A Critique of the CFDA Health Guidelines: Addressing the Issue of Overly Thin Runway Models or Simply Paying Lip Service? - Marie Elaine Pahilan
On August 2, 2006, Luisel Ramos, a 22 year-old model from Uruguay fainted on her way to the dressing room after taking her turn on the catwalk. She died of heart failure due to anorexia nervosa. At the time of her death, the 5 foot 9 inches model weighed 98 lbs with a body mass index (BMI) of 14.5.
On October 25, 2006, Ana Carolina Reston, a 21 year-old model from
The death of Luisel Ramos, weeks before the Fall Fashion Shows, brought attention to the increasingly slim models gracing the catwalks. On September 13, 2006,
The CFDA is a not-for-profit trade association for
On January 12, 2007 the CFDA Health Initiative presented their recommendations for the fashion industry prior to
The guidelines officially introduced by the CFDA Health Initiative rely heavily on the idea of educating models and their families as a means of promoting healthy lifestyle choices. The idea of education as a means of intervention stems from the Health-Belief Model. The health-belief model is a social-behavioral model that posits that the intention to change behavior stems from a weighing of the perceived susceptibility and perceived risks of developing a disease against the perceived barriers against accomplishing the behavior change. (4) By basing their intervention on the health-belief model the CFDA Health Initiative assumes that the barriers to healthier lifestyles and eating habits outweigh the risk and perceived susceptibility of runway models. This is not necessarily the case.
To the designers, runway models are walking hangers for their designs. It is the designers who call modeling agencies and inform them of the type of models they want for their shows. Many models believe that being slim is the only way they are going to get any runway work. In 2004, Ana Carolina Reston, on her first overseas casting call in
The health-belief model is one that focuses on the individual and does not take into account the outside forces that affect an individual’s behavior. Many runway models come from poor backgrounds. By modeling they become the breadwinners for their entire family. Ana Carolina Reston’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s when she was a young teen. After winning a beauty contest at 14, she signed with Ford Modeling Agency and provided for the rest of her family. (5) Natalia Vodianova presented a similar story of growing up poor in
The CFDA Health Initiative guidelines also do not take into account that many of these models are extremely young. At 16, models can take to the runway. These guidelines do not take into account that adolescents respond to health matters in a way that is not always rational. The health-belief model assumes that an individual will always make rational decisions. Adolescents do not always respond rationally when presented with the potential outcomes of their actions. Adolescents respond better to short-term negative effects as opposed to long-term negative effects. (7) Telling a 16 year-old that if she is too skinny she may suffer kidney failure and heart problems is not sufficient. These are abstract dangers. It would be more effective to emphasize that being extremely thin will cause her hair to fall out.
The approach for change outlined by the CFDA relies wholly on education. This type of approach for changing human behavior is an empirical-rational strategy. (8) The two main assumptions in this type of strategy are that humans are rational beings and that once the rational course is revealed to them; people will adopt the behavior change. I have already discussed how assuming rational responses in the modeling population, especially from teen models, is not a proper assumption; further showing how the guidelines put forth by the CFDA do not effectively address the problem of overly thin models.
Another strategy is a normative-re-educative approach (8), which uses the power of persuasion to change behavior. To see this behavior change, it is necessary to change the social norms of the population, a change in attitudes and values in addition to education. Simple persuasion would not be enough for models, because even if they can be persuaded, even if they believe that changing their eating habits is the best choice, the standard body type in the modeling community is not decided by the models themselves. For such an attitude and value change to occur in the fashion industry, the CFDA would have to focus their intervention on the designers and persuade them to use size 4 and size 6 dress forms in creating sample clothing as opposed to the current norms of size 0 and size 2 samples. Thus far, designers have been resistant in changing sample sizes.
In this scenario, the most effective strategy for change is a power-coercive approach (8). This approach demands the compliance of the target population, by enacting laws or enforcing bans to bring about changes in behavior. This is the path the Spanish government has taken. Ban models whose BMI is below the WHO standard from the runway. In an atmosphere where education is not enough to change behavior and persuasion is useless if other parties will not help the modeling community in achieving a healthier lifestyle, the option you are left with is coercion. If models are banned from the runway when they are anorexic and overly thin, designers will have to change their standards; otherwise they will no longer be able to show their designs.
The CFDA should be commended for addressing the issue of overly thin models. While I do not feel that the guidelines are enough to protect models and promote healthier lifestyles, it is the first step the American Fashion Industry has taken. A ban on models with a BMI lower than the WHO standards would be another step in the correct direction. If, as I argue, the problem with the guidelines is that they incorrectly assume that the barriers to healthier lifestyle decisions do not outweigh the risks of being overly thin because the potential loss of livelihood is too great a barrier, then setting a minimum BMI would completely remove that barrier. Unless they are a healthy weight, their livelihood would be gone. If fashion designers continue to produce clothing for overly thin models and a ban is in place, they will soon find themselves without models to show their clothes and will also find their livelihood gone.
It is important that the Fashion Industry continue to move away from the overly thin model as the ideal. Fashion and the models the industry employ set the standard of beauty that the public strive for. The image portrayed on the runway will affect the decisions of the teenage girl reading Vogue and Cosmopolitan, watching Project Runway and
On February 13, 2007, Eliana Ramos, an 18 year-old model from
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5. Phillips T. Everyone knew she was ill. The Observer. January 14, 2007.
6. Karimzadeh, M. At CFDA Health Panel, A Model’s Story. Women’s Wear Daily. February 6, 2007.
7. Kunter L. Holiday drinking opens adolescents’ eyes to alcohol. The New York Times 1991; p.C9.
8. Chin R, Benne KD. General strategies for effective change in human systems (pp. 22-45). In Bennis W et al. eds. The Planning of Change (3rd edition).
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