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Madrid takes a stand against emaciation on the catwalk

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Did you hear that? Models around the world just breathed a sigh of relief. And what a breath it was! Some haven’t breathed in years, because they’ve heard sucking in makes them look thinner.

Beginning last Monday, Madrid’s fashion week, Pasarela Cibeles, redefined fashion. As it turns out, emaciation is not part of the fall collection. It’s about time.

Responding to complaints from health associations and women’s organizations about the influence of gaunt models on the body images of young women, the Madrid regional government, which sponsors the Pasarela Cibeles, ordered the show’s organizers to use healthy-weight girls. The fashion industry, they asserted, has a responsibility to portray healthy body images. Concha Guerra, the deputy finance minister for the regional administration, explained, “Fashion is a mirror and many teenagers imitate what they see on the catwalk.”

Do politicians have better things to do than regulate how much a model eats? Obviously. But should the Madrid government be commended for promoting healthy body image in an era of walking skeletons? Absolutely.

Madrid’s fashion industry set a new standard based on the body mass index, or BMI. The BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight, and a BMI of under 18.5 is considered “underweight.” Now models must have a body mass index of at least 18.

Just how thin are catwalking skeletons now? The average model is about 5’9” and 110 pounds. That’s a BMI of 16, which falls under the classification “coat hanger.” Now in Spain, a 5’9” model must weigh at least 123 pounds.

Other fashion venues are considering similar restrictions — notably the city of Milan, whose annual fashion show is more prestigious than Madrid’s. Reuters reported that top Israeli retail companies have also agreed not to employ overly thin models for their advertisements, while India’s health minister said he doesn’t want waif-like models on the runway in his country either.

But organizers of the London Fashion Week, which also began last Monday, said they wouldn’t be following suit. For the Brits, thin is still very much in. Leading agency Models 1 made a statement, saying that “Girls who model at 15 or 16 tend to be thin girls whose mums are thin. It’s part of their genetics, and obviously they look great in clothes.” Obviously the British are seeing something I’m not. Obviously they see something inherently attractive about girls who weigh no more than a Punxsutawney phonebook.

Meanwhile, in America, modeling agencies aren’t rushing to eat more rice cakes either. Cathy Gould of New York’s Elite agency publicly denounced the ban, saying it’s a gross discrimination against both “the freedom of the designer” and “naturally gazelle-like” models.

There may be such a thing as “naturally gazelle-like.” There is no such thing as “naturally emaciated.”

But “it’s discrimination,” Gould asserted, comparing banning overly-skinny models with telling obese people to lose weight. Cathy, darling, we do tell obese people to lose weight. Because it’s not healthy.

Last month at a fashion show in South Africa, a model’s death sent chills up the bony spines of the haute world when 22-year-old Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos died of heart failure after stepping off a runway during Fashion Week in Montevideo. Ramos had reportedly maintained a diet of green leaves and Diet Coke for three months. That’s no better than a McFood regimen of Big Macs and milkshakes — only in this case, we call it beautiful.

But it’s not the underweight models who are to blame — it’s the fashion industry who exploits them. These models are unnaturally starving to fit into size zeros, and the industry is to blame for parading gaunt frames and sunken-in eyes as “fashion.” Last week, a CNN reporter went backstage at an American fashion show to talk about the ban, and she noticed the only food sitting backstage — a bowl of granola. “Duh,” you’re saying to yourself, “the only reason they’re not eating cardboard is because it gives them gas.”

I do think there’s a small subset of the population that has a biologically slender body type. But those who do don’t just eat greens and granola. Today’s models are doing something unnaturally, be it sustaining a full-blown eating disorder or supporting a drug habit, which often goes hand-in-hand with an eating disorder. And whether it’s wrong or right, young girls look up to models, attempting to emulate their starving-child look. Girls: As Sally Struthers can attest, being impoverished isn’t glamorous. In fact, it’s usually associated with flies and malaria.

Would anorexia go away simply because there were no more “anorexic” looking models? Probably not. But those who don’t think it would help have already lost too much weight from their craniums. It would mark a significant shift in the culturally imposed definition of beauty, and that’s a start.

In the meantime, I support the freedom of the designer. I say no one should hold them back from putting gazelles in their show, though I wonder how hooves will look in Chanel shoes.