How thin is too thin? Two separate but similar incidents in the fashion world last month, 10,000 miles apart, are focusing welcome public attention on that crucial question.
In Australia, top model Christy Quilliam made front-page news by appearing in a swimsuit at the Australian Fashion Week. Normally that would not be worthy of headlines. But this time the camera caught Ms. Quilliam with protruding ribs. So gaunt was her torso, in the eyes of some photo-watchers, that Minister for Women Faye Lo Po' described Quilliam's figure as "skeleton-like" and "reminiscent of extreme starvation."
Quilliam claims she has always been naturally thin. She says she was inhaling when the camera clicked and blamed the lighting. Perhaps she is right. Yet even her agent acknowledges that event organizers wanted thinner models than usual. Some models and other agencies made the same claim.
Two weeks later, in London, the Swiss watch manufacturer Omega announced that it was withdrawing its advertising from the British edition of Vogue because of the magazine's use of "skeletal" models. The watchmaker's British marketing manager expressed concern that an emphasis on ultrathin bodies, as evident in an eight-page spread in the June issue, could encourage eating disorders in young women. He called photos of boyish-looking models in the feature "extremely distasteful."
The next day Omega backed down, saying that it didn't want to be seen trying to influence editorial policies.
No one needs to travel to London or Sydney to find examples of ruler-thin models. In the current Harper's Bazaar, what catches a reader's eye in one full-page photo is not so much a $300 bikini, but rather the protruding pelvic bones of the model wearing it. And the May Vogue offers page after page of superthin models in string bikinis. The magazine touts their "mile-high thighs," while a cover headline teases, "Getting the body you want..."
Nearly all fashion-related magazines emphasize dieting and extreme physical perfection. Most worrisome of all, perhaps, are the subtle influences in teen magazines that could make young readers despair over normal bodies. In the current Sassy, even three paper dolls have wasp-waists. Elsewhere, newspaper ads for underwear, featuring thin models with tiny midriffs and full bosoms, send another difficult message: Be skinny and voluptuous.
It's unfortunate that Omega backed down from its brave objections to the Vogue models. But the company's short-lived protest does serve a useful purpose by raising a question: What would happen if more people voiced similar concerns?
It's time to stop being passive about the impossible images being passed off as ideal representations of womanhood. Time to speak out against "starvation chic" - the extremes of editorial features and ads that make women constant slaves to the bathroom scale, the treadmill, and the latest diet.
How? Write to magazine editorial offices and advertisers to protest the use of superskinny models. And speak to store managers - not clerks - about ads, store posters, and even mannequins that promote unrealistic body shapes.
If women's fashion magazines want to be truly "reader-friendly," they must start being part of the solution instead of contributing to the problem. Like cigarette manufacturers claiming no connection between their product and serious health problems, and like entertainment-industry executives insisting that on-screen violence has no bearing on real-life violence, the fashion industry cannot disingenuously pretend there is no link between its images of "beauty" and the increase in eating disorders.
The desire to be thin is nothing new, as 19th-century photographs of wasp-waisted women in tight corsets confirm. Fashion has always been built on fantasy. But when women work too hard to make prevailing fantasies a reality, sometimes threatening health and well-being in the process, it's time to say, enough is enough.