Find middle ground in the 'weight debate'

When fashion designers begin unveiling their new collections in New York on Friday at the start of the semi-annual Fashion Week, there will be the usual buzz about hemlines and waistlines, color and trends, what's hot and what's not. But this year another subject will also be in the air: the weight and health of runway models.

The issue made international headlines last September when Madrid's main fashion show banned underweight models from the catwalk. They required models who are 5 feet 8 inches tall to weigh at least 123 pounds. Organizers defended the move by saying that stick-thin images could contribute to eating disorders among young women – a connection modeling agencies hotly deny. They note that some models are naturally "gazelle-like" – very tall and thin.

That new policy marks the world's first ban on overly thin models. Now the fashion federations of Italy, Britain, and the United States are joining forces. They recognize that the industry has a responsibility to portray healthy body images. The issue has even spread to Brazil, where a 23-year-old model died in November, reportedly of anorexia.

In another step, the Spanish government's Health Ministry has reached an agreement with major clothing designers to standardize women's sizes. They plan to measure 8,500 Spanish women and girls from age 12 to 70 to find out the real shapes of their bodies. The new program, which will be phased in during the next five years, also bans window displays with clothes smaller than a European size 38 – typically a size 6 in the US.

On Feb. 5, during Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America will host a discussion on health and beauty. The audience will include designers, models, industry leaders, and editors. As part of the new guidelines, designers will no longer hire models younger than 16.

Hooray for discussions like these. Yet the problem is so much bigger than just the presence of too-thin models on the runway. Walk through any mall and notice the mannequins. Many are rail-thin. Stop at a newsstand and flip through the pages of fashion magazines, where lean beauties with bony shoulders and long torsos and legs fill ads and photo spreads. And look at the covers of women's magazines. Current issues feature these headlines:

"146 lbs. just melts off! Shed 55 percent more belly fat! Drop 5 jean sizes by Easter!"

"Get the Body You Want."

"Drop 10 Pounds Fast."

"We Lost 266 Pounds! 4 Big Losers & How They Did It."

"Get slim in just 5 weeks. The personalized plan that blasts fat, boosts energy, sculpts every inch."

Teasing come-ons like these, with their unrealistic promises, only add to confusion about beauty and body size – confusion that affects women of all ages.

I recently listened as a 50-ish woman – slim, stylish, beautiful – gave an enthusiastic account of her trip to Europe. She spoke in superlatives about museums, concerts, and fine food. There was just one problem: "I gained five pounds," she said, patting her flat midriff.

While the fashion industry discusses bodies that are too thin, other groups worry about those that are too heavy. Obesity, especially among children, has become a subject of daily headlines. Some school districts are even issuing "obesity report cards," telling parents their child's body mass index (BMI). This ratio of height and weight, schools say, can warn that a child is – or could become – overweight. But without putting it in a context, there's a danger that children – girls especially – might become preoccupied with their bodies, creating problems where none had existed.

Similarly, in suburbs west of Boston, a new billboard campaign hopes to alert parents to the dangers of childhood obesity. One ad shows the chubby legs and feet of an overweight child on a scale. The words "Fat Chance" accompany a list of potential health risks. Another billboard pictures an overweight child from the back, with the headline, "If that's your kid, what are you waiting for?"

The ads are part of a $250,000 public awareness campaign aimed at parents, on the grounds that they're the ones responsible for lifestyle changes in a family. But do these ads, which will also appear on TV, run the risk of creating anxiety in children, whatever their size?

Obesity report cards and suburban billboards of overweight children are worlds away from underweight models on fashion runways. Yet these two extremes are linked by a common goal – the desire for normalcy.

The challenge for well-meaning supporters in both camps is to promote a middle ground. To achieve that, encouragement, not fear, is the best motivator.

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