The fashion industry feeds off bulimia and starvation

'Make Me a Supermodel' shows that the norm of beauty requires women to make themselves ill

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It's happened; I've found my limit. Normally, in my flat we will gobble up any and every reality TV show in town. We roared as Natalie Appleton gibbered in the jungle, rocking back and forward moaning, "I touched a tree, I touched a tree ..." When Ricardo, the Brazilian transvestite from the Salon, was buried up to his neck in fish guts and told to eat, eat, eat them, we nearly died in ecstasy.

It's happened; I've found my limit. Normally, in my flat we will gobble up any and every reality TV show in town. We roared as Natalie Appleton gibbered in the jungle, rocking back and forward moaning, "I touched a tree, I touched a tree ..." When Ricardo, the Brazilian transvestite from the Salon, was buried up to his neck in fish guts and told to eat, eat, eat them, we nearly died in ecstasy.

But - forgive me - I'm tempted to become one of those insufferable people who says, "Wait a minute. This one goes too far." Channel Five has been broadcasting a show called Make Me a Supermodel for the past fortnight. It does exactly what it says on the tin: 12 skeletons smeared with lip-gloss are competing for a modelling contract before the dead eyes of "judge" Rachel Hunter. They have to strip, pout and starve their way to the stardom - and to my astonishment, I'm not cheering them on.

Let's have a look at this show's contenders. One admits she was slashing at her own flesh with razors until three weeks ago. Another brittle, bony girl bursts into tears whenever food is mentioned, and reacted to one of her friends saying that she fancied a Big Mac by descending into a stammering, weeping rage. And the response of the judges to this bevy of borderline psychiatric cases in their late teens? "I don't really care," says Perou, a fashion photographer, with a shrug. "People get knocked back all the time."

But after a few episodes of horrified gawking, I realised that I was grateful this show exists. It unwittingly exposes the fashion industry far better than any undercover-camera job. The judges - like the industry at large - have no clue about the damage they wreak.

After inspecting the flesh, one of them wittered, "I'm really shocked - so many of them have such bad skin for their age." I was watching the show with an ex-model friend, and she spluttered, "Can't you see half of them are vomiting their guts up every morning? Of course their skin is like that."

The programme shows that the norm of female beauty promoted by the fashion world - and internalised by almost every woman in Britain - requires women to make themselves ill.

Well, you might say, there is always going to be a notion of beauty, and some people will always fail to meet it and feel lousy. That's true enough; there's no point espousing a fake egalitarianism of the flesh, where I pretend I'm as fit as Jude Law and it's only a nasty fashion industry that prevents us all from recognising it.

But it's important to understand that no particular type of beauty is programmed into our brains at birth. Your attraction to one type over another - anorexic women over normal women, say - is a complex product of advertising, culture and social conditions. The beauties of Rubens' paintings would be considered grade-A mingers today.

Beauty is an elastic concept; it is vulnerable to being hijacked by (in the 17th century) great artists, or (today) by particular industries with creepy agendas and massive marketing budgets. Men do not "naturally" fancy anorexic women; they are made to.

So the problem isn't that some people are more attractive than others. It's that the particular form of Western female beauty created and policed by a small minority of people in "trend-setting" industries today is a bizarrely unhealthy one. The people involved should not be allowed to escape their responsibility. The glossy offices of Vogue are built on the bodies of thousands of self-starved young girls. Every catwalk model walks over a tide of bulimic bile.

Interestingly, our norm for male beauty isn't nearly so bad. If I strived (in an absurd mission) to look more like Brad Pitt, I would have to work out, develop muscles and lose my swelling flab - hardly unhealthy. If my female friends strived to look like Kate Moss, they would have no choice but to starve themselves for years.

Some people believe the problem is that the fashion industry is dominated by gay male designers, who have promoted a boyish, breast-free, hipless look. Others believe that - in a time of abundant food and growing obesity - we unconsciously set up a starved ideal to limit our own abundant appetites.

I suspect there's some truth in both these claims - but they do not offer anything like a full explanation.

But until we demand change, we will continue to require sickness from women if they want to be regarded as "beautiful". Liz Hurley eats only one meal a day, and fends off her hunger cravings by allowing herself six raisins for lunch on "special days".

Do we really want Western women to pine for African emaciation - or do we want to reject this "Make Me a Supermodel" mentality?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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