10/01/2006 06:56 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Shooting the Skeletal Messengers

Since the announcement of Madrid's ban on models with a body mass index of less than 18, newspapers and magazines across the world have been pulling out their most shocking photographs of skeletal models and their most scathing rhetoric about the fashion industry's disturbing normalization of anorexia.

You might think I--a young feminist with a book coming out on eating disorders in the spring--would be jumping right on this bandwagon, shouting "Down with the starving models! Down with the morally-bankrupt designers!" But instead, I would like to request that we stop shouting for a moment and actually listen to the pain that these models, and a whole country (and increasingly a whole world) of young women are in.

Eating disorders affect more than 7 million American girls and women, and up to 70 million people globally. In 1995, 34 percent of high-school-aged girls in the U.S. thought they were overweight. Today, 90 percent do. Over half of young women between the ages of 18-25 would prefer to be run over by a truck than be fat, and two thirds surveyed would rather be mean or stupid. The single group of teenagers most likely to consider or attempt suicide is girls who worry that they are overweight.

Demonizing thin supermodels is not the first step down the long path of healing. It actually doesn't shift the paradigm at all. Instead it simply contributes to a culture of contradictions already firmly in place, a culture that blames girls for manifesting the symptoms of a sick society. These young women have been born and bred to fit into the thin ideal. They have worked hard, suffered much, to become what they were told--by modeling agencies and talent scouts, by designers and parents, by fashion critics and friends--was expected. Their bodies have become emaciated symbols of our values. And now we are banning them from the runways like bad, little girls sent to their rooms with no dinner, no compensation, and worst of all, no compassion.

What would be truly revolutionary is if these young women--starving their bodies into metabolic disaster--were offered free counseling. Many of those being sent home are suffering from anorexia, the most deadly psychological disease in existence. Even with treatment, only 60 percent of those with eating disorders fully recover, 20 percent have partial recoveries, and 20 percent do not recover. Banishing these women without helping them find treatment is not a noble act; it is a death sentence.

What would be truly revolutionary is if health insurance companies would start funding eating disorder treatment, if they would stop withholding care for this psychological disease based on physical symptoms (girls are often sent home once they reach a "safe weight," even if they are still at war in their own heads and hearts.) A 1999 survey by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders and Glamour magazine of 109 top eating disorder experts in the nation found 100 percent believed some of their patients suffered relapses in their conditions as a direct or indirect consequence of managed care coverage limits. What would be truly revolutionary is if fashion editors at the top magazines, designers, and models all sat around a table and talked about strategies to reinvigorate a healthy body ideal and ways to make health insurance coverage affordable for their workers.

Flashing photographs of the thinnest and the unhealthiest of these supermodels on celebrity tabloid television shows is only exacerbating the problem. Even if the copy is about how sick these women are, the images provide fodder for "thinspiration" blogs written by tweens all over the Internet.

Further, making it seem as if only girls who resemble Holocaust victims are the ones in trouble, spuriously leads young women who don't weigh less than 100 pounds to think they are off the hook. The problem is not the number on the scale. The problem is the warfare inside of your mind. If you don't like your relationship with food, fitness, and your body, then you've got a problem. Too many of us settle for disordered ways of thinking about and treating our bodies because we're not as sick as "those" girls.

These models did not create this impossible standard of beauty. Their bodies offend because they represent how bad it has really gotten. As usual, instead of wisely dealing with a social crisis in a holistic way, we have resorted to punishing people who remind us of our own sickness.

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