On November 17th 2010 Isabelle Caro drew her last breath. As with the numerous size zero models before her, her demise swung the media spotlight onto the fashion industry and its unrealistic depiction of how women should aspire to look. Fingers were pointed, a documentary was produced and some activists made a lot of noise about the promotion of an unhealthy body image. Anorexia, and its penetration into the world of modelling, has received no shortage of criticism. Why then, in a society where obesity presents a problem more prevalent by several orders of magnitude, is there a current trend for models at the other end of the weight spectrum?
Anne Summers, purveyor of saucy lingerie and other naughty things, recently ran a competition to find a ‘real woman’. The winner was Lucy Moore, a student from Portsmouth. She managed to beat a 4000 other models, securing an impressive 22 per cent of the public’s 30,00 votes. With a dress size of 16, she remains distinctly normal, fitting neatly into the average dress size for the UK. Unfortunately, this is not something to shout about, as the average female in the UK is overweight. Nevertheless, Lucy’s victory amongst applicants more conventional for the fashion industry is indicative of the current sentiment in the UK. Plus sized models are cool.
We do not live in a country racked by anorexia. Obesity is the endemic disease of our generation. 60% of women in the UK are overweight. Almost a quarter are obese. At an astronomical cost to the NHS and indeed the economy as a whole, obesity and its associated problems constitute one of the biggest hurdles facing society today. On an individual level, obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular events – think heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. Then there’s the increased risk of certain cancers like colon, breast and pancreatic. Perhaps most importantly, obesity comes hand in hand with type two diabetes. The consequences of diabetes alone are staggering; blindness, amputations and, if left untreated when sugar levels in brain fluctuate wildly, death.
One of the issues in ‘responsibly’ regulating who can model is that dress size does not always correlate with BMI, the usual method of determining whether or not an individual is of a healthy weight. Consequently, whilst one size 16 model could have a healthy weight, another could be overweight. Size 16, however, is a far cry from some of the models strutting their stuff at the Australian department store Myer’s ‘Big is Beautiful’ show during Sydney’s Fashion Festival. The show displayed a variety of clothes in sizes 16 – 24. Although there is a little bit of wiggle room for a size 16 to slip into the healthy BMI range, it is hard to imagine a size 24 being anywhere near.
Overweight models can help other overweight women with their self-esteem. They can also help them to maintain a positive body image. But this psychological boost comes at the expense of something more important – the desire to maintain a healthy weight. The social pressure simply isn’t there anymore. To illustrate, the blatantly obese man on the Hellman’s advert seemed remarkably disease-free as he gobbled down more tasty mayo on chips. This advert was, as was probably intended, humorous. So we joke about a man eating his way to a premature heart attack. As far as I can recall, however, there haven’t been many hilarious adverts involving an anorexic emptying her stomach in the Nando’s toilets. And quite rightly so. The anorexic and bulimic end of the spectrum of eating disorders is no laughing matter. But the more widespread problem of obesity should be taken with equal seriousness.
Like the cartoon characters entering into a violent coughing fit after a puff on a cigarette, the use of obesity as a promotional tool should come with all the consequences attached. Not doing so is irresponsible, immoral and undermines the desperate attempts of the numerous initiatives to tackle a growing epidemic.