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Point/Counterpoint

Point (Gavin): An abnormally low Body Mass Index, a measurement used to express weight-to-height ratio, has been shown to be correlated to earlier than average death. Dramatic or sudden weight loss can wreak havoc on the body’s ability to cope with illnesses. BMI is admittedly not a perfect measure of an individual’s health, but it does act as a relatively good indicator of a variety of weight-related health issues, ranging from eating disorders to obesity. This is also a tested method. Madrid’s Fashion Week banned models with a BMI under 18 in 2006, and Milan followed suit in February 2007. This action followed a series of deaths, including that of Brazilian model Luisel Ramos, whose heart stopped during a Uruguayan fashion show in 2006. She had consumed nothing but green leaves and Diet Coke for three months before the show, and in the 72 hours leading up to the event she ate nothing at all.

Counterpoint (Jacqueline): BMI is not an “imperfect” measure of health – it’s not a valid measurement at all. Low BMI may be correlated with certain health issues, but the measurement is merely a ratio that can, in an average person, be used to indicate abnormal height to weight values. The key word there is “average”. BMI does not take into account the wide range of body types (varying with genetics and ethnicity), body composition (dependent on ratio of muscle mass/fat mass), and generally anyone who deviates from the norm (such as the particular body type coveted by the fashion industry). No doctor would ever rely solely upon BMI to determine whether or not an individual has weight issues, so for an entire industry to lend credence to this measurement as an indicator of health is simply a bad idea. The average athlete is overweight by BMI standards, and people with BMIs classified as overweight have been shown to live longer by some studies. Adopting BMI as a valid means of discrimination and a scientific measurement of health will have significant repercussions when people begin to believe the rather arbitrary standards the system sets.

Point: Given modern social norms, it’s mostly women who are affected by the trend in modeling towards the skinny. For a variety of ‘reasons,’ such as artistic decisions and social conceptions of beauty, female models have been getting slimmer and slimmer. The fact is, the way that the modelling industry is currently established means that, for the most part, only the unusually skinny can land jobs. There are rare exceptions, but generally people need to be far below the average weight-to-height ratio (that, is the BMI) in order to be hired as a model. It is not uncommon to hear of model agencies telling their employees that they need to lose weight in order to be retained by the agency. This creates a situation in which models have to force themselves to lose weight in order to keep their jobs, a situation that naturally leads to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. The fact is, much of the industry has proven unwilling or unable to change in the systematic way necessary without a ban, and that makes a sweeping general rule needed.

Counterpoint: It’s true that, as of right now, designers select models that fit a certain standard for proportions and appearance. However, to quantify that standard and select a cut-off point is actually more dangerous to women in the industry. For one thing, every model will be pressured to stay as close to the cut-off as possible. For some, this may mean rapidly losing a very precise amount of weight. For others, who may be “unusually skinny” by nature, it can mean the opposite. The rapid weight fluctuations that would be necessary for these women to meet the new industry standards so they can keep their jobs would put just as much pressure on them as ever. As for systematic problems in the industry, the unhealthy appearance and weight of many models can often be attributed to the rampant drug use by fashion insiders. Imposing weight standards will conceal a symptom, but it will not cure the chronic disease of addiction that comes as a result of this high-pressure industry.

Point: The idea that designers should be able to choose how to display their creations is just plain silly. These are people we’re talking about, not walking coat racks. Sometimes an analogy is drawn to some sports, such as wrestling or martial arts, where it’s important to stay within a certain weight class. The difference is that in these activities, there’s always a class in which you can compete – maybe not always win – but you can keep participating. In today’s world of fashion, there usually isn’t another option; either you keep up with the agent’s expectations or you don’t. If you don’t then you’re out. We demand that employers provide their employees, to the maximum extent possible, with a safe working environment. We don’t allow coal mine operators to tell their employees to enter the mine without a hard hat, even though the miner might be able to squeeze into smaller spaces and work more efficiently without one. The idea of boxing gloves is to prevent injuries both to the hands of the person throwing the punch and to the face of the person being hit, and there are specific rules to follow and a referee to enforce those rules. The modelling industry has failed to develop similar safeguards to protect the health of its employees, and indeed directly contributes to the problem.

Counterpoint: The right of an artist to select those who will best represent their creations does not seem silly at all. When casting agents hire attractive actresses to be in movies or advertising campaigns, passing over girls who did not meet their standards, no one bats an eye because it’s seen as being part of the industry. We allow artists a certain leeway in how they choose to represent their work. Attractive actors and skinny models have equivalent effects on society’s standards and self-esteem – the only difference is that it is possible to quantify weight in ways that it is not possible to quantify beauty. Does this mean that we should be allowed to set standards for one and not the other? Of course not. Artistic license exists in all art, and unless the artist is actively harming models, then infringing on a designer’s standards is as silly as telling Botticelli to repaint Venus because she sets unrealistic standards. This is not an issue of a questionable manager hiring only attractive secretaries. When you choose to be a model, you choose to participate in an industry where your appearance and your ability to wear clothing of a certain size both define you.

Point: Part of what makes the demands of the modelling agencies seem valid is that the media lends credence to the ridiculous standards that the agencies promote. This comes about both through the ideals represented in advertising and popular culture media, and the material covered by the news media. Some researchers have speculated that the documented increase in eating disorders over the last 20 years may be in part due to growing public concern with obesity, an issue the media always seems fond to discuss. In other words, the media’s portrayal of the obesity threat actually spurs the development of the other extreme of the weight-health spectrum. It’s easy to blame the media, but it’s hard to change social norms all at once. But if the fashion industry makes a clear statement that unhealthy behaviour is not only unnecessary, but also unacceptable, the tide may start to turn. The majority of people involved in the modelling industry are young women, the group already most disposed to eating disorders. This proposal would clearly help them stay healthy. But the message this initiative sends could help other young people as well.

Counterpoint: Do high fashion models really impact your life? Exactly how much responsibility do designers have to make you feel good about yourself? The answers here are ‘very little’ and ‘exactly none’.  No one in the fashion industry has ever claimed that the job of designers is to define and promote a healthy body type. At the level we’re discussing, designers don’t even create and promote practical clothing. High fashion is art that influences society in the same ways that any other kind of art does, and therefore has the same responsibilities to society – no more, no less. Chronic issues of self-esteem are a problem that must be dealt with at the level of parents, educators, and peers. It is not the job of fashion houses to protect us from our own insecurities. We as individuals set the standards for the people that we want to associate with, date and be. If a 90-pound model can change those standards, then our issues run much deeper than media portrayals of beauty, and imposing arbitrary standards is not going to fix anything.

Gavin Charles and Jacqueline Byers are members of Sodales, the Dalhousie Debating Society. Vote for the side of the debate you agree with at www.sodales.ca, or find out more about Sodales by writing to sodales@dal.ca.

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