Fashion models are thin largely because of the way designers want their clothes to be displayed during the marketing process. They also appeal to a number of positive concepts members of society hold, with thinness acting as a means to feel better or acquire something desirable. The stress of meeting standards in the industry sometimes pushes models into unhealthy eating patterns that support thinness as well. Although the perception is that the majority of modern models are very thin, many are of normal weight, and are supported by weight minimum policies in some parts of the industry.
Designers and the Draping Effect
Typically, designers use tools such as busts and mannequins when they are designing their clothes. These devices provide a very basic frame on which clothing can drape and hang. When designers transfer their clothing to a person, they want their designs to maintain this natural effect. Fashion models essentially become living racks for the clothing. A criticism of this practice is that an extremely small percentage of women have the small frame necessary to get the clothing to hang the way it was designed.
The use of rack-thin people for the draping effect is arguably a conscious choice by designers. It is based in the personal belief that draping clothing on a thin frame is more beautiful, but this is simply a matter of individual preference. Members of the public have often criticized the industry for creating and perpetuating an unrealistic ideal, choosing a singular opinion of beauty at the cost of health.
Social Meanings Behind Thinness
From the marketing standpoint, those who present fashion designs to the public sell much more than clothing and accessories. They also sell concepts such as happiness, self-esteem, or wealth. These concepts appeal to desires members of the public have, however subconscious those desires might be. The ideas that companies can use to appeal to consumers depend largely on the cultural mandates that have shaped belief systems.
In the United States, thinness is associated with several positive concepts, including health. Obesity is a rising problem, so some people support thinner models as a means of rejecting weight-related health and social issues. They say that not allowing thinner workers perpetuates the idea that being obese or overweight is acceptable.
Thinness also conveys the idea of success. Individuals who are heavy or obese may experience increased discrimination not only in personal relationships, but also in areas such as business. People who have top positions and wealth often are thinner, so thin fashion models may appeal to the desire to achieve and rise on a socioeconomic level. This directly contrasts previous eras in which access to funds meant the ability to indulge in more food and more robust frames were desirable as a sign of class. This shows that the definition of beauty in relation to thinness is not static, with the modern era defining beautiful as having less weight.
Some people also see waifish bodies as representing the elite or exclusivity. Not many individuals can achieve or maintain extremely thin frames, so when a person is able to do this and look like someone in an advertisement, they may feel as though they have a capability others do not. Directors and designers may recognize this and keep booking thinner people in an effort to appeal to the natural desire people have to be noticed and set apart from the crowd. The success of one the thinnest fashion professionals of all time, Twiggy, might have connected largely to this desire, as her 91-pound (41.2-kg) frame was drastically and shockingly different from anything the public had seen before.
The positive elements thin fashion professionals sell in magazines, commercials, and other media make it difficult to eradicate unhealthy weights in the industry, even when the people representing the designs are clearly unhealthy. An example is the 1990s trend of “heroin chic,” a phenomenon characterized by ultra-thin professionals such as Kate Moss with angular bone structures, dark eye circles, and pale skin, giving the appearance of being addicted to heroin. It arose because the stigma and cost of heroin both had decreased, with use of the drug moving into the upper class and appearing more sophisticated. Prominent individuals such as Bill Clinton condemned the trend as supporting drug abuse, but it remained popular for years.
Designers and the fashion industry as a whole places enormous pressure on models to maintain their physique. Those who gain weight sometimes are not called back for additional work, depending on the agencies with whom they associate. A number of people in the industry therefore resort to skipping meals, abusing laxatives, or throwing up when they eat to keep weight low and deal with stress. This has led to high instances of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Even when a fashion model wants to stop the eating disordered behavior, psychological elements behind the conditions make it hard to resume normal eating habits.
The perception of the public is that virtually all fashion models are thin, but this is not true. In response to public criticism for the unhealthy weights of workers, some agencies and countries, such as Spain, have enacted policies that deter the hiring of individuals who do not meet a weight minimum. Many people also work for plus-size designers and companies. While is has not eliminated very thin models from working in many cases, it may help those who want to maintain a healthy weight.