NEW YORK, United States — Model health is a difficult, emotional issue that affects many individuals and their families. In 2006 the tragic death of 22 year-old Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos from heart failure caused by anorexia launched a global conversation around eating disorders and the wellbeing of models.
The CFDA felt we needed to amplify the American fashion industry’s voice in the conversation. We brought together a committee of experts including nutritionist Joy Bauer, fitness instructor David Kirsch, and Dr. Susan Ice, vice president and chief medical officer of eating disorder treatment facility the Renfrew Center, who drew up the guidelines that became the CFDA Health Initiative, a set of recommendations that we issue to designers taking part in New York Fashion Week. These guidelines include that no girl under the age of 16 should walk the runway, and that healthy food and nutrition advice should be provided backstage.
At the time, there were calls for requirements that runway models should be a certain weight and have a certain BMI — but a model who eats well and is healthy and strong may still have a low BMI. The committee decided that regulations were not the best approach for us. Rather, we created recommendations in areas where the industry could be more proactive on health. The CFDA Health Initiative has hosted public forums and panels with industry figures such as Natalia Vodianova, Doutzen Kroes, Michael Kors, Donna Karan and James Scully, run sessions for models on wellbeing and nutrition, and had very candid conversations with groups of casting agents, modelling agents, designers and editors around the issue. In instances when a girl has been identified as having a medical issue, we've been able to help support her in getting treatment.
When it comes to age, it’s very easy for people to say they are not responsible — the designer is responsible, the casting agent is responsible, the agency is responsible — and, I have to say, when we launched the Health Initiative in 2007, there was a lot of that going around. We ask that casting agents check girls’ IDs, but we are educators, not police, and we choose not to enforce regulations.
We would never publicly chastise anyone and there is no penalty. It’s about conversation. If, through our eyes and ears on the ground, we hear that a designer will potentially use an underage model in their show, we have a conversation — with the agency that sent the girl out, the casting agency that was considering her for the show and the designer who, ultimately, is the face of the show. After that conversation, it usually changes. There have been no girls under 16 on the NYFW runway for many seasons.
Universally, people in the industry understand the importance of working with girls of a level of maturity, who understand their bodies. It’s just a matter of staying very conscious of it during a very busy time, in the gruelling schedule of a fashion week period.
I would welcome more cohesion across different countries on guidelines like the CFDA Health Initiative. Each city and each fashion week is different in how it is produced and how it operates, but universally, the models have the same level of work. A global programme or a global campaign across Milan, Paris and London Fashion Week would be a powerful thing, to encourage a broad industry commitment to the notion that “health is beauty”.
As told to Kate Abnett.