How Skinny is Too Skinny?

Fashion’s Century-Long Debate

Esther Chung


Models on Runway
Runway models are often underweight. Many even claim to starve themselves before a fashion show in order to be “skinny enough.” (Photo Courtesy of Mainstream)

Since the early 20th century, when fashion modeling became a professional career, there has been an unceasing number of opinions on the body image portrayed by these tall, slender individuals. Especially in recent years, there has been an increasingly large retaliation, with millions criticizing the unrealistic body images of models everywhere. In a recent advertisement by Gucci, a model is shown with an extremely skinny torso, even prompting authorities in the UK to ban the ad. Gucci has dismissed the severity of this situation, saying the model did not show any signs of unhealthy skinniness, garnering the high-fashion brand a great amount of backlash. Sadly, it is more often than not that fashion companies have simply dismissed accusations such as these with excuses. As legal disputes on this topic continue to increase, it leaves society with one question: How skinny is too skinny?


In a recent editorial published in the American Journal of Public Health, S. Bryn Austin and Katherine L. Record state that, “professional fashion models are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders resulting from occupational demands to maintain extreme thinness.” And while eating disorders may seem trivial, they are hardly so. Anorexia alone claims the lives of 10% of sufferers, according to Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. In the US, a woman is underweight if their BMI is below 18.5. However, Austin and Record pinpoint a typical model’s BMI to be below 16, classified as severely underweight by most standards.

When ex-models break the silence, it is clear how severely unhealthy these young women are forced to be. Multiple models from big brands like Victoria’s Secret have publicly criticized the industry’s pressure on models to be severely thin, whether it requires extreme exercise, dieting, or even starvation. These unrealistic standards can be hazardous to a model’s health, even deadly. Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston developed an eating disorder after being told she was fat. The 5’8” model dropped down to only 88 pounds in just two years, a weight loss that ultimately lead to her death.

Not only does this unrealistic standard harm models, it also affects everyone else exposed to the media. By publishing often retouched images of models with bodies that are almost impossible to achieve, these fashion brands are giving the younger generation an unhealthy ideal that is harmful to an individual’s mental and physical health. Luckily, this problem is not permanent. Many movements are encouraging healthier standards of beauty, and this positive change is only becoming more prevalent as time passes.

Header Photo Courtesy of Theresaunfried