Fashion has done zero to stop using undersized models

So say health campaigners, as the industry prepares for its London spring shows. Jonathan Owen reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The British Fashion Council was yesterday criticised by eating disorders campaigners for being too slow to implement recommendations made by the Model Health Inquiry chaired by Baroness Denise Kingsmill.

"We want the fashion industry to put its words into action, to just get on with it," said Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the eating disorders charity Beat. "But there has been little evidence so far of any direct action."

As the fashion houses prepare for London's spring fashion show early next month, the row has reignited the debate over the use of size zero models by some couture houses.

The "toxic aspects" of the fashion industry need to be addressed, said Ms Ringwood. She called on the fashion industry to "acknowledge that it does create an aspiration – that there is only one ideal shape, very tall very thin and very young – that can be harmful and unhealthy for some people."

Only four out of 14 recommendations from the Kingsmill inquiry have been put into practice and doubts are now being expressed about just how committed the fashion industry is to improving the health of models, amid concerns over those suffering from eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia. "We've offered our expertise and submitted proposals on how we could help to implement the recommendations and we are still waiting for a response," said Ms Ringwood.

The very nature of the fashion industry will make change difficult. The top model Erin O'Connor, a member of the MHI panel, said: "In the industry, unfortunately, there's no such thing as having an eating disorder." Speaking in a film made by the BFC, she admits "it's pretty tough" for models who aren't thin and says: "Nobody ever told me that I was fat, but I was made to feel uncomfortable about not meeting the requirements of the clothes and how they'd been cut."

Dr Adrienne Key, an eating disorders specialist based at the Priory clinic in west London, who also sits on the MHI Panel, comments: "There are definite sections of the industry that continue to promote unhealthy body images – androgynous underweight appearances. This is at the cost of the health of some of the models concerned."

But a BFC spokeswoman insisted: "We're very happy that we are making substantial headway in addressing many of the issues raised by the Model Health Inquiry and that the awareness created of these important issues has had a positive impact on the industry."

There have been some changes. Next month's London Fashion Week will see independent auditors monitor a ban on models under 16 and a zero tolerance approach to drugs as part of a "healthy backstage environment". Models will also be able to take time out at a staffed apartment in central London. And the BFC aims to have an internationally recognised medical certificate for models in time for September's London Fashion Week.

One of London's biggest agencies, Premier Model Management, now has a nutritionist to advise its models on healthy eating, and prepares diet sheets to help them eat properly.

The BFC claimed that almost half the MHI's recommendations, such as criminal record checks on people working with child models, fall outside its remit, and admits "attitude and culture change are also vital if we are to achieve significant change". It argues that some things can be done quicker than others.

But words are not enough, said the 28-year-old model Tarryn Meaker from London. She began modelling at 16 and suffered from bulimia for three years under the pressure to be thin. "I don't see a lot being done," she said.

"I see people saying things and then passing the buck," added Ms Meaker, who has put bulimia behind her and now, at size 12, is regarded as a "plus size" model.

"People who question the status quo risk losing work. The model industry is all about hype and spin so of course they'll say whatever is going to keep them out of trouble, but so far all I've seen is a lot of well-intentioned talk."

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