Heidy Rehman, founder of the fashion label Rose & Willard, has written an essay explaining that models who work for the brand will be required to sign a “non-negotiable contractual clause… which will state that the model must eat a meal and in our presence.” Rehman admits that this is “nannying” but says the move is to protect young women from an exploitative industry.
Eating disorders are rampant among models in the fashion industry. The Model Alliance, a union based in the U.S., ran a survey which found that over 31 percent of respondents who work as models have had an eating disorder. Over 64 percent were asked to lose weight by their agency and almost half make use of strategies such as fasting or cleanses in order to restrict their food consumption over short periods of time.
In Heidy Rehman’s experience the situation seems even more dire. When working on a campaign she asked every model (some as young as 12) if they felt pressured to lose weight. They all said “yes.” When taking test shots with models ahead of a campaign launch none of the models ate anything during the day of shooting. She found out also that it was common practice for models to eat tissues ahead of castings to stop their stomachs from rumbling.
To address the situation, Rehman has stated that models working with Rose & Willard will be required to sign a contract agreeing to eat a meal (not “a tiny morsel”) while being observed by company representatives. If the model fails to do so she will not get paid and nor will her agency.
“Yes, it’s a form of nannying,” Rehman writes. “But we feel we have a responsibility to protect these young women from an industry which we believe can leave them exploited and puts them under pressure to starve themselves and damage their health and wellbeing. [sic]”
Rehman is not the only one expressing concern. Last year a bill was passed in France requiring models to obtain a doctor’s certificate stating that they’re healthy enough to work. A Danish charter, which was revised last year, requires models who have signed on to have a compulsory annual health check. In the U.K. an ongoing parliamentary inquiry may suggest that models under the age of 18 should be banned from catwalks as the presence of their prepubescent physiques pressures older models to lose excessive amounts of weight to compete.
The concerns of Rehman and a number of European governments seem well-placed and it is important to support people in making healthy choices in a deeply flawed industry. However Rehman’s suggestion of watching models while they eat begs the question: how far is too far?
Even in the context of eating disorders treatment in clinical settings the idea of force feeding is controversial. In cases where a person is actively recovering from their illness, and wants to get better, the choice to eat is still a fraught one and requires skilled help.
Staring at young women while they eat will always make them uncomfortable, regardless of whether they have an eating disorder but especially if eating is something they struggle with. The coercion involved in withholding earnings comes from a good place but it is based on the misguided assumption that well-being is solely about eating and putting on weight. Nutrition helps but, as Something Fishy, an online resource about eating disorders, advises, the most common element to all eating disorders is low self-esteem, a complex issue which can’t be solved by a plate of pasta. Moreover recovery is about the person who is going through difficulties. It is about them finding new habits and making positive changes. It is not about managing the discomfort of fashion brands.
It is, after all, major industry players who create a disempowering environment for models which doesn’t exactly promote self-esteem. Aside from mandated weight loss, those in the industry, according to The Model Alliance, commonly suffer from sexual harassment and assault, compromises in child labour laws and a lack of financial transparency. The modelling population tends to be young and female and is therefore particularly vulnerable to coercion and exploitation.
The prevalence of models in the industry who are experiencing mental illnesses and related physical health concerns is worrying. Regulating what health benchmarks are required of models is one way to create a healthier work environment. But, ultimately, very little will be done to improve the daily lives of models without addressing the complex underlying issues that impact them and until they are better empowered to make good choices on their own terms.