How Skinny is Too Skinny? The Limits of Government Regulation in an Unhealthy Fashion Industry

Since its inception at the turn of the 20th Century — when the industrial revolution enabled mass production of garments — the fashion industry has dictated standards of beauty for men and women around the world. For the past hundred years, consumers have been hard-wired to accept the models plastered across magazines and on billboards as the consummate ideal of perfection — goals to strive toward, images to put on pedestals. However, it was with the arrival of the controversial “heroin chic” in the ’90s that these standards shifted from unattainable to harmful. Gone were the buxom images of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor, and in their place came the bony look immortalized by the likes of Kate Moss and Jaime King.

Since then, the fashion world’s perpetuation of the ideal of the overly skinny model has had deleterious effects on both its employees, as well as the general population. Many argue that these unfeasible standards have led to increased levels of anorexia and bulimia and unhealthy eating practices. They decry the general lacking measures taken by the industry itself, a problem that was heightened by the death of models Isabelle Caro and Hila Elamiach due to anorexia nervosa and snowballed by the fact that incidences of bulimia in 10- to 39-year-old women has tripled between 1988 and 1993. In the wake of this inaction, many have begun to call for other modes of intervention. While it is currently unclear what the most efficient way to combat this growing problem is; it seems that government regulation has been largely ineffective so far.

Last week, the British authorities put this point to the test when they forced Gucci to remove a certain image from their latest ad campaign video depicting a model they considered “unhealthily thin” after receiving multiple public complaints. The still portrayed a woman leaning against a wall with many of her bones directly visible through her dress, and her makeup done in such a way that her face appeared gaunt and sickly. While Gucci discredited these allegations, stating that the video was intended for an “older and sophisticated” audience in an attempt to justify their proposed aesthetic, its backlash proved great enough for the executive to intervene.

This action follows a string of similar government interventions in the fashion world. Last December, France passed a groundbreaking law coined the “skinny models ban” requiring all models to obtain a doctors note evaluating their overall health before any booking. Two years earlier, Israel enacted a bill banning models with Body Mass Indexes (BMI) under 18.5 (the World Health Organization’s cutoff for malnutrition). Both these legislations also necessitated all images printed using retouching or airbrushing to state as such on the publication. Spain and Italy have responded in kind, enacting similar measures.

In the end, real reform is going to require a major shift in the norms and ideals of the standards of beauty presented by the fashion industry.

Following their implementation, debate over the validity and legitimization of these laws has been contentious. Championed by the likes of Adi Barkan, a former Israeli fashion photographer who now spends his time lobbying for harsher anti-anorexia regulations within the industry, he believes that “this small movement that began in Israel is like a stone thrown into the lake. The waves can reach very far.”

In direct opposition to Barkan is a host of people — mainly from inside the industry — who strongly believe that these actions are ill applied and misinformed. As stated by Robbie Myers, the Editor In Chief of Elle Magazine, “You can’t legislate beauty standards or legislate bad taste away, as much as the French have tried to do that in the past…. We’d be much better off legislating for everyone to have access to affordable, healthy food than making models get a doctor’s note saying they’re fit enough to wear fancy clothes for pay.” Of course, magazines and clothing companies aren’t getting anything out of shrinking their labor market, so it makes sense that they are opposed to these rulings, but whether they do so from an ethical or business standpoint remains the real question.

While the ideological and precedential benefits of such government action may very well be far reaching, it is true that concrete effects will be more difficult to achieve. Firstly, it is relatively easy for both models and their employers to cheat and skirt around these rules. The laws provide hardly any information regarding enforcement; there is almost nothing stopping a little extra money being handed over to the doctors to forge a healthy note, or for companies to simply say that a model lost weight between her hiring and the actual photo shoot.

Secondly, the fashion industry remains one of the most international businesses in the world. While Israel, France, and a few other European countries may have ratified such laws, they are far from being universal. A study conducted by France’s Union of Modeling Agencies claims that 90 percent of models featured in French fashion shows are foreigners, and of course, the health screening process only applies to national citizens. Unless these laws are implemented ubiquitously, it seems as though they will have few consequences greater than symbolic assertions.

The United States has taken a significantly different approach to the “glorification of anorexia” within the fashion world. With the country’s stringent protection of First Amendment rights, it would be difficult — if not impossible — to get a similar law directly regulating publications passed through Washington without violating the right to freedom of the press. Instead, the duties of regulation and awareness raising have been left up to the public and the corporations themselves. This has worked to an extent, with companies such as Aerie and Dove receiving praise from the general public for presenting campaigns featuring “real size” women. In addition, the Council for Fashion Designers of America (CDFA) has launched a health initiative for models grounded in “awareness and education, not policing.”

The effects of both of these types of intervention will be difficult to judge in the short-term; long-lasting, seismic changes in one of the largest industries on the globe do not happen overnight. However, it seems as though the laws passed, while symbolically advantageous, will not have any real power. This problem partly stems from the inherent resistance towards government regulation of private industries. It is also simply hard to draft concrete rules regarding such an imprecise, nebulous topic as “proper weight.”

In the end, real reform is going to require a major shift in the norms and ideals of the standards of beauty presented by the fashion industry. Whether this comes from legislation or public action is yet to be seen, but the bottom line is that things need to change. The clothing business itself has the greatest capability to facilitate this alteration, but they need incentives. Hopefully complaints such as the recent ones regarding the Gucci campaign will continue, and the industry will take notice. If Calvin Klein has the power to shift the Western notion of attractiveness with one advertisement featuring Kate Moss in a tank top, some other company has the power to shift it in another, more responsible direction.