Jemima Lewis: We must be saved from ourselves

The fashion industry thrives on female insecurity, which is why it resists any efforts to curb skinniness
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Congratulations to Wilma the pot-bellied sow, who this week became a mother of eight. Pig litters don't often make the news, but the circumstances of Wilma's quest for motherhood carry particular resonance for the modern woman.

For a long time, you see, Wilma was unlucky in love. The male pigs at her home in Twin Lakes Park, Leicestershire, resolutely refused to mate with her - leading her keepers to conclude that the problem must be her looks.

The sow was duly given a makeover, comprising an all-over body scrub, a massage in "pig oil", whatever that may be, and a "trottercure". Her sty was also revamped to make it more inviting. Sure enough, the buffed and domesticated Wilma proved a hit: a stampede of lovelorn hogs came snuffling to her door.

The message of this heart-warming tale is clear: the fate of all females, even those who are quite literally porcine, will be decided by their appearance. I suppose one shouldn't be too depressed by this.

It's hardly a bolt from the blue. Like all those aspects of human nature that we would be better off without - envy, one-upmanship, inconstancy - the ranking of womankind according to beauty is too deep-rooted to be wished away.

The feminists of the Sixties and Seventies did their best, banding together in hairy-legged, comfortable-shoed defiance of the patriarchal ideal. The aim was, in part, to re-educate male tastes. If all women stick to the natural look, went the thinking, men will no longer have the option of gravitating towards dolly-birds. Alas, this logic foundered on the inequity of nature: men simply gravitated to the women who were beautiful enough not to need make-up.

And yet, crazily idealistic though they may seem now, those early feminists were right about one thing: sometimes we need drastic action to save us from ourselves. Left to our own devices, women will go to appalling lengths to outdo each other in beauty. In cities where women of marriageable age outnumber men, this evolutionary struggle results in a ferocious ratcheting up of standards (once, in New York, I was reprimanded for not having waxed my nostril hair).

Because women have their eyes fixed on the competition, their standards of beauty tend to be far more exacting than men's. The current vogue for the skeletal body is a case in point. Everyone knows that men like curves; a 7:1 hip-to-waist ratio, to be precise.

We know, too, that it can't be healthy to have ribs you could play Chopsticks on, or a head that wobbles like a sunflower dying on the stem. Very, very few women can be a size 00 - the latest ideal, as achieved by Nicole Richie and Victoria Beckham - without putting their reproductive system at risk, thus defeating the whole point of being beautiful.

Women know all this; yet when we look at pictures of Nicole or Posh in their designer frocks, pouting with self-satisfaction as the flashbulbs pop, most of us feel a twinge of insecurity. A normal, healthy body is so unglamorous - so plebian - by comparison. Nobody makes the front pages by sporting a slight muffin-top.

The fashion industry thrives on female insecurity, which is why it has resisted any attempt to curb the trend towards extreme skinniness. Off the record, many insiders will admit that eating disorders are rife, with some models surviving off cocaine and cigarettes rather than risk eating. On the record, magazine editors and designers feign outrage at such a suggestion: our models, they insist, are all healthy, beautiful girls who just happen to be naturally thin.

But now, finally, somebody is cutting through the crap. Last week, Madrid City council - organiser of the city's annual fashion week - imposed a ban on models with a body mass index (BMI) under 18. The council says it wants to encourage a healthy standard of beauty for teenagers to follow, and that means using models who would not be considered dangerously undernourished by the World Health Organisation. Models such as Esther Canadas, who is said to have a BMI of just 14, will be gently steered away from the catwalk and given medical help.

As a measurement of good health, BMI is not foolproof. Kate Moss - who looks naturally, not freakishly, thin - would fall foul of the Madrid ban. Fashionistas are up in arms, squealing that it's unfair on those models who can't help being "gazelle-like". And so it is: but when was fashion ever fair? What about all those beautiful but plump girls who've never had a hope of getting on the catwalk? Do the couturiers' hearts bleed for them?

Madrid council is only saying what is in the back of everyone's mind: this has gone far enough. Women - and those who sell beauty to women - sometimes need to be forcibly alerted to their insane behaviour. You don't need to be dangerously thin to be beautiful. You certainly don't have to starve yourself to find a mate. All that's required is a modicum of grooming, and a nice clean sty.