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the bmi debate: how do you measure the health of models?

After a number of models spoke out about experiencing incredible pressure from the industry to stay super-thin, the UK government has launched an inquiry into model health starting on 1 December. In the run up to the inquiry, i-D will explore the issue...

by Charlotte Gush
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23 November 2015, 12:55pm

"I'm a 23 year old model, a clothes size 8 to 10. When I walked into one of the UK's biggest model agencies last year they told me I ticked all the boxes except one -- I needed to lose weight," Rosie Nelson explains in an online petition she started two months ago, asking the government to protect models from the pressure to be dangerously thin. "Four months later I lost nearly a stone, 2 inches off my hips," she continues, describing how, when she returned to the agency, they told her to lose even more weight. "They wanted me 'down to the bone'," she says.

This alarming anecdote is just one of a spate of recent examples of models speaking out against the incredible pressure they have faced to maintain an ultra-thin physique whilst working in the fashion industry. Charli Howard, a size six model who had been told she was "too big" by her agency, posted on Facebook, to say "I am human, I cannot miraculously shave my hip bones down, just to fit into a sample size piece of clothing or to meet 'agency standards'"; Agnes Hedengård posted a video of herself in a bikini to show the size six body she had been told was too big, saying "They think my butt is too big, and they think my hips are too wide. According to the modelling industry, you cannot look like this. You need to be thinner"; and Scarlett Gray spoke about quitting the industry after being told she couldn't be sent to castings because her hips were too big, despite being a size 8, 5ft10 and just 17 years old.

Fashion, unquestionably, has a health problem; so what can be done about it? Rosie Nelson's petition, which now has over 90,000 signatures, asks the Government to, "Create a law to protect models from getting dangerously skinny," and this may now become a reality, as a Government inquiry into model health has been announced by the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Body Image, Caroline Nokes MP.

"The APPG inquiry on December 1 in Parliament will gather evidence from a wide range of experts," Nokes wrote in the Telegraph last week. "Countries such as France and Italy have legislated to put in place statutory minimum BMIs and health certificates for models," she notes, explaining that she intends, "to put together a report outlining recommendations to the Government as to whether we should follow their example".

The BMI (Body Mass Index) measurement that Nokes mentions has been used in France, Italy, Spain and Israel to assess model health. The test uses a person's height and weight ratio to ascertain whether or not they are healthy, underweight or even malnourished. World Health Organisation guidelines state that an adult with a BMI below 18.5 is underweight, below 18 is malnourished and below 17 is severely malnourished. The Guardian point out that an, "average model measuring 1.75m (5ft 9in) and weighing 50kg (7st 12lb) has a BMI of 16".

In France, the Government has banned models whose BMI is under 18 from the catwalk, with agencies facing a €75,000 fine and a six month prison sentences if they fail to comply, and magazines must now indicate if an image has been digitally altered to make a model appear thinner or larger, with a fine of €37,500 or 30 percent of earnings from advertising as punishment for misdemeanors. In Israel, models must have a BMI of at least 18.5 in order to appear on the catwalk or in advertising and must have a health certificate to prove it; in Spain, a BMI of 18 has been set for the Madrid catwalks; and in Italy there are voluntary guidelines that also use a BMI lower limit of 18.

BMI has certainly been latched onto as a simple, universal measure, but its use is controversial, with many claiming that the measurement is arbitrary and does not take into account the unique physicality of many models. All size 6 women who are nearing 6 ft tall have improbable proportions, but not every one of them will be malnourished -- some women really are that tall and thin naturally, whereas some would have to starve themselves to maintain such a small dress size.

Speaking to ABC after Israel passed legislation requiring models to have a minimum BMI of 18.5, Shai Avital, owner and CEO of Elite Models in Israel, said that, "The law disregards the fact that some models are thin due to genetics and nothing they would do would increase their BMI to the legally accepted level. This law ends now their careers".

Discriminating against naturally thin models is surely not the answer, but the evidence makes it clear that the modelling industry has a long way to go before it can claim to take the health of all models seriously. In Spain, concerns have been raised due to reports of agencies helping models to cheat BMI tests. "They gave us Spanx underwear to stuff with weighted sandbags so the thinnest of girls had a 'healthy' weight on the scales. I even saw them put weights in their hair," an anonymous model told an Observer.com reporter.

Both Caroline Nokes MP and model Rosie Nelson have voiced their desire to steer clear of legislation that uses BMI to measure model health. "It's a lousy measure for an individual's health," Nokes told the Guardian. She says that she would be, "The first to acknowledge that legislation is not the answer for everything," but says, "I'd really like someone to come forward and explain to me why a size six woman is being told that her hips are too wide to be suitable to showcase clothes". "We are faced with an industry that's out of step and thinking it can just go along with the situation, while health experts and academics are deeply concerned about the impact [it's having] on our young people," she explains.

ITV sent Rosie Nelson to speak to a group of schoolgirls, and it is disturbing to hear their views on the extreme thinness idolised in the industry. "I'm absolutely obsessed with fashion magazines," says one, with another admitting that she aspires, "to look like the models I see in the magazine". Shown images of very thin models, one girl says, "I feel like the clothes look better on her because she's skinnier… having skinny legs just looks so much better". "Although I know that it's supposed to be too skinny, it's almost the ideal weight that I would aspire to get to," one says, with another agreeing, "I think that that's what you should look like, that's like an ideal weight". Nelson describes how ill she was when she was that thin, saying she had no energy and was in a really dark place, but the girls seem unphased. "Hearing my experience probably didn't change their opinion of it," she tells the presenter.

By eye, it can very difficult to tell whether or not a model is healthy, particularly in images with added layers of make up and photoshop, and clearly BMI is an imperfect measure, but there are other ways of accurately assessing health. Rosie Nelson has suggested that models attend mandatory health checks every three to six months, mirroring the drug testing of those other physically exceptional humans -- professional athletes. A medical professional can tell by testing vital signs including heart rate, blood pressure and temperature; by checking for skin and nail problems; listening to the heart and lungs; examining the abdomen; running blood count tests and liver, kidney and thyroid function tests; as well as psychological assessments and other tests including X-rays for bone density. Basically, if you've been starving yourself, it's almost impossible to hide that from a doctor.

A month ago, Caroline Nokes suggested that the fashion industry had ignored her invitation to contribute to the inquiry. "I have written to a number of model agencies including Wilhelmina, Models 1 and Storm and also to Victoria Beckham, whose show at New York fashion week drew such attention to this already concerning problem," she said in a statement, adding, "Sadly, I have received no response from any of them and I think this is a real shame". A spokesperson for Victoria Beckham told the Huffington Post that the designer had been on holiday at the time and that they were unaware of the request, and a representative from Storm said the agency is, "talking with the British Fashion Council to address this latest enquiry [sic]".

Since then, it seems at least some have come forward, as Nokes writes in the Telegraph that there has been, "a positive response by many industry professionals, academics, medics and models who are all keen to give evidence to the inquiry". "I have also been contacted by model agencies who would like to put forward the reasons for so many of these difficult decisions being taken -- and I want to hear them," she continues, asserting that, "The final report must be produced having taken evidence from all sides of this debate and I am open to hearing more about why models 'must' be so thin to work on the catwalk". Hopefully the industry is open to accepting that it has a problem and will show a genuine desire to protect models, because truly, nothing looks as good as healthy feels.

READ about all the ways that #SizeMatters on i-D.co this week

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Text Charlotte Gush