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- September 20, 1993
- Vol. 40
- No. 12
How Thin Is Too Thin?
Kate Moss and the New Wave of Wispy Waif Models are So Skinny Some Critics Believe They are Selling Anorexia and Dangerous Dieting
When British Vogue published an eight-page layout in June of the lank-haired, blank-eyed Moss—clad in scanty tank tops and tacky bikini panties as she posed in her very own unmade bed—the magazine drew bags of angry mail accusing it of encouraging every thing from pedophilia to anorexia nervosa. Colin McDowell, a writer for The Independent, a British daily paper, called the pictures of Moss, looking more vulnerable than her 19 years, "extremely close to perversion in their appeal."
Shocked by Moss' emaciated frame, Marcelle d'Argy Smith, editor of British Cosmopolitan, said, "The pictures are hideous and tragic. If had a daughter who looked like that, I would like her to see a doctor."
When that same month American magazine readers saw Moss kneeling astride rapper Marky Mark in an ad for Calvin Klein jeans, her tiny naked bosom pressed firmly into his equally naked chest, a few outraged mothers actually mailed their daughters' jeans back in protest. "It's just because I look 12," said Kate.
But it's also because she looks anorexic and has become the unofficial poster girl of the au courant "waif" look. This fall, Moss wannabes—and the mothers who love them—will see her paper-thin figure virtually everywhere they look. Calvin Klein's new print and television ads for his Obsession fragrance feature a topless Moss filmed by her photographer beau, Mario Sorrenti, 21, on the Caribbean island of Jost Van Dyke. Moss also stars in a less steamy spot for Yves Saint Laurent's Opium, airing in Europe.
Moss and the other hot ultrathin models in the waif wave—among them Amber Valletta, Cecilia Chancellor, Emma Balfour and Shalom Harlow—are having an effect on already weight-wary teens. "My friends and I were looking at pictures of Kate," says Andrea Tebay, 16, of Weston, Mass. "Gosh, we thought we had to look like Cindy Crawford, and now we have to look like this!" Though Tebay's former school, private Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, Conn., "was always bringing in people to lecture us about anorexia and bulimia," she says, "we knew there were girls who were going to starve themselves anyway. Girls have pictures of these models up on their walls. They know all about their love lives." Adds Suzanne Henrick, a registered dietitian and counselor at Wilkins Center for Eating Disorders in Greenwich: "I wouldn't say Kate Moss causes anorexia, but I had an anorexic in here just yesterday who said she wanted to look like Kate Moss. A lot of them bring in her picture as an ideal. I haven't seen that with any other particular model before."
Even without the deadly specter of anorexia, the skin-and-bones look, critics say, underlines the idea that thinness is a principal yardstick of a woman's worth. Jane Pratt, editor of Sassy, a magazine for teenage girls, which defiantly does not print diets, says she has "definitely noticed that since this look has become big, girls have wanted to diet more. We get letters all the time from girls who are 5'3" and weigh 100 lbs. who want help getting down to 95." (The average 14-year-old girl of 5'3" weighs 110. By the age of 18 she has grown to 5'4½" and weighs 125.)
"A woman becomes anorexic because her soul has been battered by the unreasonable expectation that you can never be too thin and that fat—any fat—equals failure," says Dr. Michael Strober, director of the eating disorder center at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. Strober estimates that only three to seven out of 1,000 young women are anorexic. But many of the other 997 often feel fat and inadequate. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that 70 percent of normal-weight women want to be thinner, while 23 percent of women who are already underweight want to be thinner still. Figures from the National Institute for Compulsive Eaters indicate that 80 percent of 10-year-old girls claim they're on a diet.
Some philosophers on the female condition see more danger in the fragility of the image than its possible pathology. Backlash author Susan Faludi calls the waif phenomenon "so counter to what is really going on in women's lives. Most women, if they're embracing any kind of body type, it's a bigger, stronger one. The most popular thing now is weight training."
Al Waifdom's source, reckons Faludi, is "a man's fantasy of shrinking women down to a manageable size. The look is about being very weak and passive. It is a very Victorian portrait of a woman where you are so weak you can barely gel off your chaise lounge and on to the retirement home."
In the fashion world, defenders of Moss' waif look find it more darling than deadly. "She has this childlike, womanlike thing. It's a kind of sexiness that I think is very exciting," says Calvin Klein. "And it's very real and modern when a woman's hair looks a little dirty, when it slicks together a little," he said.
Stephanie Richardson, fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar Italia, says the waif phenomenon is a reaction against the superwoman of the '80s, who was "high-heeled, with big shoulder pads, lots of makeup, teased hair. Your Ivana Trump—powerful, rich and glamorous. But it got out of hand because that wasn't a real woman."
Waifdom's detractors, says Corinne Day, 28, the photographer who shot the controversial underwear layout in British Vogue, are "older middle-aged people who have just lost touch with their youth and don't like it." As for the charge that the waif look panders to pedophiles, Sheryl Garratt, editor of The Face, a trendy British fashion magazine, says, "I don't think you can mistake a 19-year-old girl for a 12-year-old. [Day's photographs of Moss] are not going to make people want to go out and sleep with children. They are just quite real documentary shots of what Kale is like."
Moss herself is calm at the eye of the storm, happy with the more than $2 million she has made so far. Born in the London suburb of Croydon, Moss is the daughter of Peter, a travel consultant, and Linda, now divorced. Her brother, Nick, 16 and also a model, has tattled that "at 14, she started hanging out with a crowd of older kids and going to pubs. She's never been very ambitious. She likes shopping." She was only 14, in fact, when she was discovered by British model agent Sarah Doukas while stopping over at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on the way home from the Bahamas with her father. "She had a kind of ethereal look about her, a translucency, and such phenomenal bone structure," says Doukas. "She was young and absolutely beautiful." Says Moss: "People had told me that I ought to try it, but I would never have gone to a modeling agency and said, 'I want to model.' Never."
Moss modeled for The Face magazine part-time until she graduated from high school at 16, then got her big break when Fabien Baron, creative director for Harper's Bazaar, spotted pictures of Kate at a photographer's showcase in Barcelona. He recommended her both for the magazine and the Klein ads, which he was designing. They were shot by hot photographer Patrick Demarchelier. "I really like working with Patrick," says Kate in her tiny voice. "It's really cool with him and Fabien."
Soon she made the covers of Allure, Italian Vogue, Cosmopolitan and dozens more, and hit the runway for Anna Sui, Perry Ellis and Chanel, among others, in New York, Paris and Milan. At her busiest, she works five to seven days a week, pulling in as much as 810,000 a day.
Moss, who left home at 17, shares a London house with boyfriend Sorrenti, a former model, and another photographer and his wife. But she works mostly in New York City, where she often camps in the apartment of Sorrenti's mother. "His mother is a real mother," says Kate. "I mean, she cooks dinner and everything." In her few off hours, says Moss, she just vegges out or goes to clubs. "I like old music," she says. "Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Janis Joplin and people like that. If I had a wish, I would love to be able to sing and scream like those girls do. I can't, though."
On the town, sometimes with fellow supermodels, who seem not to begrudge her her success, Kate says she finds it "so weird that everyone knows who you are. You don't know them, but they all know you." And they all know her naked too. She shrugs. "It's just work," she says.
Staying thin is less work. She smokes, as many models do, and has never worked out. She doesn't diet either. "I try to eat so I won't be so waiflike," she says, "but even if I do, I'm not going to become this voluptuous thing. I do have a sweet tooth, but I don't eat loads. I'll eat anything."
Harper's Bazaar beauty and health editor Tina Gaudoin must be glad to hear it. She was so fed up with "stacks and stacks of angry letters, newspaper articles and phone calls" from the antiwaif movement that she wrote a defensive editorial in the July issue proclaiming that "these girls eat like horses. Thin is their natural body type."
Waifish model Valletta agrees: "A lot of the girls who are thin can't help being thin. I mean, my best friend, [fellow waif] Shalom, she's thin, and she can't help it, and there are plenty of girls like that. I wouldn't that. I'm going to eat the chocolate cake if I want to."
Lesley "Twiggy" Lawson, now 43, who created the waif look in the '60s. says, "I happened to be born like that. I got blamed for anorexia and all, but I always ate well—anything, absolute rubbish."
But all such disclaimers are usually relative. As a rule, models are unfamiliar with what the word eating means to most people. At a New York City club recently, Moss was reportedly sighted showing down with model buddies Christy Turlington. Cindy Crawford and Gail Elliot on a single hamburger, cut in quarters.
"Maybe on a given day they eat anything they want, but it's not an everyday thing," says veteran model Beverly Johnson, 38. Notes model Beverly Peele, 18 and not a waif: "You don't really have time to eat. You're so busy working and traveling and trying to get the few hours of sleep you can. You smoke a lot, and that keeps your weight down."
Fortunately, most eating-disorder experts agree that merely admiring waif models is not enough to bring on anorexia or bulimia. "There has to be a predisposing vulnerability," says Strober of UCLA. A real anorectic "suffers from extreme self-doubt, inadequacy concerns and self-esteem anxieties that are far more extreme than other people's. The average person will not be induced into anorexia because they see Kale Moss."
Adds Dr. John Mead, director of the eating disorders clinic at Chicago's Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center: "Girls who have a healthy self-image and come out of a good parent-child relationship do not fall victim to eating disorders, yet they all want to be thin."
But this is the world of fashion, and all in fashion passes. Nina Blanchard, head of her own Los Angeles model agency for 32 years, calls waifdom "a bump in the business." Though she has been inundated with calls from short skinny girls of late, she ascribes Moss' success more to her face than her body. "It would be better if people would stop saying this is the downfall of Western civilization," says Blanchard. Instead, she says, they should "worry about the mental health of [their] children and look into their problems in terms of self-esteem, instead of worrying that they're not eating because they want to look like Kate Moss."
ALLISON LYNN in New York City. LOIS ARMSTRONG and VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles, GABRIELLE SAVERI in Rome and LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in Loudon
- Allison Lynn,
- Lois Armstrong,
- Vicki Sheff-Cahan,
- Gabrielle Saveri,
- Laura Sanderson Healy.
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