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The Unsustainable Thin Aesthetic & Its Taboo

CW: This article discusses topics of mental illness and sexual assault which could be distressing to some readers.

We have all heard of the term 'body image'; used to refer to how an individual sees their own body and how attractive they feel themselves to be. We either feel positive or negative about ourselves and this is normally dictated by what we are exposed to in everyday life, whether that be the workplace, people we meet or walk past and most importantly, reality TV and social media. Arguably, reality TV such as Love Island has not had a positive impact on body image. Parliament's inquiry into reality TV was unable to receive any information from ITV regarding audience impact of reality TV shows... this does not exactly look good for such a reputable TV channel. We need to do better than this.

The Mental Health Foundation has previously raised concerns about ITV's Love Island as they have found that people do compare themselves to the limited diversity of people participating in the show and this sparks unwanted feelings of shame and distress. The same can be witnessed within the fashion industry where models are under ridiculous pressure to be thin, leading to eating disorders and quite frankly, an unsustainable lifestyle.

Disordered Eating & Objectification

It is common to hear that fashion models are subject to insanely strict weight conditions and beauty standards (very much like Love Island), resulting in a constant battle to prove and sell themselves. In other words, objectification. The vast majority of models start out at 14 or 15 years old where self-esteem and self-identity begin to become fixed. Exposure to this environment thus often leads to severe mental damage that persists into adulthood. It won't be a shock when I tell you that people in the fashion industry are 25% more likely to experience mental illness than any other industry.

Despite this, psychologists continue to argue that there is little evidence to support the notion that working in the creative industries causes mental illness due to the range of contributing factors that determine an individual's wellbeing. A recently published article from the International Journal of Eating Disorders has provided shocking but unsurprising insight into the working life of fashion models during New York Fashion Week Fall '18.

From 76 fashion models, who participated in the online survey, 54% reported skipping meals in preparation for Fashion Week. This has stemmed from appearance pressure, particularly from professionals within the industry. In fact, 28% of participants reported being asked to lose weight or change their body shape/size by a professional. To anyone not working in this industry, this is completely unacceptable as it places models at higher risk of negative mental health outcomes including body image concerns, disordered eating and many more. Professionals should not be objectifying models and you would think this is as bad as it gets... wait until you hear this.

43% of the 63 models, who answered this section of the survey, said that they were not offered a private changing space during Fashion Week, leading to photography being posted on social media without their consent, as well as experiences of sexual assault. Objectification by any means is wrong and it is saddening to see that models have to maintain a "stiff upper lip" in this situation.

Is the fashion industry still blind to this?

Recent years has seen the introduction of a French law mandating health certificates for fashion models to assess their current well-being and if they are deemed healthy to participate in the fashion week. Whilst this may seem a great step forward in combatting against the unsustainable thin aesthetic, the online survey highlighted that only a small number were asked about their eating and exercise behaviours; the key identifiers of a potential eating disorder. There is therefore a requirement to better educate medical health providers regarding the type of indicators to assess in clinical appointments. From a 2017 survey, some fashion models were asked how they think they should be treated with one person responding as follows:

"I feel like we all are supposed to deal with the mistreatment: We have a job that millions of girls would kill for, so we should be happy with what we’re doing even if it has a dark and sadistic side to it. It has gotten to a point where it is hard to justify your own complaints — of course we’d rather give up sometimes, but when it all comes down to it we would never dare to speak up about anything because of the risk of losing future job opportunities." - Anonymous

This tells us one important truth; the fashion industry has a long way to go to raise the mental health issues associated with modelling. We cannot allow this "stiff upper lip" attitude to persist as it can lead to not only disordered eating and body shame but also suicide.

However, professionals are beginning to speak up on this issue such as James Scully, a casting director, who told the fashion industry that they should know better and treat models as people, not objects. He had been told by one model that they stayed in castings all night at New York Fashion Week, only to be cancelled at 6am. The industry must wake up to this problem before it becomes a severe mental health crisis.


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