Putting a Limit on Skinny

The fashion industry markets unachievable dreams.

On August 2, 2006, a model by the name of Uruguayan Luisel Ramos, 22, walked the runway at a show in Montevideo. She died later that night of heart failure.

In the months leading up to the show, Ramos' diet consisted of lettuce and diet sodas. Several days after her death, government officials in Madrid responded by banning any woman from modeling whose body mass index is lower than 18--which is considered healthy for most people. A year later, other countries are considering whether or not to follow suit for women modeling the ready-to-wear collections this fall. The self esteem of women (and some men) around the globe hang in the balance of the decisions of "the industry," a well-oiled machine that markets unachievable dreams to anyone who walks down the street or turns on a television.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, BMI is determined by a height and weight ratio. BMI numbers fall within four categories--underweight, normal, overweight and obese--with a BMI of 18 being the lower limit of "normal." (Find Your BMI: BMI Calculator) Officials at the Madrid fashion week wished to present a healthier image to their public because, as regional official Concha Gurerra expressed, "Fashion is a mirror and many teenagers imitate what they see on the catwalk."

The ban, however, came too late for Luisel's sister Eliana and Ana Carolina Reston, both models who died later that year from anorexia-related complications.

The government's concern for the body image of its citizens and youth is certainly commendable; teens and adults alike are often influenced by the models in the magazines.

But it appears that Madrid sort of got it wrong--or at least they went about it wrong. The tool that they used for measurement is flawed. As the CDC states, "BMI is used as a screening tool to identify possible weight problems for adults. However, BMI is not a diagnostic tool." At best, the BMI is an indicator of a person's health. It does not accurately account for muscle mass, and the definition of "normal" varies based on age, sex and race. While the BMI is a useful tool for detecting anorexia, it is useless for cases of bulemia, a disorder which Dr. Adrienne Key of the Model Health Inquiry says may be the biggest danger to models.

"They are purging or drinking huge amounts of water to conceal their weight," she said. "It is highly dangerous because it deprives the body of potassium. Women can drop dead."

Key also states that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of models suffer from disordered eating or full-blown eating disorders. Furthermore, she suggested that some highly body-conscious women may be particularly vulnerable to the images of rail-thin models that fill fashion magazines.

Some artists and modeling agencies are up in arms about the regulations of models, and designers at the London and Milan shows fear that their designs will be compromised if they use different models than the ones that have what they consider "the look." One theory that many modern designers embrace contends that models are to be merely "hangers" for the clothes.

Likewise, some designers consider the ban a form of censorship because they are being forced to compromise their artistic visions. Other designers, however, have decided to comply with the regulations and use fuller-figured models.

Modeling agencies are aghast at the ban because it could leave many models in the unemployment line. The average BMI for a model is 16, and some of the better internationally known models are speculated to have a BMI of just 14, though their weights remain unpublished. The agencies also claim that the ban is discriminatory, and that "naturally thin" models are unfairly punished. Is there a possible compromise?

The artist's vision may never be fully satisfied. Even a material representation of a concept in one's head will be imperfect--why not adjust to a healthier standard and place the idea within that context? The government would have to compromise by using a measure other than the BMI.

What about a full physical exam? Potassium, electrolytes and other chemical imbalances are indicators of malnutrition, and they are more specific than the BMI, which merely involves a ruler and a scale. This way, the two parties can work towards a better goal--the consumption of goods by a happier, healthier and more informed society. This suggestion may seem idealistic, but in order to prevent further sanctions and artists who feel that their rights are being contained, something has to change.

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