London Fashion Week: Take off those heels and eat something!

Far from the catwalk, stressed-out models are being offered counselling and a square meal at a secret London refuge. Rachel Shields reports

As the world's fashion houses descend on London for Fashion Week, an otherwise unremarkable house in a leafy western suburb will be transformed into a hive of activity, filled with young, beautiful –and vunerable – people. It is the Model Sanctuary, a project established two years ago to address the size-zero scandal that has rocked the modelling world.

Although more than a thousand models have passed through its doors, at a strictly secret location, the Sanctuary's strict confidentiality agreements mean that little is known about what goes on in an inner sanctum of the fashion world – until now.

Staffed by a full-time nutritionist and a psychologist, the centre aims to tackle everything from eating disorders to self-esteem issues and stress, with a mix of therapy, pampering treatments – and plenty of food.

Established by the supermodel Erin O'Connor, the centre was born out of the concern over size-zero models, which began in 2006, when two South American models died from eating disorders. The issue has dominated coverage of fashion shows since.

"It has remained secret so that the models feel that it is a private space," said Ms O'Connor. "With the whole hysteria created over the size-zero debate, it was essential to do something."

The 2007 Model Health Inquiry made numerous recommendations, including calling for health certificates and the banning of under-16s from the catwalk, but very few of these were adopted and many people feel that no real action was taken.

Ms O'Connor believes that the Model Sanctuary provide a hands-on solution to the problem. "I sat on the Model Health Inquiry, and I felt something positive needed to be implemented," she said.

Given that this refuge for models was created because of concerns surrounding body weight, it is inevitable that much of the focus is on food and nutrition. Models are given detailed meal plans and have individual consultations with the in-house nutritionist.

"The amount of people that we get coming in proves that the Sanctuary was needed. To say that all models will have eating disorders is wrong, but I do get a lot of models with disordered eating," said Miriam Saltmarshe, a nutritionist who works at the Sanctuary. "A lot of the models come in for breakfast. We make sure we put on a continuous stream of food – muesli, yoghurt, pastries and coffee for breakfast. It is free and they can eat it there or take it away. At lunchtime we have wraps, salads and lots of healthy choices."

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