British summit tries to make thin less in

Skinny talk: British fashion industry's emphasis on thin models targeted by media, teens and others at body image conference.

June 22, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - The way 15-year-old Tracey Rhodes sees it, Britain's fashion editors have a lot to answer for as they dish up glossy magazines filled with stick-thin models whose looks can often drive teen-age girls to despair.

"They should stop draining our self-confidence," Rhodes says. "Get more normal people."

Rhodes' message may soon be getting through to the fashion world's movers and shakers after yesterday's British government-sponsored Body Image Summit.

Editors, health-care professionals, a few designers and a sprinkling of teens such as Rhodes gathered to discuss how the fashion world's insistence that extremely thin is in affects the self-esteem and health of young women.

While the British government isn't out to regulate the fashion and publishing industries, its summit did draw plenty of media coverage, plus some pledges from fashion insiders to monitor the situation and try to do things differently.

"By talking about this, you break down the sense of loneliness and isolation young girls feel about the issue," says Tessa Jowell, the British government's minister for women.

Jowell says she hopes the summit "marked a beginning of a long process of change and challenge to a culture."

At any one time in Britain, there are an estimated 60,000 people with eating disorders, the majority of them women, according to the British Medical Association. In its recent report, "Eating Disorders, Body Image and the Media," the group's Board of Science and Education noted, "the images of slim models in the media are a stark contrast to the body size and shape of most children and young women who are becoming increasingly heavier."

The summit wasn't out to declare war on the super waifs or to pin the blame for eating disorders on the fashion industry. But it sought to promote the notion that there is no "perfect" shape to emulate and that beauty can come in many sizes.

"Extend, extend the diversity of images," says psychotherapist and author, Susie Orbach. "At the moment, young girls think the solution is to change their bodies.

"I don't think that people recognize quite how serious and how tortured the majority of young women are in relationship to their bodies," she says.

"They manipulate their appetite, ignore their urges because they feel their body has to be a certain way."

Orbach says images portrayed in U.S. television shows can also be damaging to young women, out to copy the looks and thinness of stars such as the cast of "Friends," a popular show in Britain.

"America is exporting a whole new pathogen, the thin aesthetic," she says.

Liz Jones, editor of the British edition of Marie Claire, says the magazine industry should set up a self-regulated body to monitor the content of fashion pages.`The fashion industry is a very rarefied world, and I think it has become a bit divorced from reality recently," she says.

In a recent issue, the magazine published two covers and let readers make the choice at the counter, selecting between former "Baywatch" pinup Pamela Anderson and Sophie Dahl, a model renowned for fitting into large outfits.

Dahl's cover outsold Anderson's 65 percent to 35 percent, Jones says.

Rebecca Martin, of the teen-oriented Jump magazine, says she's out to "smash stereotypical images" by highlighting women of all sizes.

"We're not anti-skinny by any means, but I wouldn't put an unhealthily skinny girl in the magazine," she says.

She called for "trendy" shops catering to teens to stock larger sizes and suggests that young girls in search of different role models and body types look outside the fashion world to others such as sports stars.

"We're so obsessed with pop stars," Martin says. "Move over Britney (Spears). Let's think of some positive role models."

Rhodes, an aspiring actress, already has her role model picked out: Titanic star Kate Winslet.

"She looks normal, she's not a stick figure," Rhodes says. "And she's not the main pinup of men."

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