The Butterfly Foundation estimates one in 24 Australians have an eating disorder. (AAP: David Moir)
The who’s who of fashion have flooded into Sydney for Mercedez-Benz Fashion Week and while all eyes are on the designs, there are calls for more attention to be paid to the size and health of the models wearing them.
Experts and advocates have raised concerns about Australia’s voluntary code of conduct, where the industry essentially self-regulates what size model is considered healthy.
Dr Sandra Symons from the University of Technology Sydney, whose research specialises in body image depiction in the print media, said because of its voluntary nature, Australia’s standards are basically “non-existent”.
She said while everybody agrees it is an important issue, nothing changes.
“They have to, in a way, self-regulate and scrutinise the models that they are going to use in their photographic representations, on catwalks and in shows,” she said.
For Dr Symons, nothing is going to change unless the public makes a fuss about it because the industry would not be taking the initiative.
She said those in the industry have a distorted ideal of what looks healthy.
“They’re as bad as the models they use,” Dr Symons said.
“It’s not for no reason that these young models are called coat hangers. The fashion industry wants to see their clothes hanging on these coat hangers.
“No-one in the industry is going to defend the idea of hiring super-thin models, but they’re all also not going to do much about it.”
Body image in the fashion industry: wealth over wellbeing
In 2009, a panel of media, fashion and eating-disorder-sector experts developed the Voluntary Industry Code of Conduct on Body Image.
Under this code, the fashion industry is required to use models older than 16, “clearly of a healthy weight”, and their images should not be modified so bodies look “unrealistic or unattainable through healthy practices”.
The Butterfly Foundation CEO Christine Morgan said while the voluntary code was raising awareness, it had fallen short on many fronts.
“Due to the code’s voluntary nature and the multi-billion-dollar industry that it was trying to influence, business principles have dominated over a willingness to respond to community expectation of the industry’s design, marketing and promotion behaviour,” she said.
“It’s time for the fashion and media industries and health professionals to come together with governments to develop a stronger and more effective approach.
“If that results in legislation, it will come from a unified position.”
Dr Sandra Symons says the fashion industry won’t change their standards without public pressure. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
Should legislation dictate body standards?
Laws that have only just come into effect in France require models to provide a doctor’s certificate attesting to their overall health and proving their body mass index (BMI) sits within a healthy range in order to work.
Laws that will come into force from October require images where the appearance of a model has been photoshopped to display a disclaimer.
In 2014, Israel passed its own laws requiring all photoshopped images to have a clear disclaimer.
But whether such measures should be imposed on the Australian fashion industry has experts divided.
Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology Evonne Miller, who has conducted extensive research into body image and the media for her PHD, was wary that legislating against this industry practice could be overreaching.
“We’ve got to careful that we don’t become a police society,” she said.
“My preference would be that [the voluntary code] be compulsory.”
Dr Symons said France’s new laws feel very draconian, but said governments certainly have their role to play in bringing about any social change.
She believes the Federal Government should team up with industry bodies to create a consistent, positive message about healthy body image.
“I guess it’s a bit like smoking — nobody wants to hear the bad message. The industry has to be shamed into action.”
But Ms Morgan welcomed France’s legislative commitment, saying it was a step in the right direction in ensuring a healthy body image within the beauty and fashion industry.
“This is a much-needed response to a sinister form of promotion that can have a deadly impact,” she said.
“Any business that deliberately uses underweight models to market their products is complicit in their exploitation.”