How to end the fashion famine

Super-thin models worry us all. Rebecca Fowler says that advertising power could succeed where parents and doctors have failed
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The Independent Online
"The hip's where it's at," proclaims Vogue in the latest edition, beside a smiling woman in hotpants with no hips. "Summer's sparest essential," it says next to a photograph of a woman so thin, even Lycra fails to cling to her. I laugh out loud, as I imagine myself prancing over a beach in the absurd Adidas catsuit, although 10 years ago such a thought would have driven my schoolfriends and me to private despair.

These are the images made notorious by Omega, the watch company, which temporarily withdrew its advertising with Vogue earlier this week in a protest against the painfully thin women in its pages. As a result Omega is now also on the front page of every newspaper. It linked itself to the most fashionable story of the day, our painfully thin models who have become an unrealistic ideal in an age when eating disorders have never concerned parents more.

It is an unholy alliance - anxious parents and a posh watch company as co-campaigners against the tyranny of the thinness cult. While Omega's protest was seen as a victory for the women's groups, doctors and psychologists, it was also a striking front page for newspaper editors, and a publicity coup for Omega, which last night resumed the contract with Vogue.

Claudia Marten, fashion director at Lynne Franks PR, sees Omega's action as part of a movement in which companies - beginning with Bennetton, the founder of the shock ad - have increasingly found that newspaper headlines give them the wider coverage than any hoarding or magazine. "They've probably got more advertising out of this than advertising in Vogue, and much cheaper," she says.

Omega denies any cunning. The incident started simply enough when Giles Rees, the marketing director of Omega UK, was prompted to withdraw the advertising because he was "appalled" by the models. "I thought it was irresponsible for a leading magazine which should be setting an example to pick models of anorexic proportions," he said.

Although Mr Rees, whose letter to Vogue was released to the press, has no direct experience of anorexia, he says that a girl in his wife's class at school died of the disorder. However, the company last night announced its U-turn based on "a belief it was not in anybody's interest to manipulate the editorial position of any given media".

Whatever the causes that have propelled the issue to the front pages, there is no doubting the shockingness of the images. On the pages of Vogue, the emaciated figures of Annie Morton and Trish Goff are made appealing by the glamour of fashion photography. But blown up, in less flattering newsprint, they are a horrible testimony to the unrealistic ideals being pressed on women.

Surely anyone staring at the pathetically thin image of Trish Goff in shorts would feel uncomfortable. But for the campaigners who have been condemning the imagery for decades, the question is why has it taken the rest of us so long to wake up? And how far are we prepared to go in redrawing our ideals of beauty?

There is something a little hollow in Omega's own proclamation that it uses only healthy looking women such as Cindy Crawford and Elle MacPherson. A colleague who recently saw Crawford in the flesh at a handbag launch said despondently that she was "tiny" with "not an ounce of flesh on her".

The cult of thinness has become so pervasive a force in advertising, Cindy Crawford is seen as a concession to normality. In the Fifties, Marilyn Monroe, size 16, was still an ideal. Then, in the Sixties, Twiggy's arrival coincided with women's lib, when thinness was a sign of independence and freedom from reproduction. And while some Arabian husbands still like to show off fat wives as a sign of their affluence, the rise of cheap junk food has had the opposite effect in the west. Thin is also classy.

Models have remained thin since the Sixties, but not with such vengeance as the superwaifs who rose to the head of the catwalk in the Nineties led by Kate Moss. Despite the fashion commentators having repeatedly announced that the waifs' day is up, they have endured. When the first images of Moss appeared in Times Square in New York irate protestors scrawled "Feed me! I'm hungry" the over posters.

The response of the fashion industry has been petulant. Moss signed her recent books of photographs with the mantra of the waifs: "PS I'm just on my way out to dinner to eat a massive steak and loads of fattening potatoes with loads of butter." David Bonnouvrier, of the New York agency which represents Annie Morton, said: "She drinks beer, she eats McDonald's. She's never had a weight problem." So what. Maybe Morton has not got an eating problem, but she is extraordinarily thin and being promoted for it.

Dr Glen Waller, a specialist in eating disorders, wrote to Vogue four years ago to protest against this type of imagery, following research into the negative impact thin models had on women. But a lone medical voice has little impact in the world of fashion. "Unless other companies are prepared to take similar action to Omega's, the culture for ultra- thinness will remain," he says.

It is a view shared by Susie Orbach, the psycho-therapist who wrote a commentary beneath a picture of Goff on the front page of yesterday's Guardian. She says: "You could take the cynical position that this gives Omega a very good profile. On the other hand it does bring attention to these images that many people will be shocked by. It shows it has become a political story."

Already Clarins, the skin-care and make-up company, which advertises its products in the June edition of Vogue, has said it would consider a similar move. "If it becomes an issue with the general public of course we will consider it," a spokeswoman said.

The powers at Vogue issued a hurt statement yesterday: "What seems ironic to us is that this emotive issue should be raised in a month when we have gone to such trouble to celebrate women's bodies ... it is full of positive images of female forms," says Alexandra Shulman, the editor.

Perhaps the most jarring headline in this month's Vogue is: "Don't hate me because I'm thin." Susan Irvine, the author, who is 5ft 10in tall and weighs just over eight and a half stone, writes: "Writing about the persecution of the thin is difficult. It's a bit like insisting how awful it is to be rich, or saying life's hell because you're beautiful."

But it misses the point to assert that thinness is perceived as an evil. It is the pursuit of it in the extreme that has produced a generation of women obsessed with weight. The painfully uncomfortable relationship we have with food may well be passed on to the next generation if the gloss is not wiped off those half-starved images. One can only hope that in future the companies who hold the purse strings will be the ones to lead us out of the fashion famine.