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How Thin is Too Thin? – Unhealthy Models Campaign

Magazines and ads that use emaciated models have long been cited as an exacerbating factor linked to the rise in eating disorders in recent years.

And while the fashion industry may often pay lip service to using models who are “naturally thin,” the debate isn’t helped when real cover models get a significant downsizing, courtesy of photoshop: witness the scandal that erupted last summer when Self magazine digitally erased a good 20 pounds off of singer Kelly Clarkson (who was positioned, ironically, beside a cover line reading “Slim Down YOUR Way”).

But will targeting the source of the images help? The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) is hoping a new campaign from Toronto-based Zulu Alpha Kilo will hit the fashion industry where it counts, with the magazine editors and marketers who perpetuate the unhealthy imagery.

Zulu Alpha Kilo’s recent guerrilla-style advertising campaign involved sending fashion editors and brand marketing directors across the country a Hallmark-style greeting card which reads, “Thanks for helping to make me such a successful anorexic.” They also sent out T-shirts with an absurdly small waist featuring the message, “Please try this on to experience how your ads make us feel.” And an interactive transit shelter with a poster reading “Shed your weight problem here” currently functions as a garbage bin for fashion magazines, complete with a slot at the front which allows consumers to add their glossies to a growing stack of Glamour, Vogue, and Fashion magazines.

The broader campaign material asks marketers and fashion leaders to “cast responsibly and retouch minimally.” Like most public service campaigns, NEDIC’s campaign seems to make a single bold proposition, laying the blame for eating disorders at the feet of the fashion industry.

While Merryl Bear, director of NEDIC, asserts that fashion magazines do not cause eating disorders, she said her organization wants to “focus on different audiences at different times to look at a broad range of some of the influences on body image and disordered eating. A range of factors influence the development of eating disorders.

“We wanted to show that both the public and some fashion thinkers are ready for change. It may look provocative and edgy, but it is a very substantive campaign. On the microsite [], we have information that supports everything we say.” More than half of all Canadian women diet, according to NEDIC, and one in four teenage girls engage in eating disordered behaviour.
While its budget was small (the PSA campaign was done pro bono), Zulu Alpha Kilo’s efforts have circulated widely online and garnered media attention in the U.S., U.K. and Japan.

“The whole point of the campaign is obviously about the PR angle of getting this talked about and discussed,” said Zak Mroueh, creative director at Zulu Alpha Kilo. “For such a small media buy, it shows you the power of the web. You can do something in mainstream media like a transit shelter and get attention for it all over the world.” The campaign comes after governments in Brazil, Italy and Spain barred models with an underweight body mass index (BMI) following the anorexia-related deaths of runway models two years ago. And two weeks ago in Britain, the Royal College of Psychiatrists called for a ban on the use of underweight models and wants a warning flag posted on all mass media photos and advertisements that have been altered to make models appear thinner.

Even as an ostensible target of the campaign, Bernadette Morra, acting editor-in-chief of Canada’s Fashion magazine, supports NEDIC’s efforts.

“As an editor of a fashion magazine, one has to be very sensitive when we are controlling the images and when we are hiring the models — we do not hire the models that are as thin as the runway models. I do feel that the runways have gone to an extreme.” But as for how to enforce change, those interviewed agreed that in order for the message to resonate, it would require co-operative support from all parts of the industry.

“The person you really should be asking [about usinghealthier models] is [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour,” Ms. Morra said. “She is the most powerful person in fashion. If she were to put her foot down about this issue, then designers would respond.

But I highly doubt that’s going to happen.” And there are the principles of the brands themselves. When preposterously airbrushed images draw worldwide ridicule — like those of Ms. Clarkson on Self — fingers get pointed back at the brands themselves.
Magazines may choose healthier models for editorial shots, but what about the attenuated figures populating many high-fashion advertisements? “As an agency in the industry, personally I have tried to show as much diversity and reality as possible, but ultimately no matter who the agency is it is ultimately going to be the marketers who have the final say,” Mr. Mroueh said.

“The agencies are agents of their clients.” But he believes the campaign will further the debate about how thin is too thin when it comes to mass media imagery of women. “This is something that we want to continue to address. We are not going to change things overnight. With any PSAs, it takes time for change. But no one has ever started with the fashion leaders.”