Madrid fashion week (Pasarela Cibeles), one of Spain's most prestigious shows, is banning underweight models on the basis of their body mass index (BMI). The Spanish Association of Fashion Designers has decided to ban models who have a BMI of less than 18.
Health fanaticism of Pasarela Cibeles sparked a news story from the previous month, in which 22-year-old Luisel Ramos died of heart failure after walking at a fashion show in Uruguay. According to the Associated Press, she had been on a diet and hadn’t eaten for three days prior to the show.
The incident garnered negative media attention around the globe and threatened to target the fashion industry’s notorious zero tolerance policy on human body fat. Unhealthily skinny models inspired protests from doctors and women's rights groups. Recently accused of contributing to body dissatisfaction and the rise of eating disorders in Spain, Madrid fashion week has been converted into a platform for public health issues by the introduction of its BMI screening process. Madrid's local government says it wants to set a more positive, healthy image of beauty for teenagers to follow.
Leonor Perez Pita, one of the organizers of Pasarela Cibeles, acknowledges that “the restrictions could be quite a shock to the fashion world at the beginning, but I’m sure it’s important as far as health is concerned.” Perez Pita emphasized the show’s objective of promoting an image of beauty and health through their models, who, according to another unprecedented guideline, were prohibited from wearing any makeup that might give them a sickly or pale appearance.
Milan Mayor Letizia Moratti and British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell were both inspired by this happening and mentioned recommending similar measures for the Milan and London Fashion Weeks, respectively. However, London Fashion Week went by recently without implementing any such regulations. The British Fashion Council defended its stance on the issue by stating that it “does not comment or interfere in the aesthetic of any designer’s show.”
This event caused a stir from models, modeling agencies and designers as well. Unsurprisingly, most modeling agencies were critical of the attempt to filter out ultra-slim models. Cathy Gould, North American director of New York’s Elite modeling agency, claimed that the fashion industry was being victimized and used as a scapegoat for complicated illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia that may be genetic and often originate with problems in the home. By choosing to judge their health and beauty based on BMI, which alone cannot indicate bad health or the existence of eating disorders, she may have violated the sensitive issue of size neutrality. “I think it’s outrageous. I understand they want to set this tone of ‘healthy beautiful women,’ but what about the discrimination against the model and what about the freedom of the designer?” she asked, adding that the careers of naturally "gazelle-like" models could be damaged.
Didier Grumbach, president of the French Couture Federation and purported Bud Selig of fashion, stated: “It’s for the designer to decide what type of model he wants; that cannot be regulated.” Models might be viewed as a commodity, nothing more than a factory line of human clothes hangers, but they are actually inherent to establishing the look of a certain collection. Donatella Versace and Betsey Johnson are known to favor earthy Amazonienne types like Gisele Bündchen, while Miuccia Prada and Marc Jacobs prefer the childlike pixie features exemplified by the ethereal Gemma Ward.
Grumbach went on to say that “if Jean Paul Gaultier wants to take ‘fat’ people for his catwalk shows, we are not going to stop him. When Galliano puts on the catwalk people who are not ‘pretty-pretty,’ no one thinks to reproach him.” Every generation rewrites its own bible of aestheticism. The visions of designers like Karl Lagerfeld and Issey Miyake continue to deconstruct and redefine beauty on a seasonal basis, echoing the footsteps of Coco Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga before them. While the sensuous curves of the Venus de Milo or the pinched waist of Marilyn Monroe might have once been embraced as the female physical ideal, Giacometti-esque women continue to dominate the 21st century. None of these bodies might actually be attainable to the masses, but as a senior editor at Marie Claire magazine once said, “designers sell dreams.” At least that means that tomorrow, we might just wake up to something new again.