01/12/2015 05:56 GMT | Updated 30/11/2016 05:12 GMT

Models and Body Image

The All Parliamentary Group for Body Image is due to meet today to discuss whether legislation should be introduced to ban skinny models from catwalks and fashion magazines.

The debate is likely to centre around:

  1. Whether seeing such skinny models encourages eating disorders; and
  2. Whether the models themselves are being exploited and need protection.

My perspective on these two points is as follows:

Eating disorders are complex medical conditions and it may seem too simplistic to say that seeing a skinny model results directly in an eating disorder. The issue, I believe, is more about self-esteem.

When one woman looks at another she is looking at her peer and it is natural to make comparisons. There is also the aspirational element given fashion imagery, as a form of marketing, is almost always presented as such. To that end some people may be seduced into thinking the size of the model is linked to the lifestyle being presented, a lifestyle they may seek to achieve.

What must also be borne in mind is that such imagery is no longer restricted solely to magazines or catwalks. The evolution of social media has radicalised how people share opinion and imagery. Instagram delivers a daily tsunami of imagery, which is more often than not presented as aspirational. There is seemingly no end to the availability of pictures of 'perfect people living perfect lives'. Such imagery can compound feelings of low self-esteem or lack of self-confidence.

Social media has also brought about the age of the selfie. So not only are people viewing and judging imagery they are also posting images of themselves and therefore simultaneously becoming the subject of judgement. Again this could compound self-esteem issues particularly given the rise of cyber bullying.

On the second point of course exploitation in the fashion industry needs to be eradicated.

Campaigners such as Rosie Nelson and Charli Howard have discussed the pressure they were under to lose weight.

While there are some models who are naturally very thin we believe these are very few and far between.

When this brand was launched we used professional but faceless models. There was an occasion with one model who refused to eat all day despite our repeated protestations. She insisted she was not hungry but as the day progressed became almost delirious. It was then that we discovered that she had castings for the upcoming Paris Fashion Week and wanted to control her weight.

We were also told of other models who would eat tissues in order to feel full when they were hungry. The most shocking example we were told was of some models who were soaking tampons in alcohol in order to avoid imbibing the calories.

We agree that no one forces a model to pursue their chosen career. However we would argue that sometimes the pressure to achieve in that career could lead to negative health implications. Given models are often young it would seem sensible that the vulnerable be protected. How they are protected is now the subject of debate.

France, Italy, Spain and Israel have all introduced legislation based on a threshold BMI (Body Mass Index) of around 18.5. There has been scientific research, however, as to whether this is an accurate measure of weight particularly given it does not distinguish between fat and muscle. An alternative and/or supplement would be to take a model's measurements.

The problem is that both measures can be manipulated. For example, consuming a high salt diet just prior to testing would lead to water retention. The additional weight from this water would result in a higher BMI and larger measurements. The model could then flush out this water (e.g. with diuretics such as coffee) just before a photo shoot or fashion show. Competitive fitness models are well known for adopting such techniques.

So is the solution to measure and/or weigh a model minutes before a photo shoot or fashion show? That would seem rather difficult and costly to police.

I have written previously on our position on skinny models, i.e. we've never used them. In fact our position (until recently) had been to use non-model models. These were professional women who were not professional models. We believe they were attractive enough to present the aspiration necessary for marketing imagery but they were also women our customers could genuinely relate to.

Overall the response to our decision to do this was negative, not just from the industry but also more broadly. Aside from the odd Twitter response there was negligible support for our approach. The problem is that we are simply too small to matter. We have had to capitulate and we can't deny we have been disappointed.

I hold to the view that it is the people with influence who can engender change. After all it is the trends set out by the top designers at Fashion Weeks that are later adopted by those further down the pecking order. If the major names can set the trends for what we wear surely they can set the trends for those who present them.