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Fashion Week brings questions about body image front and center

In the fashion industry, runway glamour belies often draconian working conditions behind the scenes, according to Northeastern’s Rachel Rodgers. Photo by iStock

Fashion Week: It’s an event seen around the world. The runway shows began in New York City on Feb. 9 and finish up in Paris on March 8. Throughout, tall, ultra-thin models sport frothy, funky creations by designers from Gucci to Burberry, Fendi to Prada, evoking visions of grandeur as they walk.

Yet the onstage glamour belies often draconian working conditions behind the scenes, according to Northeastern’s Rachel Rodgers, who is on a mission to help change that.

Rodgers, associate professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, investigates sociocultural influences on body image and eating concerns. In a paper published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, she and her colleagues used an online survey to assess the prevalence of disordered eating behaviors among professional models as well as how effective proposed legislation to help curtail those behaviors might be. France is one country considering such legislation.

While the results were not surprising, they were alarming, says Rodgers. The 85 participants had a mean body mass index of just 17.41, which is considered underweight. Yet despite being underweight, 62 percent of them said their agencies, casting agents, or other industry representatives had asked them to lose weight or change their shape, 69 percent had been told to “tone up,” and 54 percent had been warned that their agency would no longer represent them if they didn’t lose weight.

Rachel Rodgers, associate professor, investigates sociocultural influences on body image and eating concerns. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Exercising was the most common weight-control behavior (81 percent), followed by dieting (71 percent), skipping meals (57 percent), and fasts, cleanses, or nutritional detoxes (52 percent). Some respondents reported extreme measures, including stimulant use (17 percent) and self-induced vomiting (8 percent).

“Most of the models who responded to the survey were already very, very underweight or on the very thin end of the spectrum, yet they were being asked to put their health at risk by losing even more weight,” says Rodgers. “They were experiencing pressure from the agency basically to choose between their health and a glamorized job. That shows how unrealistic the industry ideal is.”

Regulatory control?

The models’ perceptions of the feasibility of legislation to alleviate the industry demands for extreme thinness varied, suggesting new, more influential directions for research.

We want to hear what the people responsible for enacting the policies think the best solutions would be to enable the industry to regulate itself.

Rachel Rodgers associate professor

The proposed legislation included policies requiring a BMI of 18 or above, that employers provide food and a half-hour break for jobs lasting longer than six hours, and that models be paid in wages rather than “trade,” meaning clothes.

“The models rated the regulations around BMI as being unlikely to be helpful and also very difficult to implement,” says Rodgers. “The policies regarding compensation, job security, benefits—things that gave them a bit more power within the industry—were rated much more positively.”

The researchers recruited the models through social media with the help of co-author Sara Ziff, founder and former executive director of the New York City-based Model Alliance, an advocacy group for models working in the American fashion industry. They restricted the study to models who participated in or were considered for the 2016 New York Fashion Week.

Rodgers is now turning her attention to decisionmakers in the industry, hoping to uncover more effective strategies to bring about change. “We are currently doing qualitative studies among other professionals in the fashion industry,” she says. “We want to hear what the people responsible for enacting the policies think the best solutions would be to enable the industry to regulate itself.”