Vogue’s Health Initiative: Will Anything Change?

The June issue of Vogue contains a letter from the editor about the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Health Initiative, a really lovely-sounding international coalition of fashion experts, including several Vogue editors and models like Lara Stone, committed to promoting healthy lifestyles in the fashion world.  The initiative intends to set minimum-age requirements for models, establish healthy diet guidelines for them, and make sure they are provided with healthy snacks during breaks on shoots.  Editor Anna Wintour acknowledges in the letter that “for an industry that should be about empowering women of all shapes, sizes, and ages, too often the image of attractiveness [fashion] has projected has been entirely at odds with that message.”

Trouble is, this initiative was started in 2007, and I’m pretty sure nothing has changed over the last five years.  After all, this infamous Ralph Lauren photoshopping debacle occured in 2009, and at least one model has died of eating-disorder-related causes since 2007.  “Thinspo” posts are still easy to find on Pinterest and Tumblr.  Girls as young as 10 are dieting and girls under age 10 now rate “sexy” as the most important word to describe them.  Why should we believe fashion publications when they promise their recommittment now?

Maybe July will show some evidence of progress, because the actual content of the June issue wasn’t very reassuring.  I mean, the cover was pretty solid, with some healthy athletes in peak physical condition, and hey, Serena Williams!  The overall theme was “health is beautiful,” featuring Olympic athletes and Karlie Kloss.  The opening photo was so encouraging: a shot of Kloss on the parallel bars, showing off – wait a sec – is that muscle?  Is there actual muscle tone in her arms?

Then they changed their minds and went back to their usual:

And going by magazines’ history with Photoshop, I don’t know which image is more representative of Kloss’ true figure.  Is she actually somewhat muscled, or did they ‘shop that in the prove their point?  Is she a wispy supermodel, or do they shave inches off her arms and waist in postproduction?

Then I looked more closely at the parallel-bars photo and grew even more skeptical.  It doesn’t look like she’s putting much weight on her hands, and with the way the photo is shot, it’s entirely possible that she’s standing on something.  But the last time I was around parallel bars was for high school gym class, so maybe I’m just looking for flaws that aren’t there.

So, mixed results for the first article.  Moving on.

Next is the other Olympic story, this one featuring the female American hopefuls, including the world’s fastest woman, Carmelita Jeter.  Jeter is shown in a kickass action shot “racing” a horse and a train simultaneously, legs flexed, hands tense.  Y’all, I thought Gina Carano’s thighs were intimidating, but I think Jeter’s could kill Michael Fassbender even faster than Carano’s.

Awesome, I’m thinking.  Women athletes being depicted athletically.  We’re doing pretty well here.

Then I turn the page and see the white athletes, posed in skimpy shorts, playing with a giant toy soccer ball or showing off their back tats.

With the shorts rolled up for that extra bit of butt-cleavage. Nice.

Nice, Vogue.  Didn’t we learn anything from the fallout of the April 2008 cover (also a “health” issue)?  Just because your model is black, doesn’t mean you pose them as the roaring, muscled savage.  Just because your model is white, doesn’t mean you pose them as delicate creatures of grace and beauty and/or sex objects.  All-around low marks for this article, both in terms of race and Vogue‘s supposed dedication to promoting the healthy female form.  (I mean, okay, they left the evidence of her not-flat stomach in the photo when they might have otherwise trimmed it off.  Great.  I was too distracted to notice it because butt.)

Then there’s the wording of the Health Initiative itself. According to the letter, the initiative’s goals are “specifying guidelines for a healthier diet; vowing to identify and help those vulnerable to eating disorders; establishing minimum age requirements for models; creating a model-mentorship program; and asking that models be provided with plentiful breaks and access to nutritious food during shoots and shows.” All good things, but none of them address actually monitoring the models’ health, educating on the warning signs of eating disorders, or providing treatment.  Those gaps make it very easy for the industry, and the world at large, to turn a blind eye to models who develop eating disorders – or, worse, to pretend that there won’t be eating disorders in the industry anymore.  The gaps make it easy overlook the suffering teens and preteens who are now convinced that the models they see are healthy and “normal,” because Anna Wintour said so.

When can we get to a point where we don’t question a photo because we know that’s what that person really looks like?  Do we dare hope that the revived Vogue initiative will actually lead to depictions of more common, realistic body types?  Can we still dream of a day when Photoshop is only used to spice up the photo contrast, and not to erase crows’-feet and tummy pudge?  How about when models of color are depicted in the same poses and themes as white models, and with just as much frequency?

I understand that Vogue is a fashion publication, and therefore isn’t obligated to feature or promote anything that isn’t directly related to the fashion industry and its ideals.  It’s a big enough leap for them to have an issue dedicated to health and athleticism in the first place.  But if they’re actually committed to the Health Initiative, well, that means they’ve made themselves obligated.  They have promised to “make our ideal of beauty a healthy one.”  Game on.


2 thoughts on “Vogue’s Health Initiative: Will Anything Change?

  1. I really liked this post – and yes, iI do feel while Vogue’s efforts deserve some praise, they’re just not enough. Also, “health” can’t be contained to just one issue – shouldn’t models be healthy, all the time?

    • Yeah, it’s like having a special plus-size issue. Why not have a representative mix of models in every issue?

      The other thing that bothers me about their health focus that I didn’t get into is its fixation on underage models. Apparently it’s no good now if you’re underage and anorexic, but no one will mind if you’re over 18.

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