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Models Are Dying to Be Thin and Teens Follow

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The former editor of Vogue Australia has lifted the lid on the world of modelling, and what a shocking and sordid picture of the fashion industry it reveals.

In her book The Vogue Factor, Kirstie Clements, who edited the Australian edition of the world's premier fashion glossy for 27 years, reveals that some of the models eat tissue paper to stave off hunger, or spent time on a drip in hospital.

She recalls a dinner in LA with a model agent in 2009, when the models were expected to be super thin because of the demands of that season's collections: The agent told her: "We've a few girls on drips this season because the samples are so small and casting agents are insisting on such small sizes."

But it is the havoc wrought by this level of thinness beyond the world of modelling that is so pernicious and damaging to vulnerable young women, and boys.

A victim of this tyranny of physical perfection was Somerset schoolgirl Fiona Geraghty. The 14-year-old, who suffered from the eating disorder bulimia, hanged herself after allegedly being taunted by school friends about her weight. We don't know what other factors drove this extraordinarily pretty - and, from her pictures, apparently slim by all normal standards - girl to take her life.

But at her inquest last summer, the West Somerset coroner, Michael Rose, did not hesitate to make a link between the "very thin models" consistently pictured in magazines and the teenager's eating disorder and suicide.

Eating disorders are responsible for the highest number of deaths from psychiatric illness in the UK: around 165,000 people in the UK have eating disorders, with anorexia and bulimia the most common. Ten percent die as a result, and the coroner's comments at Fiona Geraghty's inquest are certainly not the first to blame images in magazines for eating disorders in young women.

Certainly our paradigm of beauty has changed since the 17th century when Rubens wielded his paintbrush - indeed, his name is synonymous with voluptuous (and beautiful) women. But the extreme contrast between his Three Graces, with their fleshy, sinewy bodies, bellies, cellulite and mottled skin, and almost any top model, the circumference of whose thighs is not much greater than a Cuban cigar, serves in many ways to emphasise how far we have drifted from the reality of female bodies to an impossible ideal.

Clearly, Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue and her counterparts around the world are not about to start showing size 16 models as standard in their fashion shoots. And if I am honest, as a former fashion editor and co-founder of SoSensational.co.uk , the shopping and style website for grown-up women, that is not what I want to see, either.

Clothes generally photograph better on slim women, but the notion of "slim women" has been subverted by digital technology. The ability to elongate, remove cellulite and remove flesh and curves with clever tools like Photoshop has led to images of women that are unattainable.

Yet women - especially young women - who do not understand that such perfection is unattainable are, literally, dying to achieve it.

Somewhere between the hyper-thin, digitally enhanced images with which we are constantly bombarded, and the reality of most women's bodies which do - despite the gym, massage brushes and the surgeon's knife - have cellulite, bumps and curves, there is a happy medium.

It is called "Real Women". And if more women, especially celebrities and models, were shown as they actually look as opposed to how the industry wishes to portray them after digital enhancement, the notion of perfection might just fade away.

Last year, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed a law banning underweight models from appearing in advertisements, and called on publications to reveal all post-production work to alter the images of models in ads. It was the first legislation anywhere in the world which highlights airbrushed unreality and - in a country where around 2 percent of all girls aged between 14 and 18 have severe eating disorders - it says to young Israeli women: "This ideal is not achievable, no matter how much you starve yourself or how often you stick your fingers down your throat".

Last November, our own Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone launched the government's latest offensive against the tide of wafer-thin model images, with a pack for parents of six to 11-year-olds designed to help them teach their children the difference between reality and retouched fantasy. But we live in a world where images matter far more than words.

They infiltrate our minds and affect how we feel, how lumpen and huge we feel compared to the wafer-thin, impossibly perfect creatures of glossies and ads. And this is particularly true for an emotionally vulnerable teenager who is coming to terms with the transition from child to woman. However, well-meaning, these parent packs are inadequate weapons against the tide of impossibly perfect images.

The industry, including fashion designers, casting agents and the Photoshop wizards at the glossies and ad agencies, need to be brought to account in the UK as they are in Israel. If Kirstie Clements and the rest of us carry on talking and writing about the issue but do not act, we are failing the 16,000 girls and women who die from eating disorders each year.

Jan Shure is the former fashion editor of the JC and co-founder of SoSensational.co.uk

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