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Has the fashion industry finally realised you cannot cross the thin line?

By Jane Hardy

As fashion bible Vogue announces it will no longer use photos of painfully thin models, we ask women with anorexia if finally the fashion industry has learned you cannot cross ...

With their jutting bones, flat chests and boyish hips, it seems bewildering that these models are the choice of fashion designers when it comes to showing off their clothes to the best advantage. After all, their painfully thin frames are hardly the epitome of feminine beauty.

Yet for years seriously underweight models have been draped across the pages of glossy mags, sparking fury that they have contributed to a rise in the number of those with eating disorders. Now, in what is being hailed as a huge step in the battle against anorexia nervosa, the so-called slimmers’ disease, Vogue magazine has announced that it will no longer use emaciated-looking models. It issued a statement across its 19 international editions, promising not to picture models under the age of 16 or those whom they believe has an eating disorder.

Such a pledge, however, comes too late for some models, who have already lost their lives to anorexia. The list of shame includes Isabelle Caro, a French model and anorexia activist. She died at 28 after allowing a picture of her ravaged body, weighing just over four stone, to be used in an anti-anorexia campaign. She was 5ft 4in tall and had been ill since 13. Other fashion model victims include: sisters Luisel Ramos, died in 2006, aged 22, Eliana Ramos, died in 2007, aged 18 and Hila Elmalich, died in 2007, aged 33.

As Billie Hughes, assistant childrens service manager and lead nurse acute at CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental health Services) says: “The Vogue decision is a step in the right direction. We see a lot of young girls with anorexia and they’re influenced by models who aren’t only underweight but also airbrushed. They should be using real-life models.”

We talk to women who have battled anorexia and ask whether they believe the Vogue ban will really make a difference.

‘I was held down and force fed in hospital’

Debbie Johnston (32) suffers from anorexia and lives in Ballymena with her partner Darren. She says:

I don’t think what Vogue editors are saying will make a difference, as they’ve said it before. And although they’re saying they will use average size models now, their average is different from a normal, healthy average. They might be using someone with a Body Mass Index of 16, which is unhealthy.

I was always a fussy eater, but don’t think I was really influenced by the women in magazines and on TV. Anorexia is a psychological thing, so it doesn’t matter if the images around you show people who are underweight, you’d suffer from it anyway. And it’s not so much a problem they’re promoting thin, more that they’re airbrushing celeb pictures like they did with Kate Winslet. Even if they’re putting out pictures of celebs at normal weight, they’re being altered. This perfection doesn’t affect the fact you’re ill, but it can make it harder to recover.

I don’t admire people like Victoria Beckham, having spoken to girls who were treated in the (London) unit with me. We can see ourselves as underweight and find it embarrassing, say in summer when we don’t want our ribs showing. But we come away from the mirror and feel huge because we’re suffering from an emotional disease.

Although I look like Victoria Beckham and Sarah Jessica Parker in terms of thinness, I think they look unhappy and distant. I prefer somebody like Holly Willoughby who’s a healthy weight.

As my mother Kay, who comes over at mealtimes to support me, says I was a perfectionist and people-pleaser. I’m now 7 stone 10lbs so I still have a way to go but at my lowest weight, I was 4 stone 10lbs, and I’m 5ft 4in tall. I completely stopped eating a couple of times and I didn’t feel good. I just wanted to slip away and take the coward’s way out rather than doing anything about it. I actually stopped drinking and lapsed into unconsciousness one weekend. My GP sectioned me and I was held down and force-fed in hospital.

At the moment, I’m travelling regularly to London for treatment but the good thing is that although my weight is low, it’s stable. The point about the celebrities in Heat! and Closer is that they fluctuate in weight, but I don’t. One week you see a celeb and she’s put on pounds, then she’s too thin, then in another few months, she’s put on the pounds and thinks it’s terrible. Why can’t they be seen as celebs for who they are, not their weight?

I’m like someone who’s stopped smoking, as I will get to point of knowing how to avoid it. If I want to have children, I will have to have close monitoring as there’s a high rate of relapse for anorectic women during pregnancy because of the physical and hormonal changes.

Darren just says: ‘I want you to get better’.”

‘I’ve lost my teeth, most of my hair and have a bad heart’

Dorothy Gardner (44) lives in Belfast and is a former law lecturer. She says:

What the editors are saying is absolute lies! The celeb and media industry always comes out with this and I have done some ||research on the subject. I |don’t believe they’ll change because celebs and models (in the magazines) have a BMI (body mass index) that’s always below normal, often below 18, when 19 and 21 are the normal range.

I was influenced by magazines when I was young and would read Now magazine with Victoria Beckham’s healthy regime and diet plan. I followed her regime for two years, lost a stone and a half and developed anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

What attracted me to the diet was the fact Victoria was shy, like me, and is now so confident. And her body’s absolutely gorgeous with legs that are toned and pure muscle. So I thought I’d follow her example and gain her self-esteem.

I’ve had an eating disorder for some 20 years but was only diagnosed a couple of years ago, as I always had a medical problem alongside it. At the moment I’m really bad and weigh 6 stone 2lbs when I should weigh 9 stone. My problems have been compounded by the fact I lost my partner two years ago and am still grieving.

I now drink around 20 coffees every 24 hours, with low fat milk and five and a half sugars per cup. It is a control mechanism.

Thankfully, I’ve got help from EDANI, and am hoping to get some therapy as I’ve been very ill. I can’t work now, although I used to teach criminal law and work as an Alzheimer’s nurse.

I feel I can crack this disease, but my message to young people would be don’t look at the celeb mags, it’s not the road to go down. It’s fantasy and look at me — I’ve lost all my teeth and most of my hair, I have heart problems and kidney problems. It’s not worth it.”

‘Everything combined to send me on a downward spiral’

Laura Wilson (27) is a former anorectic and model. Married to Philip, she has a baby son, Matthew (11 months) and lives in Ahoghill. She says:

I think it’s great news that Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue, has said that the magazine will no longer use underweight models or models with eating disorders, but I personally find that the magazines tend to over-compensate and go from skinny girls to over-voluptuous models of size 16-18. They go too much the other way, from underweight models to larger models, when in fact what they should focus on is women who are a normal dress size 10-12.

I developed anorexia when I was 15 and doing my GCSEs, and, for me, I didn’t feel it was 100% to do with images in the media, although they added to the problem, but partly due to my own nature. Looking back, there were always signs that something wasn’t right. When I was in the fifth form at school before the exams, and then later while at Queen’s University, Belfast, I was very picky about what I ate and very regimented about going to the gym.

There was a lot going on in my life, which didn’t help. My boyfriend Phillip and I had just got engaged, then we were building a house together, then his father died, then my granny died. July 2007 was particularly bad and that’s when everything seemed to combine to send me on a downward spiral.

What helped me through was counselling and the support of the health centre I was with at the time, Cloughmills Medical Centre. My mum was also a rock and at that point, we set up a self-help group for other young people suffering, like me, from anorexia. But there’s no denying that seeing thin models in my youth added to my psychological problems. I know that looking at perfect celebs and models in magazines does affect your self-esteem, even as you get older.

I am as recovered as you can ever be with this disease. It never leaves me completely but I’ve managed to reach eight stone — I only weighed five stone at my worst. At the moment, I’m not modelling or working because I am looking after my baby son Matthew. We only found out I was pregnant in March last year, when I was already 27 weeks pregnant. I hadn’t had a period since 2004, so there weren’t many clues.

Then Matthew arrived four weeks early, so I was only knowingly pregnant for 11 weeks. And the great thing is he was perfect when he arrived. I didn’t mind being pregnant and having a bump at all. I used to go walking and I made sure I ate only healthy food, vegetables and so on. I was one of those women who are thin but have a bump and my mum said I looked as if I’d swallowed a beachball!”

‘Images of thin models can tip people over edge’

Jacqueline King (48) is development officer at Eating Disorders NI (EDANI). A former anorectic, Jacqueline lives outside Comber with her husband John, daughter Natalie (24) and son Jonathan (19). She says:

I think the Vogue statement will make a difference in that young women — and women in general — will be able to look at models in a new light. At the moment women are confronted with models who are very underweight.

From my research, models are roughly 23% under average weight, that is nearly a quarter less than the weight of normal women. Back in the day, in the sixties and seventies, models were about 8% under, and I’d say Twiggy was not as skinny as the models are now.

I was 16 when I developed problems with eating and would compare myself to girls at school and everywhere. I would also look at magazines and thought I wanted to look like the models.

In my 20s and 30s, when my anorexia had taken hold, I would have given anything to be like the thin girls.

But they portray an unreal image. There was a photo of Victoria Beckham in the magazines recently, wearing a Japanese style outfit, and I have it up in my office now.

She looks like one of the anorectic girls we see, skin and bone with no flesh on her arms.

It’s decadent. People in society think that is good, but the fact is that although we have a problem with obesity, there’s a big difference between an ordinary sized woman and someone who is clinically obese.

I suffered from anorexia and went on to bulimia. At my thinnest, I weighed five stone 12 lbs, and I am 5ft 4ins tall. It was devastating for my family, as the fall-out from anorexia affects the whole family. It is a family illness.

My mother did everything she could. She took me to a doctor but the elderly female GP told me off and said I should eat milky puddings, which I didn’t eat anyway.

I hid food, pretended I’d eaten when I hadn’t, avoided mealtimes and used every excuse — I’d eaten earlier, I would eat later, I’d get something when I was out.

It’s a very deceitful illness but the odd thing is you feel you’ve achieved something and I felt I was really good at losing weight.

I was anorectic then bulimic when I had my daughter and later worked in the male-dominated civil service. I got a lot of comments, not complimentary, when I lost weight, but I didn’t care.

We need healthier, bigger models in our media. I have one daughter, Natalie, and thankfully she’s content with her weight. She’s tried Slimming World to lose a few pounds, but not very strictly and I’m not worried about her.

Using thin models doesn’t cause eating disorders but can encourage them in young women who are vulnerable or have low self-esteem. These images can tip you over the edge.”

For further information, contact the Eating Disorders Association NI, tel 028 9023 5959, or email edani@bt

an unhealthy obsession

  • There are at least 1000 anorexia sufferers in Northern Ireland, and one out of every 200 adolescent girls is thought to show some symptoms of the |disease.
  • Anorexia nervosa, to give it is medical name, is a psychiatric illness. Symptoms include an unrealistic fear of gaining weight, and a tendency to self-starve.
  • Anorectics become obsessed with getting thin, or thinner, and they limit their food intake to the point where their health suffers. In a percentage of cases, anorexia can prove fatal.
  • Long-term health problems include: heart failure, stunted growth, stomach rupture, anaemia, kidney problems and swelling of the salivary glands.
  • There are two types of anorectics, those who fast or limit their calorie intake and those who purge their intake, sometimes called bulimics, by self-induced sickness or use of laxatives etc.
  • Around 95% of anorectics are female.
  • The disease is thought of as a modern condition but it was first described by an English doctor, Richard Martin, in 1689. But the disease wasn’t officially classified as a mental illness until 1980.
  • The media is thought to play a part in encouraging obsessive dieting, and when Kate Moss said in 2009 ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’, there was an outcry.

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