Does Denmark have the answer to the skinny model debate?

Mar 30, 2015 at 9:15 a.m. ET
Image: The Style PA/Flickr

Denmark has been working hard in recent years to make a name for itself on the super competitive fashion world map by being one of the most ethical fashion nations. This includes hosting the Copenhagen Sustainable Fashion Summit in 2014 and now turning its attention to the health of models.

The Danish Fashion Ethical Charter is a document compiled by the Danish Fashion Institute, Danish Fashion and Textile, the Danish textile organisation WEAR, the country's eight largest model agencies, the Danish Association Against Eating Disorders and Self-Harm and Model Union Denmark. The charter was first made public in 2007 but it has recently been completely reworked.

The Danish approach is more focused on changing standards and practices within the fashion industry than on punitive measures and the charter includes mandatory health checks for models, compulsory wages (i.e. payment in money rather than clothes) and a requirement to educate models about nutrition and make healthy food available at model shoots.

More: France recently rejected a ban on super skinny models

All models signed to Danish model agencies who have signed the charter will have an annual compulsory health check and must be referred to another doctor if they don't pass. The charter also imposes a minimal age limit of 16 on models working alone.

The charter doesn't define what constitutes a "healthy" model but this omission could actually be seen as a significant step forward in the way we address the whole too-skinny-model problem. Because health, weight and body image issues are complicated. Relying on the somewhat outdated BMI (body mass index) method isn't the answer: health professionals readily admit that this is not an accurate measure of individual health. Using BMI alone has the potential to unfairly punish models who are simply naturally thin and let those who do have an eating disorder slip through the net because their BMI falls within the "normal" range.

It's also important that models aren't simply rejected for being too thin or having health problems (mental or physical). This isn't solving the problem. More responsibility needs to be taken by designers and model agencies: they are, after all, in charge of signing the models and creating the clothes for them to wear.

It's an issue that requires a sensitive, realistic approach and Denmark's initiative seems to be a tentative step in the right direction. While the United States has a similar non-binding document — the Council of Fashion Designers of America Health Initiative — which also concentrates on awareness and education rather than policing, it doesn't include any penalties for non-compliance. This is where Denmark could really make a difference and lead the way.

Signing the charter isn't compulsory but there are huge incentives for doing so. For starters only companies who do will be eligible to take part in Copenhagen Fashion Week, run by the Danish Fashion Institute. If you sign the charter but don't stick to the rules you'll receive warnings and could ultimately be banned from the country's biggest fashion event. You'll also be placed on an online blacklist for the entire world to see.

According to Eva Kruse, chief executive of the Danish Fashion Institute, over 300 companies and individuals have signed the charter so far, including the fashion label Day Birger et Mikkelsen and the PR agency Hill & Knowlton Strategies.

“We think that the fact that the industry is taking such an active part in the charter will have a much greater impact, also in the long run, than legislation issued by the authorities and fines,” said Ms. Kruse.

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