Size zero model Eliana Ramos, who died in February
12th July 2007
On Wednesday, I sat through the press conference given by the panel conducting the Model Health Inquiry, set up in March by the British Fashion Council to look into the endemic problem of underage, underfed models.
I read the weighty tome outlining the panel's interim findings, before its final recommendations are published in September. I talked at length with panel members about their ideas, their frustrations and goals.
So am I now feeling euphoric or even mildly optimistic about the future of the British Fashion industry? Am I indulging in a spot of self-congratulatory patting myself on the back, secure in the knowledge that a campaign I kick-started as editor of Marie Claire seven years ago is finally going to make a difference, not just to the lives of models, but to the lives of ordinary women who don't feel good about themselves?
The answer is no. I feel a strange sense of deja vu, in fact. Just as in June 2000, when this process first started, a lot of promises have been made, miles of column inches filled, but nothing has changed.
Seven years ago, the fashion industry closed ranks, the people in it thought themselves above regulation, the glossy editors were scared of rocking the boat and, do you know what? Young women died, not just the two South American models - Luisel Ramos and Ana Carolina Reston, whose names are inextricably linked to this issue - but many others (including Luisel's younger sister Eliana, 18, found dead in February).
I am worried that precisely the same inertia and arrogance that led to the problem being ignored last time around will take hold again.
Those young women are now actual skeletons, and I want to ask everyone who works in fashion this question: is that thin and 'edgy' enough for you?
This new report is tiptoeing around the problem. Baroness Kingsmill, the chair of the panel, might think it a good start, that 'like ripples in a pond' her proposals will have a knock-on effect.
Perhaps the final report will go much further, but I doubt it. The fashion industry shuts down for August, which means we have barely two weeks in which to address what, in my view, are the glaring omissions in the interim report.
The panel, including designer Betty Jackson, and the clinical director of the Priory Hospital's Eating Disorders Unit, Dr Adrienne Key, among others, has already consulted more than 400 people working in the industry, from agents to designers to models and editors (despite saying 'yes' to a written request asking me to be interviewed as part of the research, I was never contacted again), and this is what they have come up with.
They suggest a ban on models under 16 taking part in London Fashion Week, annual health checks, a suggestion for support for models via websites and mentors, better catering backstage (do they not know that the old adage about horses and water applies also to anorexics and buffets?), and training for model agents and bookers to enable them to spot an eating disorder.
No minimum Body Mass Index of 18.5, such as will come into effect in Milan in 2008. No rule that a model should carry a certificate of health, as in Milan and in New York. Madrid has thought it sensible that girls over 5ft 9in must weigh a minimum of 8st 11lb, but that has been deemed far too drastic for London.
I am not suggesting the panel was not moved by the plight of models. Baroness Kingsmill was 'deeply shocked', she says, by the girls she saw on the catwalks of Paris last week, particularly those in the Armani Prive show.
It was Giorgio Armani himself who in February spoke out against the use of skeletal girls in Milan; how soon people who work in fashion forget their principles.
I asked Baroness Kingsmill which group of people in the industry she found most resistant to change, and she replied in no uncertain terms that it was indeed the designers.
And while it's hard to pinpoint one culprit, I agree that it must be the designers who make the first move towards changing mindsets, and holding up a more womanly ideal of beauty before us in their own shows.
I would have liked to have asked British designer Giles Deacon, a panel member, why clothes are designed and shown on women who are 6ft tall and with no breasts, no buttocks and no hips, but he was too busy to turn up.
As was Erin O'Connor, the only model on the panel. And I have to point out here that not a single editor of a British glossy magazine was present to hear the findings. I can excuse Grazia, whose style director, Paula Reed, is on the panel of the inquiry, but do all the other editors not think this issue important? Do they not care about the welfare, not just of the models who work so hard for them, but of their readers, so many of whom long to look like these slender beauties who are held up as paragons of modern perfection?
Part and parcel of this issue is the increasing use of airbrushed photographs: you only have to see Kate Moss in the flesh and compare her with her ludicrously 'Photoshopped' image in the new Roberto Cavalli ad to realise that not even models look like models any more. Or look at the pictures of Coleen McLoughlin advertising her new perfume; they look like the younger, thinner sisters of the real thing.
The panel's suggestion of some sort of Kite Mark to indicate an image has not been tampered with is an excellent idea; it is a pity no glossy mag editor was present to debate its merits.
My main problem, though, with yesterday's report is that even if it were to go far enough in its demands, there is still no governing body in existence to enforce the rules. Yes, of course, the British Fashion Council can ban unwell girls from taking part in a fashion week, but what about ad campaigns and cover shoots?
Even panel member Sarah Doukas of Storm Models, who discovered Kate Moss, held up her hands in despair when I asked her how on earth we can regulate an industry that, since 1992, does not even require agents to belong to the Association of Model Agents.
She also told me she has no way of controlling the whim of a designer: 'Last season, we all agreed not to use girls under 16 for the shows, but the designers in London just went over our heads and flew them in from abroad.' And although Doukas is one of the few agents who does take responsibility for her girls' welfare, when I asked her whether she would sack a girl found taking drugs, she said she would 'help her to get well' instead.
The issue of drug taking has hardly been thought about by the Inquiry. I interviewed an American model last year who told me she would turn up on shoots to find lines of cocaine laid out on tables, and a handy selection of syringes (a model's injection location of choice is between the toes, by the way).
I would strongly call for random blood tests, and believe that any model found guilty of substance abuse should be banned, made to seek help, and her agency fined (it works in football, why not modelling?).
So where do you draw the line? Despite not seeming to want my input, I offer it to the panel now. All model agencies should be members of a reputable body, without which they should be banned from taking part in London Fashion Week, or being used by any British magazine.
Health checks should not be done annually, but be frequent and random, and unless girls carry a certificate to prove they are healthy they cannot work. I know, from my own behaviour as an anorexic, how girls can 'cram' for a medical exam by eating high calorie food and drinking gallons of water, only to starve themselves afterwards.
One of the panel's new recommendations is that models are given a set of guidelines and acceptable practices and that they must speak up if they feel they are being abused. But that is never going to happen.
Even Natalia Vodianova, the Russian face of Calvin Klein, recently admitted she was too scared to stand up to the stylists and designers who complained to her agent about her weight gain after giving birth, and so starved herself for months to get back into shape.
Models are fragile, they have a very short shelf life, and they will not risk getting the sack; increasingly, they come from very poor Eastern European backgrounds and are the sole earners for their families. They need a union or some sort of independent foundation who will protect them when they feel they are being bullied.
All of us who work in this business have to stop pussy-footing around. I am sick and tired of seeing very young girls pushed and shouted at backstage, working until the early hours of the morning, snortig coke to keep awake, smoking to stop feeling hungry, and then being tweaked and painted over and held up as something to aspire to.
I am sick of seeing 16 or 17-year-old nipples being paraded before a bank of leering male photographers; though to give them their due, the panel agree that sexualisation of very young girls should be monitored.
Yesterday, I asked Sarah Doukas if she was actively looking for someone a little bit older, a little bit bigger, because that is what we need: a new girl we will fall in love with and want to look like. Again she fobbed me off by saying she has never been in the business of looking for an 'extreme' ideal of beauty.
But in the past seven years, I have not seen one new girl reach the top who is remotely 'normal', who is not at the extreme end of what is ectomorphically possible, so I don't think these model agents are trying that hard, do you?
And why is every single girl I have complained about and worried about over the past few seasons still out there working, bold as brass? Not a single one has been sacked, not a single one has put on an ounce.
Bring in a minimum BMI. Bring in stamps of approval to show that agencies and magazines and designers are toeing the new line. Bring in counsellors and psychiatrists whom these models can talk to, in confidence and for free.
All the sponsors and supporters of the British Fashion Council - the Arcadias and the Marks and Spencers and the Conde Nasts - should fund these new measures, not the government, because it is these companies who make millions from you and me, from feeding our insecurities, from telling us we need to buy more 'things' to make us feel better.
The fashion industry has created this problem, and it needs to fix it. Now.