U.K. Model Leads Charge to Ban Ultrathin Women From Fashion

'They wanted me "down to the bone," ' wrote Rosie Nelson on her Change.org petition.

A model walks the runway at the Christopher Kane show during London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2016. (Photo: Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/Getty Images)

Sep 22, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

A norm in the fashion industry has long been that a model should be pin thin—a walking clothes hanger. But a petition from a model fed up with being pressured by modeling agencies to lose more weight has catalyzed a government investigation—one that could result in a ban on extremely thin women from U.K. catwalks and fashion advertisements.

“When I walked into one of the UK’s biggest model agencies last year they told me I ticked all the boxes except one—I needed to lose weight. So I did,” wrote 23-year-old Rosie Nelson on the Change.org petition she launched late last week. “Four months later I lost nearly [14 pounds and] 2 inches off my hips. When I returned to the same agency they told me to lose more weight, they wanted me ‘down to the bone.’ ”

"We’d like to hear from Rosie to understand the dialogue she had with said agency," Caroline Rush, the chief executive of the British Fashion Council, said to the Evening Standard about Nelson's petition. “This kind of dialogue if true is unacceptable.”

Nelson, who is Australian but is based in the U.K. and has worked for Vogue Australia and the brand Ben Sherman, wrote that she is a clothing size 8 to 10. In the industry a size 6 is sometimes considered plus-size.

(Photo: Rosie Nelson)

“When I look in the mirror I see someone that is healthy and comfortable in their skin. That’s because I had the guts to carve out my own path and refuse to let people pressure me into losing more and more weight,” wrote Nelson. “But with London Fashion Week the reminders are everywhere that we need a law to protect young girls, and boys, who are put under pressure to be dangerously thin.”

Nelson’s concern is well-founded. Forty-seven percent of girls in the U.S. in grades 5–12 have said that seeing magazine images has made them want to lose weight, according to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders. In the U.K., the number of teen girls hospitalized because of eating disorders soared from 959 in 2011 to 1,815 in 2014, reported BBC News.

More than 50,500 people have signed Nelson’s petition, which is directed at the U.K.’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. On Monday Caroline Nokes, a member of Parliament who heads a committee on body image, told The Guardian that she has initiated an inquiry into the issue.

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“Legislation should be a last resort, but I’m conscious the fashion industry isn’t responding to calls for change,” said Nokes. “We would prefer a code of conduct, if we could feel confident it would be adhered to.”

Part of the problem, according to Nelson’s petition, is that, thanks to the demands of the industry, models are often disconnected from support networks. “When models travel overseas they are often put into shared accommodation with other models, and being surrounded by girls who are all striving to stay thin can perpetuate bad eating habits and encourage eating disorders,” wrote Nelson. “I’ve been on shoots for up to 10 hours where no food is provided—the underlying message is always that you shouldn’t eat.”

Or the models may consume things other than food to stave off hunger pangs. In 2013 Eddie Murphy’s daughter Bria Murphy, who is a model and an actor, dished to Good Morning America about the lengths some women in the industry go to, to stay rail thin—including eating cotton balls. “They dip it in the orange juice, and they eat the cotton balls to make them feel full,” she explained.

With the mainstreaming of plus-size models and the backlash against campaigns such as Victoria's Secret's "Perfect 'Body' " advertisements, momentum for more diverse body types in fashion seems to be gaining. At the same time, government regulators in Europe are cracking down on ultrathin models.

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In June Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority pulled a YSL advertisement with a model “where her rib cage was visible and appeared prominent" and "her thighs and knees appeared a similar width, and which looked very thin, particularly in light of her positioning and the contrast between the narrowness of her legs and her platform shoes.” In April, France, home to the fashion capital of the world, passed a ban on brands hiring models with a BMI below 18—below that and the World Health Organization considers a person malnourished. Violators have to pay a fine and may face jail time.

Nokes is advocating for similar regulations in the U.K. In an interview with SkyNews, however, Nelson noted that if BMI is used to determine health, most models—including her—would no longer be able to work. “I think almost 90 percent of models have a BMI of less than 18, so every model would be out of a job. When I look in the mirror I see someone that is healthy and I am living by my own standard. I eat balanced meals, so I think I look good and healthy,” she said.

Instead of using BMI, Nelson recommends that models be required to be checked by a doctor every three to six months. That “would be an incentive for agencies to take better care of the models they work with, making sure they’re healthy,” she told the Evening Standard.