The welfare argument over skinny models is too simplistic

Tragic ... model Tales Soares collapsed and died after a show at Sao Paulo Fashion Week.

Tragic … model Tales Soares collapsed and died after a show at Sao Paulo Fashion Week.Credit:AP

While it’s entirely plausible that Soares’ death had absolutely no link to his work, the tragedy has again shone a light on the welfare of models.

Since the days of «heroin chic» in the 1990s, when skeletal-looking models were not only the norm but idolised (think Kate Moss and Jaime King), and, more recently, the impact of #MeToo, the industry has worked hard to reform itself.

Last year, many players in the US fashion industry signed the Model Alliance’s Respect program, after a 2012 survey by the group found up to 85 per cent of female models had been asked to pose nude without notice, while one in three reported being pressured into sex or being touched inappropriately on a job.

On body image, in 2017, six countries including France, Spain and Israel, banned the use of «dangerously skinny» models. In France, models must present a medical certificate proving they are fit to work, which is calculated based on their body mass index, age and body shape.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the industry is left to police itself through the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image, which was devised by the government’s National Advisory Group on Body Image in 2010.

And still, Mission Australia’s National Youth Survey has consistently found body image ranks in the top three concerns of young people, while a 2016 survey by skincare brand Dove of women aged 10 to 60 found nearly three-quarters of Australian respondents cited the media as a contributor to negative body image.

Cassi Van Den Dungen, at Fashion Week Australia 2014, was labelled too thin.

Cassi Van Den Dungen, at Fashion Week Australia 2014, was labelled too thin.Credit:Edwina Pickles

Over the past few days, I have heard growing chatter about models becoming thinner, at least visibly so, and for once, the discussions have mentioned men as often as women.

At local fashion weeks, casting agents and organisers have worked hard to reverse the image of an industry in denial over models’ health after photos of Cassi Van Den Dungen walking at Sydney Fashion Week caused a storm in 2014.

Model Kate Moss became one of the faces of the "heroin chic" look popularised in the 1990s.

Model Kate Moss became one of the faces of the «heroin chic» look popularised in the 1990s.Credit:Rose Hartman

At the time, Van Den Dungen defended her frame by saying: «The only opinion that should matter on your weight or size is your own. If you’re happy, feel healthy and loving life, stuff everyone else’s opinions.»

And it’s this reason why I think the issue of body image in modelling and fashion is far more complex than allowing or banning certain looks without obtaining a fuller picture of the model’s life and wellbeing. Although, admittedly, who should take responsibility for this is a difficult question that has no simple answer.

Should it be left to the model herself or himself to decide? A doctor? The show producers, designers or stylists, who have mere seconds to assess each model at a casting? Or their agent, who stands to make or lose money based on the decision to let them work? Like I said, it’s complicated.

The rising popularity and prevalence of models from African countries such as Adut Akech or Alek Wek means there are often more models who are genetically thin on the catwalk. I am no doctor but I suspect that many of these models, by virtue of their height, would have a low BMI but on more detailed assessment would be classed as healthy.

So to reduce the argument about models to skinny/not skinny is, in my view, far too simplistic. Instead, we should be focusing on wellbeing, including their mental and emotional health, in the same way as we expect of any other workplace that takes its duty of care to its employees and contractors seriously.

As the industry gears up for another Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia next month, I can only hope that Soares’ passing, while tragic, will serve as a timely reminder to organisers to place models’ welfare and wellbeing at the top of the list.

Melissa Singer is National Fashion Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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