Spotlight on models' health shifts to New York

By Mark Egan

NEW YORK - The man who cleans backstage at New York's fashion week says there is a problem with the claims of stick-thin models that they are naturally skinny.

"We can smell it. They're doing a lot of vomiting," janitor Dennis White, 28, said by the toilets backstage where models prepared for one early morning show. "They look too skinny, like they've got to eat."

The global fashion industry is under siege from critics who want skinny models off catwalks -- a hot issue given the death in 2006 of two anorexic Latin American models and concern that impressionable girls will see ultra-thin bodies as the ideal.

With New York's annual fashion week showcase in full swing, the focus on models' health has shifted to the US fashion-industry capital.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America, the US industry's trade group, in January issued guidelines for a healthier industry, but stopped short of enacting regulations about models' weight.

The council's guidelines recommend teaching models about nutrition and eating disorders, banning models under 16 from runways and offering healthy food backstage, with no smoking and no alcohol. But at fashion shows this week, there was a steady supply of free booze and cigarette smoke was in the air.

"I can be naturally thin," said Russian beauty Sasha Pivovarova, 22, lighting a cigarette as she prepared for a show. Her advice for young girls is simple: "Don't try to look like me."

Backstage at 9am one day, the breakfast buffet included champagne, miniature pastries, coffee and caffeinated energy drinks.

"Champagne has always been served. We take one sip. None of the girls get drunk," said Polish model Magdalena Frackowiak, who at 19 is below New York's 21-year-old legal drinking age.

A spokesman for the Fashion Week organisation denied models were making themselves vomit backstage. "It is not something we have had a historical issue with or something we that our staff have seen on site this season," he said on condition of anonymity.

The designer's council did not return calls seeking comment.

Model after model says she has a high metabolism and no time for proper meals between shows.

Skinny models dated back to Twiggy in the 1960s, said Nian Fish of the designer council's health initiative. She said the group could not demand heavier models. "It would be like asking Rubens to paint skinny women and the New York City Ballet to use bigger size ballerinas."

Council President Diane von Furstenberg insisted the group was right not to enforce weight guidelines by demanding that models have a minimum body-mass index -- expressed as a ratio of weight to height -- or demanding they pass a medical exam.

"There should be guidelines and no enforcement," she said.

Milan is the only city of the four world fashion centres -- with New York, London and Paris -- to ban models with a body-mass index of less than 18.5 from shows. That means a 1.73 metre model must weigh at least 55.4kg.

A Democratic New York councilwoman is pushing a law banning models with indexes under 18.5 from city runways.

The scrutiny followed two deaths. Uruguayan Luisel Ramos died after a heart attack, reportedly after months of eating only lettuce and diet soda, and Brazil's Ana Carolina Reston died from an anorexia-related infection after eating only apples and tomatoes.

Russian model Natalia Vodianova became obsessed with diet and weight loss, leading to eating disorders. After recovering, she said her agency received complaints about her weight gain.

"It is possible to be crueler to yourself than you would ever be to your worst enemy," she said.

Nearly 10 million American women and 1 million men battle eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Kitty Westin of the Eating Disorder Coalition said her daughter, Anna, died of anorexia in February 2000.

"The industry contributed to her death by promoting a look of emaciated models," she said. "I am appalled by the lack of enforcement for these guidelines."

- REUTERS

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