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Magazines Just Saying No to Models with Eating Disorders – Will it Make a Difference?

Vogue magazine is paving the way for a new standard of beauty. Beginning with its June 2012 Vogue UK issue, the magazine will no longer feature models under age 16 or those who appear to have an eating disorder. All 19 international editions of Vogue have adopted a policy that puts health before unrealistic ideals of beauty. In an attempt to prioritize the health of both the models and the readers, Vogue made the following promises:

  • We will not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder. We will work with models who, in our view, are healthy and help to promote a healthy body image.
  • We will ask agents not to knowingly send us underage girls and casting directors to check IDs when casting shoots, shows and campaigns.
  • We will help to structure mentoring programs where more mature models are able to give advice and guidance to younger girls, and we will help to raise industry-wide awareness through education, as has been integral to the Council of Fashion Designers of America Health Initiative.
  • We will encourage producers to create healthy backstage working conditions, including healthy food options and a respect for privacy. We will encourage casting agents not to keep models unreasonably late.
  • We encourage designers to consider the consequences of unrealistically small sample sizes of their clothing, which limits the range of women who can be photographed in their clothes, and encourages the use of extremely thin models.
  • We will be ambassadors for the message of healthy body image.

Why the Change?

Research shows a strong correlation between seeing ultra-thin models in the media and eating disorders in young girls. According to a study in Pediatrics, about two-thirds of girls in the 5th to 12th grades said that magazine images influence their vision of an ideal body, and about half of the girls said the images made them want to lose weight.

Over time, models have gone from thin to emaciated, which has been mirrored by a growing problem of eating disorders and body image dissatisfaction among both men and women. The mortality rates for anorexia and bulimia are around 4 percent, the highest rates for any mental health disorder, according to a 2009 study.

Is Vogue Too Vague?

Any step that promotes a healthy body image among young women is a monumental improvement. As an industry leader, there is hope that other magazines will follow in Vogue ‘s footsteps to change the media messages women receive on a broad scale. Other U.S. magazines have come out in support of the guidelines, while others have commented that they already abide by them.

Still, the magazine’s bold move isn’t bold enough for some critics. They argue that the changes are merely a marketing stunt designed to ensure that the magazine appeals to the average reader (who is becoming increasingly fed up with being “duped” by unrealistic, digitally altered images) under the guise of eating disorder awareness. Does this change mean that models can finally eat like normal human beings? Will the models who appear in the pages of Vogue really convey realistic shapes and sizes or the full range of body types? What does “healthy” mean to the editors at Vogue ?

While fashion organizations in Spain and Italy have specified a healthy body mass index for models, and Israel’s government passed a similar law that also requires full disclosure if fashion media and advertising use Photoshop to change a model’s figure, Vogue ‘s vague standard leaves open a lot of questions. It also didn’t address the standard industry practice of digitally altering photos.

Some critics argue that Vogue doesn’t deserve congratulations for undoing a policy that contributed to the dire self-hatred imposed upon women. Fashion magazines are not solely to blame, of course, but they helped create the standards we’re now retaliating against. Why is Vogue getting such positive attention when other companies, such as Dove, have been leading empowerment campaigns and taking a stand against Photoshopping for almost a decade? Others say let’s not focus on the mistakes of the past and instead look forward to the future – a future that Vogue will hopefully help make a little brighter for women all over the world.

In spite of the new guidelines, many believe thin will still be the standard set by Vogue and other magazines. The progress, while important, is simply that it won’t employ very young models or those who appear to have eating disorders. What about those who are in the less advanced stages of an eating disorder or who maintain an ultra-thin but not sickly look? Although rare, what about the young women who are naturally underweight despite eating a healthy diet? The goal of fashion magazines is to inspire longing in readers, and until broad changes happen in society, that longing will likely continue to be sparked by the desire to be thin (and thus, ultra-thin models).

More Progress Needed

In spite of Vogue ‘s trailblazing changes, a lot of progress has yet to be made. The majority of magazines have not yet embraced these new guidelines, and American designers have resisted guidelines specifying certain age and health requirements for models. Marc Jacobs, for example, stated at New York Fashion Week 2012, “I do the show the way I think it should be, and not the way somebody tells me it should be.”

Vogue has taken an important step, now it’s time for the rest of the media to follow suit. In America, we recognize the right to free speech, which means magazines and other media will likely never be legally mandated to change their policies. But we do have a public that can state its desires through purchasing power, social media and other means. Instead of critiquing Vogue ‘s bold move, let’s celebrate this step in the right direction and demand even more progress.

There is still hope.

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