). Many of these percentages exceed those seen in prior research on a broader population of young women.

“Overall, our findings suggest that rates of unhealthy weight control behaviors are fairly high in this group and associated with pressures exerted by the industry,” wrote study authors from Northeastern University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Model Alliance also was involved in the survey.

Release of the study comes just before the start of this year's New York Fashion Week on Feb. 9 and also not long before the National Eating Disorders Association's 30th annual National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb. 26-March 4).

Models' policy ideas

Aware that fashion models often do not hold much influence over the policies and traditions that govern the industry, the researchers asked models in the survey to assess the feasibility and potential impact of policies designed to improve their health and working conditions.

Requiring employers to provide food and a 30-minute break for jobs longer than six hours was seen as both fairly feasible and impactful, while the models stated that restricting minimum body mass index (BMI) in the industry was neither particularly helpful nor feasible.

The researchers found that replies to these questions depended to a degree on the type of modeling a respondent did and the model's own characteristics. For example, runway models were less inclined to support BMI mandates for the industry, while respondents with higher BMI readings were more likely to perceive BMI restrictions as feasible.

The researchers wrote that in general, “models are most favorable toward policies that would help to redress the power differential within the fashion industry and improve work conditions, rather than the policy proposals that most directly targeted weight and shape pressures.”

Nearly three dozen well-known models have written an open letter to ask industry leaders to prioritize models' health and to represent more diversity on the fashion runway.