From Worship to Worry: Medical Ethics and the Fashion Industry

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

If there's one thing that Allegra Versace has taught us it is that Psychology, Medicine, Fashion and Medical Ethics can belong on the same page. Her suffering ought to make Medical Ethicists think about fashion just as much as those in the fashion industry ought to be considering the ethical implications of their trade. And then, of course, her state of mind and body is a subject for both psychologists and doctors.

The price of stardom (or being attached to it) couldn't be clearer than it is with Allegra. She isn't your average twenty-year old; she lives and breathes the Versace life and everything that goes with it. Still, to blame her mother or her uncle would be pointless. Donatella does not promote size zero models and Gianni passed away almost a decade ago. To assume that they held the key to her troubles is harsh; to claim that Allegra's upbringing and lifestyle has nothing to do with her illness, possibly a bit naive. But ought our concerns to be solely about Allegra or also about all the other, unmentioned "Allegra type" women who have such an obsession with their bodies that they forget to look after them?

Before women who suffer from anorexia can look after their bodies, they must look after their minds. The physical attributes of anorexia are only symptomatic of a deeper mental condition, a condition that undoubtedly harms the body but nevertheless begins in the mind. And it is here that the fashion industry and the rest of us ought to ask whether it is right to allow both our minds and our bodies to be guided by this industry.

There is nothing wrong with a little advice on what to wear. BBC fashion stylists, Trinny and Susannah, do it in "What Not to Wear", somewhat aggressively, even rudely, but they never tell women that they need to change their bodies to look good. It is when fashion works not with us but against us that we need to stop worshipping the models on the catwalk and start worrying about them and the impact that they may have on us.

To ban size zero models from the catwalk at a moment's notice is not really the answer to anorexia. It is possible that a lot of women who have "worked hard" to reach a size zero and have also become anorexic in the process are going to find themselves in further distress if they are without the modelling jobs for which they worked so hard. Women with anorexia, whether on the catwalk or in other parts of society, ought to be handled sensitively. If they already suffer from low self-esteem and a poor body image, factors that have led to their becoming anorexic, to shut them out is not likely to help them. Instead, they ought to be encouraged to eat healthily, educated about the dangers of anorexia and, moreover, made to feel that healthier bodies will be more appreciated than unhealthy ones.

One may ask why we have to "look after" models and other women. Surely, one may argue, a twenty-year old is an adult and ought to know, on the whole, what constitutes healthy eating. Herein lies the irony of anorexia. Of course, these women know what it means to eat healthily. This is precisely why they know that by avoiding foods that will keep them healthy they will lose weight. Also, much too often, what we ought to know we do not know, and even if we did, it is pushed aside by an overriding ambition or goal. In the case of persons with anorexia, their desire to be thin could override concepts of healthy eating of which they may be aware, especially if they believe that their livelihoods depend on being skinny.

The other reason why women with anorexia cannot be expected to reason like competent adults is because the illness has already affected the way that they think and vice-versa. Their having anorexia is symptomatic of their belief that they need to be skinny, so to expect that they will be able to free themselves from this line of thinking on their own is unrealistic.

What the fashion industry has shown is that it is powerful. It is time that it used its power to reverse the trends in fashion from portraying unhealthy models to promoting healthy ones. If fashion is meant to be far-reaching, then the models should also be representative of the average woman, not just in weight but also in height. Women within the entire healthy range of the BMI (Body Mass Index) ought to be included in Fashion Weeks, not only those that barely crawl into the healthy range. If the industry does this, then health and fashion can co-exist in the same body.