A busy, not altogether positive and, to be brutally honest, unsurprising few weeks for the fashion industry: hot on the heels of New York, London, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks, revelations by industry insiders – a leading magazine editor and the young girls themselves – into the cut -throat, unforgiving world of what it is to be a catwalk model.
Some weeks ago, Kirstie Clements, former editor of Australian Vogue, became one of the few of those involved in the industry brave enough to speak out against the fashion world’s callous cult of thin and the dangerous behaviours it drives its vulnerable young girls towards. In disclosures shocking but perhaps somewhat to be expected, she detailed the common practice by which starving models devour tissue paper to stave off hunger pangs and are regularly admitted to hospital requiring an emergency drip feed because they are so severely malnourished. “There are no questions asked, because the girls are fulfilling what the casting directors want and the designers require.” Her comments detailing the ravenous demand for emaciated models act as evidence that – despite the notorious anti-anorexia campaign which, five years ago, saw several countries ban the use of size zero models on their catwalks – attitudes in the fashion industry have not changed one jot. Clements cites personal experience of one model who, over a three day photoshoot, did not allow a single crumb to pass her lips. By the end, starvation had rendered her so weak she could barely keep her eyes open, much less stand and pose for the still clicking camera.
Sadly, this is far from an isolated case: twenty two year old former catwalk model Lauren Burnett is testament to that. Between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, from 2004-2010, on the outside she was living every teenager’s dream: featuring on the pages of high end fashion magazines, travelling and gracing the catwalks of starry-eyed cities such as Sydney and New York. But, take a closer look, and one spots the cracks in this façade: the dream was, in fact, a nightmare. Over the years when she should have been enjoying the happiest time of her life – living, changing, growing – Burnett was shrinking, starving, existing: hospitalised six times for emergency re-nutrition, she lost her hair, her periods and risked permanent liver and kidney damage…all in the name of achieving catwalk ‘perfection’. “No one cares what you do to yourself,” she stated in a recent interview with The Times. “You have to compete with the best and the best do all that, so you do too.” ‘All that’ transpired into a one-way ticket to self-destruction: with food out of the picture, Burnett joined the army of models surviving on a cocktail of drugs, neat vodka (mixers, of course, contain the ever-dreaded calories), laxative teas, diet pills and endless hours of frenzied exercise at the gym. Nobody outside of the industry would disagree that this torment and manipulation is far from the care and nurture that a growing teenager requires.
For me, there is one striking point concerning these cases that stands out above all others: none of this anything new. This insidious, internalised world of the catwalk has existed for years and, I predict, will sadly continue to do so. Burnett’s story was playing out at the same time as the anti-anorexia campaign; proof, if you like, that it was completely ineffective. Burnett is, arguably, one of the precious few lucky ones: three years on, she has escaped the toxic minefield of size zero and returned to fashion as a healthy, ‘plus size’ model (at 6ft 1inch, she is a respectable size 14). If only the rest of the industry would follow her lead. For that, I believe, is what it would take to instigate true change: a mass campaign by ALL models, a refusal to work until the dangerous status quo is altered. Until then, Burnett will certainly not be the last girl to be chewed up and spat back out by the ruthless machine that we call the modelling industry.
*All quotes and case stories gathered from ‘The Times’