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Less Than Zero

The Drive to Be Impossibly Thin

by Denyse O'Leary

Last October, there were some unaccustomed hisses on the Madrid catwalk—directed against gaunt girls. Size 0 scored 0. One in three models, at less than size 8, was ordered offstage by the audience.

Spain isn’t the hottest fashion walk in Europe, but some star-studded runways are grudgingly following its bold move. Maybe the starvation trend has peaked—about time, say many disgusted fashionistas.

In recent years, according to the UK’s Sarah Watkinson, who manages attractive models of normal proportions, “some designers especially like to use incredibly thin girls to wear their clothes because they like the shock aspect. These days more and more very skinny, size-zero models are being used.”

The real shock is that underneath the duds, zeros may hover wispily close to death’s door. One model fell through it last year. In August 2006, 22-year-old Luisel Ramos collapsed from a fatal heart attack shortly after her glory walk. She had reportedly lived on leaves and Diet Coke for three months, attempting to build an international career. (A heart attack similarly ended Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia in 1983.)

To hear some industry spokesfolks tell it, the wasted models have thin mums, that’s all. No one tells them they must starve to succeed. Fashion merely reflects society, and even teens are not really influenced by what they see on TV, in mags, and on the runway.

“You know, fashion is only the reflection of what is happening in society. It is not the cause.” — Didier Grumbach, French fashion honcho

The British Medical Association took on such claims in its 2000 report on eating disorders. In their view, “the degree of thinness exhibited by models chosen to promote products is both unachievable and biologically inappropriate” and directly linked with a rise in anorexia and bulimia. By 2006, the Tenth International Congress on Obesity was told that girls no older than five now fret over baby fat. More than half of girls begin dieting before age 14, and they tell surveyors that they fear fat more than cancer. Ironically, eating disorders spurred by fear of fat are a preventable, serious health risk for their age group.

Older women struggle with hatred of their female flesh as well. In October of 2006, People magazine squealed, “Is the celeb obsession with weight loss out of control?” Probably. Skeletal Keira Knightley, Nicole Richie, and Kate Bosworth could have fundraised for famine relief—their own.

“All we are doing is showing images of women we regard as interesting or beautiful or fashionable. But we are not actually saying you have to be like this.” —Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman

And celebs who can’t shake it . . . fake it! News anchor Katie Couric’s publicity pic Photoshopped twenty pounds into cyberspace. So mature women who yearn for Katie’s “figure” may as well junk the diet books and retouch their digitized photos.

There was a brief craze for the starved Twiggy look in the 1960s, but its systematic cultivation seems to be a recent obsession. “Cathy,” of 1980s cartoon fame, used to sigh, “Wake me up when I’m a size 5,” but by the 2000s, 0 was the score to beat. Go back further and we find that Marilyn Monroe was reportedly an adored size 12. To judge from their portraits, the beauties of antiquity would not cram well into tight jeans.

“I have overcome a hundred insecurities . . . but I still feel like a failure because I can't get into these stupid white pants!!” —Cathy (Cathy Guisewite's cartoon character)

Ironically, even as fashion aggressively promotes the wasted look, a significant increase in obesity worldwide, due in large part to more efficient agriculture, has triggered a fat panic among health officials. Why the disconnect between image and reality?

One reason is human nature. Scarce goods become the object of striving, then of obsession. When food was uncertain, the full-figured woman was admired. Today, food is overabundant, so the thin, highly controlled woman is admired, to the point of serious distortion.

Contemporary body image has become so distorted that it undermines traditional sources of women’s pride. Struggling with an unexpected pregnancy, Leslie Leyland Fields, author of Surprise Child, recalls fretting, “I have gained too much weight already. I know in one part of my brain that this extra is completely justified, that this bulge in my abdomen is a human being, but. . . .”

Whoa, Leslie! Since when did thinness outpace motherhood as a significant life achievement?

Despite the initial promise of Susie Ohrbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue (1978), feminism has not helped. In her 1997 Diet Book for Smart Women, lawyer Susan Estrich, after listing many laudable first-for-a-woman accomplishments, announced that no career high made her “prouder, happier, or more fulfilled” than her size-6 figure—maintained by rigid control.

That’s the problem. Feminism focuses on gaining control over one’s body, but such control promises nothing whatever about health, sanity, or freedom from obsessions. Indeed, the anorexic’s death wish is total control.

Increasingly, women are fighting back against unrealistic body images. For example, actor Patricia Arquette, who plays psychic detective Allison Dubois on NBC’s Medium, refused demands that she lose the baby weight following daughter Harlow’s birth. She explained, “If this part was a supermodel or anorexic—then okay,” but because her character is a mother of three children in a long-term marriage, why shouldn’t she look like it?

Likewise, after the birth of her unexpected child, Leslie Fields viewed the thin fad differently: “I felt stronger than them, wiser, more capable. Yes, they had flat bellies and firm, jiggling busts, but I could do better. My belly had created children! My breasts not only looked good, but they actually worked. They fed people.” 

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