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Feb. 9 2010 - 10:52 am | 1,841 views | 2 recommendations | 10 comments

What’s wrong with Daily Beast’s Lisa Hilton?

Famous Dutch fashion designer Addy van den Kro...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Today at the Daily Beast, readers are being subjected to a pseudo-intellectual essay on why we’re all misguided in thinking that eating disorders are actually a problem, and that the fashion industry plays some part in their onset and popularity among women. Lisa Hilton, an Oxford-educated (good god) author of two books, has written a column called “What’s Wrong With Skinny?” that makes me – and presumably thousands of other readers – wonder, “What’s wrong with Lisa Hilton?”

If you’ve been living on black coffee and cigarettes, and are therefore too exhausted to read over the entire three-page masterpiece, allow me to summarize. Lisa Hilton just wants us to enjoy Fashion Week this year. Models who subsist on diet soda to squeeze into size-zero frocks aren’t disordered or naive, she says. In fact, they’re actually disciplined and empowered. Little pocket-sized entrepreneurs. Of course, she admits, eating disorders are terrible. But obesity is much worse, and afflicts far more women than anorexia and bulimia. Oh, also, women have always tried to be thin. Fashion won’t sell unless women are thin. And why isn’t anybody upset about male jockeys trying to make race weight?

Sure, I get that Hilton and the Beast are trying to be provocative. But can’t they manage to be intelligent and reasonable at the same time? Here are a few examples of misguided, disordered thinking at its very worst:

1. “Anorexia and bulimia are horrific psychological conditions, destroying lives and families, and carrying devastating long-term health risks even when not fatal. Sufferers deserve nothing but respect and support for their condition. But is that condition nearly so prevalent as the barrage of attention it regularly attracts actually deserves? And are women really so pathologically stupid that they are unable to distinguish the fantasy of the runway from the realities of their own bodies?”

She’s got the first part right. Eating disorders are pernicious, incredibly damaging and even life-threatening. Sentence three is where things really veer off-course here. If Hilton had done her research, she might have realized just how many eating disorders go undiagnosed. Not because a sufferer doesn’t seek medical attention, but because their illness simply doesn’t match the strict criterion to qualify as either anorexia or bulimia. Women and men are skipping insulin shots, spending six hours a day at the gym, waking up at 1 a.m. to binge on chocolate cake, puking up dinner “every once and awhile,” or obsessing over their food intake in the form of journals, charts and lists. Disordered eating and exercise, yes. Eating disorder? No.

That’s why these “conditions” receive a “barrage of attention.” Because they are incredibly prevalent, and either go under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed or are never even detected.

And no, women aren’t stupid. But thank you for asking. Actually, I think Hilton sums it up quite nicely when she describes “the fantasy of the runway.” Exactly. Fantasy. Runway models, and the fashion industry more generally, have taken on an aspirational, fantasy-oriented identity. Teenagers, and adults, aspire to that ideal. We aren’t deluded into thinking this is reality, but we can’t help but let it soak in a little. After all, these are the images we see every single day. So excuse us for our pathological stupidity, but sometimes, when we’re surrounded by it, we just can’t stop the fantasy from trickling in.

2. [Quoting a former model named 'Sasha']: “Sure, we had to be skinny. I lived on Diet Coke and apples for two years. For the couture, we had to get up at 4 a.m. to be sewn into the clothes and there was huge pressure to be thin. But I made a million dollars by the time I was 20, I bought a town house in Manhattan and put myself through Columbia. Does that make me a victim?”….For every Sasha, there are a hundred hungry wannabes who fall by the wayside.

This, to me, sounds like some seriously unhealthy and dangerous behavior, done in the name of some sort of career advancement. Sasha sounds either desperate, or “pathologically stupid” to tacitly consent to unfair standards that demanded she turn her body over to an industry, all in the name of a seven-figure pay-check. That’s not “par for the course,” as Hilton suggests. It’s actually really, really damn sad. And at least Sasha made some money, so she can pay for fertility treatments when her ovaries are dried up like raisins, and fork over for osteoporosis meds when her bones turn to ashes at 35. You know, because she lived on diet coke and fruit for two years just to sashay down a runway.

What about “those hundreds of hungry wannabes,” that Hilton dismisses in a single sentence? This is an industry that’s demanding women sacrifice their physical health, and then maybe allowing them to earn a living.  Sounds very reasonable. What sounds less reasonable is Hilton’s subsequent justification for all of this:

“Are we just a bit angry that young women with no qualifications other than what nature gave them get to be so powerful?”

Memo: A starvation diet of calorie-free soda and apples is not nature.

3. We rarely get hysterical about the weight qualifications required of male sportsmen. Jockeys, boxers, and wrestlers put themselves through torture to make weight.

Nobody is saying that male jockeys who starve themselves to make weight don’t suffer health consequences, or don’t deserve medical attention. But how many men do you know who consider horse jockeys an “aspirational identity”? How many television shows called America’s Next Top Jockey always include a “token fattie” who gets dropped after the fifth episode? And how many of you really thought Toby Maguire looked sexy in Seabiscuit?

Men contend with their own struggles with regards to disordered eating, cultural pressure and physical stigma. But that has nothing to do with whether female models ought to be starving themselves to fit sample sizes, and perpetuating an unrealistic body ideal. The issue of men and eating disorders is another issue – maybe one for a male version of Lisa Hilton to butcher?

And, finally, Hilton throws out a moral argument for tradition:

Women have always gone to absurd and often dangerous extremes in pursuit of the beauty myth. Fourteen-inch waists and mercury-eaten complexions for the Elizabethans, pthisis- inducing sponged muslin for Romantic groupies.

Years of academia and a husband in moral philosophy have taught me this important lesson: appealing to tradition doesn’t make a practice morally acceptable. Hilton seems to suggest that women are hard-wired to strive for “absurd and often dangerous extremes,” in pursuit of physical ideals. Which, correct me if I’m wrong, would make us all “pathologically stupid.”


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  1. collapse expand

    You tell her! Great post. Love the comparison to jockeys.

    She’s nuts.

    But I’ll tell you what makes this issue annoying as well…Going into a store — Ann Taylor, not Gucci or Prada — and there are no clothes there now larger than a 12. Excuse me?! The AVERAGE American woman (and that is certainly the AT customer) is a 14. So you are wasting your limited time, energy and attention span to even enter a mass retailer in the vain hopes of squishing your enormous butt into their clothes.

    I am appalled by this. Yeah, now I will waste more of my time going on-line to look at their damn clothes after writing down the style numbers. The two skirts I like are $90 each. Not cheap! But, hey, my time has no value…

    There is a much larger nose-thumbing message here. You’re fat! You suck! If you were…self-disciplined, whatever…you’d be thin and rich and could wear pretty clothes.

  2. collapse expand

    This commentator’s strident, almost shrill tone makes her just as suspect as she claims her subject to be. Hilton’s theory seems to be strenghthened by this bitter detractor. Have an apple, Katie.

  3. collapse expand

    Excellent points, all. This is some lame contrarian logic on the part of TDB. I’m no doctor but I don’t think obesity and a psychological disease such as anorexia can be compared on any basis, let alone as preferential epidemics. Story damn deserves a strident critique!

  4. collapse expand

    Amen!

    And the fact is, many cases of obesity are actually rooted in eating disorders. So…there you go.

  5. collapse expand

    First of all I apologize for my all but perfect English – I am not a native speaker.
    I find that this crusade against the media and the fashion industry promoting an unhealthy model of beauty is getting old.
    As a former anorexic turned bulimic I have to admit that I am annoyed by the constant display of super skinny models. However, I understand that the fashion industry is about business, making money selling dreams. I do not feel that the image of beauty portrayed by the media was a big factor in my illness. Anorexia and bulimia are illnesses that have their origin in our upbringing and in the family environment we grew up in.
    I would never have gotten sick had I had a support system and a normal family that understood me. My pain and the years spent in and out of hospitals have little to do with my perception of beauty, and everything to do with feeling worthless, unloved and unable to cope with the high standards that were required of me by my family and environment.
    My strict upbringing and my shy demeanor certainly contributed a lot more to my illness than it did looking at Claudia Schiffer’s skinny ass.

  6. collapse expand

    Excellent article. Why do human hangers have to model clothes? I’d rather see fashion as it will actually look on a real person. You know, someone who eats food.

    • collapse expand

      Oooh, you gotta love the knives fat women like to stick into thin women, because it’s PC to do so. “[S]omeone who eats food”. Yeah, as opposed to those Breatharians, right?

      And as to the original post, I cannot believe that some people look at the same North American continent I do, and think that eating disorders are a greater public health hazard than the obesity epidemic. Hilton’s argument was silly, but this rebuttal is not much better.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      the problem is with shapely figures, you wouldn’t notice the clothes as much. Still, I agree to have skeletons on the runway is horrific. I’m 5′ 3″ weight 114 pounds and have a terrific figure—or so I’m told. Yet I see models who are 5″ 10″ and weigh 108. Talk about walking disasters; their bones already thin, leaching calcium will be brittle and breakable as early as middle age. And they’ll have many more medical problems. And the kicker is they don’t even look good. It’s horrifying.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    Fantastic. You absolutely nailed her. I am glad to see the spirit of Diatribe lives on in more professional venues.

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