The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Star Models 'You Are Not a Sketch' campaign. Source:

In June 2009, concerned about the shrinking size of sample clothing, British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman wrote a letter to a selection of top designers, including Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, which was later leaked to the press. Although Shulman's words were no doubt influential, when speaking to The Telegraph, she was cautiously optimistic. "I don't expect in the next season I'm going to see anything particularly huger… I think it will change, but slower than I would like."

Dove's 'Real Beauty' Campaign.

Industry-wide changes have been gradual. Some Italian fashion houses, including Prada, Versace and Armani decided to ban size-zero models from their catwalks in 2006, while the Council of Fashion Designers of America re-released its health guidelines in 2011 to address what they described on their website as an "overwhelming concern about whether some models are unhealthily thin." More recently, Israel passed a new law that prohibits the hiring of models with a Body Mass Index below 18.5. But the prevalence of "unhealthily thin" models is still a concern, and with such powerful images fuelling the beauty debate, it's hard to ignore. 

Last month, Dove and Ogilvy Brazil hired FBI-trained forensics artist Gil Zamora to sketch seven different women, on two occasions. The first picture was based on each woman's personal description, and the second from an account given by a stranger they had just met. The Real Beauty campaign aimed to change women's perception of themselves and conquer low self-esteem. It rapidly went viral and has been viewed on YouTube over 54 million times since it was uploaded on April 14.

Brazilian-based modelling agency, Star Models, aimed to achieve a similar effect with its eating disorder awareness campaign, also released last month. Far more explicit, and similarly shocking, the striking advertisement features images of two women. On the left-hand side is an archetypal example of a fashion sketch; while on the right, an identical human version has been crafted from Photoshop using the same measurements as in the sketch. The model stands contorted with a protruding skeletal frame, cadaverous arms, and gangly legs. "You are not a sketch," reads the provocative tag line.

Whether the campaign is aimed at models, the fashion industry or the general public is unclear, as is the motivation behind it. After all, modelling agencies are generally among those that have come under scrutiny when unhealthily thin and underweight models have been solicited for catwalk shows and fashion campaigns. Modelling agencies in Sweden even made headlines last year when they were shockingly caught scouting patients at the Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders.

To generalise it [the 'size zero' debate] to the point of accusing catwalk models belittles those who have fallen victim to [anorexia] and completely dismisses the sheer complexity of eating disorders as a whole.

However, what the Dove and Star Models advertisements have in common is the belief that women need to change how they view themselves. In the case of the latter, the implication is that fashion designers are exposing women to abnormally thin and disproportionate fashion illustrations that could serve to proliferate eating disorders. As Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, explained to The Huffington Post in September 2011, "Although thin models are not the cause of eating disorders, they can be a trigger or a factor in maintaining an eating disorder."

Anne E. Becker, professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, similarly explained to the newspaper that "with Fashion Week, and all of those thin models, and clothing that looks best on a size zero - what that does is set a standard of what is socially desirable and prestigious that is likely to have a powerful influence on social norms […] If one day we had a Fashion Week where there were size 16 models, I suspect that would be very influential too."

Indeed, designers have a great deal of influence in the establishment of a body-positive society - even if their illustrations are intended as purely artistic. What the comments from Albers and Becker assume, however, is a causal link between the fashion industry and eating disorders. There is no explicit evidence to show a correlation between anorexia and the exposure to size zero models. While there are connections between magazine covers and the social ideals of perfect bodies, to link this with anorexia would be to assume that a complex psychological and physical illness can be "acquired" through cultural exposure.

As The Independent's Independent Voice commentator Catherineib explains from personal experience, "the tired conclusion that stick-insect models and rake thin celebrities are behind the huge number of people suffering with eating disorders only perpetuates the stereotypical belief that anorexia is a lifestyle choice - a diet gone too far."

That anorexia is a choice is also implied in the seemingly pro-active and innocent by-line, "Say no to anorexia", which sits alongside the Star Models' campaign images. It's as if to say you can choose to have an eating disorder, so you can also choose to avoid one - as long as you recognise what is wrong with the fashion industry beforehand. "This presumption angers me beyond belief," continues Catherineib. "To generalise it [the 'size zero' debate] to the point of accusing catwalk models belittles those who have fallen victim to [anorexia] and completely dismisses the sheer complexity of eating disorders as a whole."


In 2005, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine conducted a study into eating disorders. They were able to identify six core traits, which were all seemingly connected with the genes commonly associated with both anorexia and bulimia: anxiety, obsessionality, lifetime minimum body-mass index, concern over mistakes, age at first menstruation and food-related obsessions. Many seem to forget, or ignore, the role played by genetic and biological-shaped pieces in the complex puzzle of eating disorders.

It is easier to label eating disorders as a cultural concern instead. The fashion industry, with its use of Photoshop and demand for perfection, is an all too easy target in the body image debate. Yet as Lynn Grefe, chief executive of the National Eating Disorders Association, remarked to The New York Times in 2006, if eating disorders "were all about culture", then "every one of us who reads a fashion magazine would have one."

Ultimately, the Dove and Star Models advertising campaigns should not be used to apportion blame in the "size zero" debate. This would undermine their real purpose; to get women thinking. There is the ironic potential that creating life-like sketches of anorexic women could serve as "thinspiration" for those already suffering. However, as Lexi Nisita writes for Refinery 29, "we have to give women enough credit not to take media imagery too literally. Barbie is a doll, not a person; these are fashion sketches, not a recommendation for what you should look like."

Instead of telling us what to think, the shock value of such campaigns ought to serve as a platform for debate and discussion about body image. In allowing women to establish a personal sense of what is beautiful, there is a greater chance that individual perceptions about body image will change too.



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