I was appalled when I read a 2006 article entitled "Model booted for being too skinny" in the Sunday Times.
Accompanying the article was a picture of a pathetically thin young girl walking down the stage at a fashion show. Her legs and arms were like sticks and her face was emaciated.
The idea that young girls of 16 torture themselves to reach this state of starvation, just so that they can be models, is mind-boggling.
Who is responsible?
Beauty editor, Leigh Toselli, who protested the fact that this skeletal young girl modelled clothes at the 2006 SA Fashion Week, and asked to have her withdrawn, said that, "it was quite painful to watch her".
Just by watching her on the ramp, Toselli got the impression that the model's energy levels were low. Toselli added: "There is a very fine line between being thin and just too skinny. It isn't a weight issue, but a visual one."
Other people cited in this report were the girl's mother who attributed her daughter's extreme thinness to "a growth spurt and exam stress", the agent who said the girl was "a little underweight" and Dion Chang, the organiser, who decided to remove this young model from his show. Who are they fooling?
All these people are adults who should first and foremost have the child's welfare at heart and should have discouraged her from losing so much weight in the first place.
How can we expect young impressionable girls to be able to differentiate between "the very fine line between being too thin and being too skinny"? No teenage girl who is lured by the glittering lights and the glamour of modelling can exercise mature judgement not to abuse her body if the prize is so desirable.
Did the girl's mother not see that her daughter was fading away in front of her eyes? And why did she not do something about this reprehensible state of affairs?
Now, I know that teenagers of both sexes and girls in particular can be extremely difficult to influence when they have set their sights on dieting and abnormal eating habits. But, as parents, we are still responsible for their mental and physical health and well-being until they reach the age of consent at 18.
If your teenager is hell-bent on losing weight to the point of starvation, take her for counselling to a clinical psychologist and a clinical dietician. The brief moments of glory of a modelling career are not worth the pain and suffering that these young girls go through at a stage when they're still growing and should be concentrating on being young and healthy.
To paraphrase an old saying, my advice is: "Don't allow your daughter on the modelling ramp, Mrs Worthington", if at all possible. Don't start her off with this career when she is a child. Don't enter her into toddler and child beauty competitions – something that should be banned in the interests of child welfare.
Modern teenagers are far from being innocent and helpless any more. If you're below the age of 18 and think you want to be a model, stop right there.
Get your priorities right. First complete school and if you have your Matric and still want to be a model, then go for it. At least by the age of 18 you will have stopped growing and your body will be more resistant to living the artificial life of a model.
The vicious cycle
But who can blame our young girls for wanting to be super-skinny models when they see pictures of emaciated women in every magazine, on every TV programme and in every advertisement?
These supermodels and film stars who are so thin that some of them need to be photographed from special angles and with special lenses to play down their protruding bones will do anything to stay thin.
Being thin has become the Holy Grail of modern female life. No wonder impressionable and vulnerable young girls think that if they can only get as thin as possible they too will become famous.
Are there solutions?
One may well ask if there are any solutions to the problem of teenage eating disorders fuelled by fashion. Parents can call in the aid of experts such as dieticians and clinical psychologists to treat their anorexic children.
Visit the Association for Dietetics in SA website and click on "Find a Dietician" to find a dietician in your area who will assess your child's weight and help her to get back to eating normally again, so that she can complete her normal growth.
Ask your family doctor to refer you to a clinical psychologist or contact the psychology teaching departments at any one of our universities, who will also be able to refer you to psychologists who work in the field of eating disorders.
There are also special clinics that treat anorexia, bulimia and the more recently emerging orthorexia. If you are in Gauteng, it may help to contact Tara Hospital as they have an Eating Disorder Clinic – phone (011) 783 2010. In the Cape Town area, you can contact the Crescent Clinic Eating Disorders on (021) 762 7666.
The authorities should also specify a cut-off age for young models that should preferably be 18 and call in experts from the field of nutrition to help define cutoff weights and BMIs for these young models.
It was interesting to note that the SA modelling standard measurements mentioned in the Sunday Times article specified minimum heights, and maximum waist and hip measurements, but not weight or BMI. The latter are much more important measures of emaciation and should be included in the selection criteria of models of all ages.
Finally, the public can boycott advertisements that feature models who are too thin.
One last word for parents: above all, don't push your child into modelling at too early an age. If you are a responsible parent, you will provide your child with security, love and acceptance, so that your child can be just that – a normal, healthy child – and can avoid the pitfalls of modelling.
(Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc, updated April 2009)
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Destructive images of beauty