03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Michelle Obama Can Teach Us That Models Can't

This week, there was quite a stir about a Ralph Lauren ad that featured an unrealistically thin female. Many were shocked by this image. I was shocked that so many people were shocked.

New York Fashion Week Spring 2010 occurred recently. Normally, I avoid looking at runway pictures, but wanting to see if there was a Michelle Obama influence at the shows, I decided to look. On the sites that I visited, people were commenting on how beautiful -- or how ugly -- certain outfits were. I barely noticed the clothes because I was so distracted by the models underneath the garments. Line after line, show after show, model after model looked the same: jutting chest bones, sharp clavicles, bony knees, and so on.

As someone who has struggled with eating disorders, I was particularly disturbed by most of the models. I've been to inpatient and outpatient eating disorder facilities and more support group meetings than I can count. When I was looking at a lot of the models from Fashion Week, I thought the same thing: That model looks like girls I met in treatment. She needs to be hospitalized right now. In an inpatient facility. For months. And she needs feeding tubes.

It wasn't just their thinness that triggered these thoughts -- after all, there are plenty of healthy, naturally thin women. It was that a lot of them looked eating-disordered sick.

After seeing a dozen or more runway shows and then seeing the Ralph Lauren ad, all I thought was, Okay, another unreasonably thin model. I didn't -- and still don't -- understand why so many people were unbothered by severely underweight runway models but are disturbed by a severely underweight -- albeit edited -- magazine ad model*. They're all unhealthy and unrealistic images.

*10/14 note: The Ralph Lauren model Filippa Hamilton, who, it turns out, wasn't severely underweight, talks about her RL experience here.

I recently saw the new issue of Prevention, which featured FLOTUS on the cover in an attractive Jason Wu dress. Then I saw a picture of a model wearing the same dress during his Fall 09 runway show. I thought the dress looked much better as a form-fitting frock on Michelle than the draping piece on the model.

I don't expect fashion shows to feature more realistically sized females any more than I expect fashion ads to stop excessively trimming their models. That's how the fashion world is. The models and images aren't there to help us feel better about how we look. They're there so we can feel inadequate but tell ourselves, If I wear this outfit or if I buy that accessory, maybe I'll look and feel better. I do hope, however, that seeing images of healthy, strong, beautiful women like Michelle Obama will encourage us to feel more comfortable with ourselves and celebrate our bodies.