Defending the Right to be "Heroin-Chic"

by Joanna Mikulski

Madrid’s fashion week, the “Pasarela Cibeles,” caused an uproar in the fashion community last month by banning ultra-thin models from its highly-photographed runways. Organizers of the event and the Madrid regional government imposed the weight and size restrictions to address concerns raised at last year’s fashion week, which featured several models that health professionals and women’s groups deemed dangerously slim. As Milan’s prestigious fashion week considered similar restrictions, the world’s well-coiffed and well-dressed turned to London, Paris and New York. Would they, in the words of one modeling agency representative, discriminate against naturally “gazelle-like” runway walkers? Would they deny the right to be “heroin chic?” Speaking as an average-sized, model-loathing woman, I’m glad they choose not to. The restrictions at the Madrid fashion week represent a well-intentioned, but misplaced, attempt to address the serious public health problem of eating dysfunction.

I do not deny that eating disorders are too prevalent or that images of more realistically-proportioned couture models could help in the fight against them. In the United States alone, more than 11 million people — and more than a few models — suffer from anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Many other women confront less serious body image problems. Furthermore, there’s little question that the news media, which love to feature ultra-thin celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie, contribute to women’s body dissatisfaction and eating dysfunction. Many women who have developed eating disorders in the pursuit of unattainable popular standards of beauty will find solace in the slightly heavier models on the Spanish catwalks. However, Madrid’s weight restrictions represent only a symbolic victory in a fight for broad cultural change and, in the process, activists have forced local officials to venture into territory where the government should not tread.

By imposing the restrictions, the fashion week organizers and government officials took on the dubious task of attempting to define what is “normal” and “healthy.” They are little more prepared to determine normality than Donatella Versace. The limit that they set is arbitrary and practically meaningless. To achieve the minimum body-mass index (BMI) of 18 mandated by Madrid, the average model at 5-foot-9 and 110 pounds would have to gain 13 pounds, but would still be characterized as slightly underweight by the World Health Organization. This standard remains highly unrealistic for the average woman, who in America, stands at 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 142 pounds. Furthermore, weight and size restrictions like those imposed in Madrid open the door to further government regulation, and in fact, some pro-ban activists have already proposed writing legislation. To meaningfully affect the prevalence of eating disorders, the government would have to regulate more than the runways at biannual fashion week events. It would also have to apply to the pages of magazines like Vogue and US Weekly and television shows like “America’s Top Model.” Such extensive legislation would curb freedom of expression and, even then, entrepreneurial designers and models would likely find a way around the rules.

As a woman who once struggled with an eating disorder, I do not seek to minimize the concerns of pro-ban activists, who view this weight crusade as the latest in a series of public health battles that began with Big Tobacco and recently extended to McDonald’s. I only disagree with their tactics. Fashion designers, like tobacco companies and fast-food chains, are not in the business of serving the public health, but rather the business of maximizing profit and pleasing their shareholders. As long as ultra-thin women sell magazines, designers will continue to employ them. Activists who really want to change fashion industry mores should target the industry’s bottom line. Ultimately, neither legislation nor court battles led McDonald’s to offer salads and whole wheat buns. Instead, the fear that the company was falling behind other fast food chains compelled the most recognizable purveyor of fried food to offer healthier options.

While I understand and share the concerns of the officials and activists who supported the Madrid ban, they could better invest their time and money on public service campaigns that promote body acceptance and encourage women to patronize companies that support healthy lifestyles. The Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which features ads picturing women of all sizes, is a good example of responsible use of body image in marketing. Campaigns should also focus on teaching mothers how to raise daughters who accept the proportions God gave them. It took a while, but with love and support from my family, I realized that being 5-foot-5 and 145 pounds isn’t so horrible after all.

Maybe someday Calvin Klein will come to a similar conclusion, but he’s free not to.

Joanna Mikulski the Editor in Chief of the Georgetown Public Policy Review.

Email Joanna Mikulski at



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