David Herzog, M.D., founded the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital in the early 1990s. On April 2, the Center will host its 15th annual public forum on body image and the media. This year's speakers include Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue, who has previously campaigned against "pro ana" blogs but has also been criticized for at least one fashion spread featuring a very thin-looking model, Karlie Kloss; Arianna Huffington, President and Editor-in-Chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, who wrote about one of her daughters' struggle with eating issues in her book "On Becoming Fearless.... in Love, Work, and Life," and model Doutzen Kroes, whose body has been praised as "curvy" and "athletic," in contract to the often remarked upon the extreme slenderness of most runway models.
The Huffington Post caught up with Dr. Herzog to ask about recent progress in eating disorder research, the purpose of the forum and his reasons for inviting members of the fashion industry to play such a prominent role.
Which of the Harris Center's recent achievements are you most proud of?
One of the questions that frequently came up [among patients] early on, was, “What is going to happen to my daughter or me in one year or five years or 10 years, whether I get treatment or I don’t. Will I ever recover from this?” In 1987 we were funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the NIMH, to do a prospective follow-up study of 246 women with anorexia and bulimia. We are now in the 25th year of mapping the course of their disorders, what happens over time. So that’s what’s going on currently.
What findings has the study yielded up to this point?
So far we've been able to determine, unfortunately, the severity of this illness. In the first 11 years of the study, 10 of the 136 women with anorexia nervosa died. These were young women. And we wouldn’t have known that they had died if we weren’t following them. They weren’t necessarily in treatment -- they might have gone for 3 months or been in psychotherapy or stopped and then started -- but we were going to record all of it so at least we would know what [care] they had. It gave us a chance to look at who gets better. What are the factors that predict better outcomes or worse outcomes? I’m not sure we know that there’s a specific treatment for the illness -- you take this and you do this, and you so-called "get better." That is an area that we keep working on."
This year and in previous years, you’ve invited members of the fashion industry, including Anna Wintour, Diane von Furstenberg and several models, to speak at the Harris Center's annual Public Forum. What's your thinking there?
There’s obviously an interest in the fashion world because there is concern that [it] is a factor in the rise of eating disorders. So I was able to make contact with Anna Wintour, and she organized the panel [in 2010] with Michael Kors and [supermodel] Natalie Vodianova to come here and talk about that. To [take on] the issues, [ask], "What’s going on here?" [The discussion] partly had to do with the safety of models and partly had to do with impact of all this on the greater public. Though I’m always concerned about individuals and I don’t want models to suffer more than anyone else, my bigger concern truthfully is the [effect] on the whole society idealizing these figures, these models, these images, which fosters this "too thin" ideal.
For me working with the fashion industry is an opportunity to learn. There’s always this fear that you’re going to be seen as a colluder, but to make change in the fashion world is very much [about] chipping away. You can’t go in with a sledgehammer. The fact that Anna was here was a big step. Sometimes working with the industry is more effective than just purely attacking it.
Do we have a way of measuring the impact of media on rates of eating disorders?
I don’t think if we change the media, that suddenly there aren’t going to be eating disorders. But we’re continually gathering data about the rates of eating disorders whether that’s increasing or stabilizing. Individuals who develop eating disorders are not necessarily glued to fashion magazines. So how do you understand the impact of media?
There’s another piece of this that the new Israeli law [banning underweight models from local advertising and requiring disclosure of photoshopping] kind of got into, the digitalizing of images. Are we going to police every image out there? I’m not pushing for federal legislation. I’m pushing for more information.