There is controversy underway at Cover magazine. An image from the Danish mag's latest issue (number 103) was leaked on Reddit last week or so, and the model, 16-year-old Lululeika Ravn Liep, is at the center of an online war in connection with her weight, specifically a thread with nearly 2,000 comments, entitled "Corpse or model?" The magazine's editor, Malene Malling, took to the magazine's Facebook page to say: "I have not lived up to my responsibilities as a publisher, woman and mother and I am sincerely very sorry." The Danish Tax Minister Benny Englebrecht even took to his Twitter account to voice his disapproval, writing: “I seriously thought that the fashion industry had understood that anorexia is a problem that should be taken seriously."
One of the most concerning elements of the situation is certainly the blame that a large number of the commenters are placing on Liep. Many accuse the 16-year-old model of "promoting anorexia." And to this, we ask: Instead of pointing fingers to blame anyone, why don't we focus our energies on how to prevent scary skinny models from being depicted in fashion in the first place?
Over the past several years, weight has been an increasingly large concern in connection with models, both for the sake of the individuals' health and for the larger message it sends. In 2006, 21-year old Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, who had fronted campaigns for Giorgio Armani, died of anorexia-related complications. Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos also passed away that year from heart failure minutes after stepping off the catwalk, prompting the industry to consider (if only briefly and to varying extents) where it is failing in terms of body image. But how much has actually changed? That is absolutely up for debate. There are signs of potential positive change. In 2006, select countries, including Italy and India banned underweight models from the catwalk. In 2013, Israel followed suit, passing a law that bans the use of underweight models in national ad campaigns and publications. In accordance with that legislation, models with a body mass index of less than 18.5 are considered malnourished and are to be prevented from working. The British Advertising Standards Authority continues to play its role, becoming much more stringent in recent years about the appearance of models in ad campaigns in the UK.
Then in May 2012, 19 international editors of Vogue, including Anna Wintour of American Vogue, signed on to the Vogue Health Initiative to encourage a healthier approach to body image within the industry, a program similar to one that Council of Fashion Designers of America has issued for years. As part of the pact, the international issues of Vogue jointly pledge - among other things - to "work with models who, in our view, are healthy and help to promote a healthy body image" and to "be ambassadors for the message of healthy body image." The pact also includes a pledge to refrain from hiring models that are under age 16, a provision that was subsequently broken by a number of Vogue magazines and CFDA member designers.
There have, however, been many lapses in the past two years alone. You may recall that the media went wild after Cassi Van Den Dungen hit the runway in April 2014 for Alex Perry's Spring/Summer show, shocked by the 21-year old model's gaunt appearance. Of his casting choices, Perry blamed long working hours and “a serious lack of judgement," saying: "It’s not an image I think is a good one to put forward certainly not one I’ve presented my brand about." That August, the Gap, which is often not challenged for its choice of models, came under fire to an online campaign starring Katlin Aas, who has starred in campaigns for Alexander Wang, Dior, Miu Miu, and Marc Jacobs, among others. The tweet prompted users to accuse the retailer of promoting and normalizing anorexia.
Italian design house Armani also raised eyebrows on the heels of his September 2014 show, with publications releasing headlines, such as: "Armani Used Rail Thin Models In Milan Fashion Show" and "Armani Criticized For Using Disturbingly Skinny Models," headlines with which Saint Laurent is completely familiar, thanks to the casting of Hedi Slimane (think: "Shockingly thin male models on catwalk at YSL reignite manorexia debate" and "Blogger takes on YSL for using 'malnourished' models"). Then, in October, designer Stella McCartney caused controversy when she posted a photo of a very thin looking JiHye Park on her Instagram. After deleting the photo some hours later and replacing it with one of Malaika Firth, McCartney told the press: “We are a house that celebrates all shapes, all sizes, all races and all ages."
These instances serve as background information in helping us to see that the industry is, in fact, aware that the employment of "shockingly skinny" models is negative on numerous fronts. Some blame the industry as a whole, which arguably makes sense. Former Vogue Australia editor Kirstie Clements, who wrote a tell-all book, entitled, “The Vogue Factor,” in 2013, says models often engage in “dangerous patterns of behavior that the industry – shockingly – begins to accept as par for the course.” An excerpt from the book reads:
"It is the ultimate vicious cycle. A model who puts on a few kilos can't get into a sample size on a casting and gets reprimanded by her agency. She begins to diet, loses the weight, and is praised by all for how good she looks. But instead of staying at that weight and trying to maintain it through a sensible diet and exercise, she thinks losing more will make her even more desirable. And no one tells her to stop."
Others, such as the commenters on the "Corpse or model?" forum in response to the images from Cover magazine's latest issue, blame the model. Neither one is ideal, especially as there are exceptions to every rule. There are certainly people in the industry, Sara Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, for example, who are rallying for the well being of models, or IMG Models, which pioneers body diversity and has incorporated plus size models in its top women's board, who are trying to reconfigure the beauty standard. But this gives rise to the real problem, in my opinion. The beauty standard that we all know to be perpetuated by fashion and the media, etc. will take time to change, a long time, and that is what it is (change takes time), and while problematic as it is, this is an issue that is separate from the need to refrain from exploiting young, often inexperienced, and as we have read, often unhealthy models. We cannot just blame the industry as a whole or the beauty standard in general and wait for change to happen.
In short, beauty standards and the well being of models are not exactly the same issue, and thus, we cannot simply ignore one (models' health) because it is difficult and very time-consuming to change the other (the standard of beauty). CFDA President Diane Von Furstenberg put it quite well when she released a statement in connection with the CFDA's Health Initiative. She said: "The CFDA formed a health initiative to address what has become a global fashion issue: the overwhelming concern about whether some models are unhealthily thin, and whether or not to impose restrictions in such cases. Designers share a responsibility to protect women, and very young girls in particular, within the business, sending the message that beauty is health."
While we cannot change that thinness is the ideal form of beauty, especially in high fashion, I don't think it is too much of a stretch to not employ girls that appear to be very unhealthy. That is probably just a good practice in any industry and one that can be adopted even if we value thinness.