An eye-catching editorial in a recent issue of PLUS Model Magazine has started quite the buzz. It features implied nude photos of plus-size model Katya Zharkova with captions that reflect on the unrealistic beauty standards currently set by the modeling industry. While the intention of promoting body diversity in models is a good one, misleading statistics and questionable claims have caused some to deem the editorial’s contentions dubious.
“20 years ago,” writes PLUS, “the average model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman. Today she weighs 23 percent less.” Unfortunately, no sources are provided for this statistic, and a basic search yields little supporting evidence. What is evident, however, is the rapid rate at which Americans are gaining weight. The average American woman’s weight has increased by 11 pounds (7 percent), from 152 pounds to 163 pounds in 10 years, while her height has remained about the same (an increase of 0.1 inch, or 0.2 percent taller). The results are from the National Center for Health Statistics, based on two studies: “NHANES III,” and one of the most recent available, “HANES.”
While the issue of too-thin models certainly needs to be addressed, they remain in the minority when examining the weight problems of society as a whole. A study by the Trust for America’s Health found that nearly two-thirds of states now have adult obesity rates above 25 percent. Being overweight to an unhealthy degree is becoming increasingly acceptable. What is ironic is that the gap between what the “ideal” body (extremely thin) and what has become the average body (too heavy) is larger than ever before. Both perceptions need to change. Models should not have to become heavier as other women become heavier, nor should they have to maintain shockingly low body weights. Trading one extreme for the other will serve no one well.
The next outlandish claim made by the magazine is that “most runway models meet the Body Mass Index physical criteria for anorexia.” While this certainly sounds shocking, further research into the Body Mass Index (BMI) system shows that this is an inherently flawed manner of measuring health. BMI gives a numerical measurement based on an individual’s height and weight. It was introduced in the early 19th century by a Belgian named Adolphe Quetelet, who was a mathematician, not a physician. The formula was intended to give a quick and easy way to measure the degree of obesity of the general population to assist the government in allocating resources, not to indicate level of fatness in an individual.
BMI takes no account of the proportion of bone, muscle and fat in the body. In the massive amount of Americans who lead relatively inactive lifestyles, the BMI actually assumes low muscle mass and higher fat content. It can work well for a person who fits this profile, because it was formulated for them, however for another significant portion of the population the BMI would be terribly misleading. Additionally, it suggests that there are distinct categories of underweight, ideal, overweight and obese with extremely sharp boundaries. I was surprised to find that my own BMI puts me in the physical criteria for anorexia when I live a mainly healthy lifestyle. BMI makes no accommodations for people who are naturally and healthfully above or below the average.
The modeling industry has been fairly kind to me. However, growing up in the similar worlds of ballet and modeling, I saw plenty of girls who constantly grappled with their weight, often resorting to unhealthy weight loss techniques and justifying it as dedication to their craft. It is certainly a delicate issue. Eating disorders have become commonplace in these industries, and we need a more comprehensive way of determining a model’s health than a BMI measurement. So long as a model is at a natural, healthy weight for her, be it over or under the average, she should be encouraged to pursue her craft. But naturally thin models have often been unfairly targeted. I’ve yet to see an attack on a plus-size store for promoting unhealthy lifestyles. We must acknowledge that this is a two sided issue.
So what is a solution? It is certainly not requiring models to maintain a certain BMI, as many European countries have done. Rejecting models based on a low BMI is every bit as discriminatory as banning models with a high BMI would be. I think France handled this issue particularly well. When a bill to require a model’s BMI to be 18 or above failed, the country started a nationwide campaign to raise eating disorder awareness. I would contend that raising awareness of the problems with being severely overweight is every bit as vital. Additionally, the modeling industry needs to change the way it chooses models. Several alternatives to a BMI requirement that give a more accurate measurement of one’s health have been suggested, such as the body adiposity index, which many believe gives a more accurate measurement of body fat.
Most of all, the fashion and beauty industries must stop pitting “skinny” and “curvy” women against each other. Lately, many ad campaigns have attempted to capitalize on the “real women have curves” mentality. This is just as detrimental as featuring primarily slender models. “Real women” come in many shapes and sizes, and what both ends of the spectrum need to aspire to is a healthy weight, whatever that may be for the individual.