Karen Elson, a British model, said that being hungry shouldn’t be a sign you are successful. She rose to fame in mid-90s and walked the runways of Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Versace. She hosted her first Model Mentor Zoom, where she shared candidly with former models and aspiring models as well as casting agents as legal professionals about the body shame and psychological abuse in fashion.
Elson shared how she lost weight at eighteen. She was told to have more sex and to stop using birth control to stay thin. A lifelong unhealthy relationship to food was created by the constant fear of going to work and the threat of bribes for every pound she lost. Worse, the advice she received was from people who should have been looking out for her in this industry.
Elson stated to Zoom that her relationship with food would probably never be the same as it was in normal times. She also admitted that she would feel shame and embarrassment if she were caught eating. Elson now realizes that she should not be shamed, but rather the industry and especially the higher-ranking members of this sector. Elson said, “You are praised for how you look when you are at your worst.”
Fashion industry fails to protect young models
Elson, now in recovery from an eating disorder, is in her 40s and has two children. She describes how the industry places models in boxes. In her case, the box was her 16-year-old body. It is expected that she will meet this standard. “There’s this obsession with prepubescent bodies in high-fashion,” she said, explaining that it is an “androgynous” look. She’s seen many of her peers leave the industry over the years and still sees the hair and jutting bones all over models that she considers evidence of malnutrition.
James Scully, casting director-turned-advocate for models’ rights and whistleblower against the industry’s misconduct, recalls hearing a group of young models talking about how long it had been since they had last had their periods. He says that despite raising the age requirement for modeling, the industry has become complacent and does not see any improvement in the treatment models. Elson agrees that more needs to be done by the industry. He suggests that the Council of Fashion Designers of America have conversations with designers who still make samples in the smallest size. Designers blamed their inability to produce multiple sizes historically because of the additional time and expense involved.
The fashion industry and body shaming
Christina Grasso was co-founder of The Chain. This nonprofit supports women in media, fashion and entertainment who are coping with eating disorders. Leanne Maskell, a former model, was also present. She was immediately told by her scouts to quit eating bread and trim 3 inches from her hips. After realizing that there was an imbalance in power in the UK, she left modeling to pursue law. She also became a prominent voice in model rights in the UK. As an anti-exploitation guide for aspiring models, she created the Model Manifesto.
Elson believes that the industry allows bullying and meanness to be tolerated. Although the industry still keeps the conversation about body image and the unattainable standards it sets, Elson hopes to openly share her experiences. Elson described how an editor at a fashion shoot shouted to her once, “How fat is you right now?” She hopes that one day, a runway model can gain ten pounds and still be accepted. She still works with designers who made harsh comments about her in the past. However, she can recall every word. One designer even offered to make a custom-made garment for her about a year back. He couldn’t resist commenting on her outfit after seeing the clothes. Your hips are distracting.”