Another fashion model has died from anorexia-related complications. Israeli fashion model Hila Elmalich died Nov. 14 of heart failure. The corpse she leaves behind is the average weight of a seven-year old child.
If you didn’t read about it in the newspapers or hear it on the evening news, you aren’t alone. I only stumbled upon the news accidentally via a search for another eating disorders-related topic.
Have we become so desensitized to the fact that so many contemporary fashion models are eating disordered that news like this isn’t even news-worthy anymore? Has the anorexic model become so commonplace in our collective consciousness that, when another one of them dies from the disease, it’s oh-so-easy for us to suspend our shock, outrage and concern?
Elmalich’s death comes as just the next in a recent string of anorexia-related deaths in models. Twenty-two-year old model Luisel Ramos died during Fashion Week in August last year. She reportedly lived on lettuce and diet drinks.
Then in November, 21-year-old Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died following complications from kidney problems, due to anorexia and bulimia. And earlier this year, Ramos’ sister, Eliana Ramos, also a model, died from a heart attack, believed to be brought on by malnutrition.
Ramos’ and Reston’s story garnered international attention; yet Elmalich’s death seems to have faded into obscurity. As writer Emily Nussbaum points out in her examination of eating disorders in the modeling world, anorexia and bulimia are often the rule, not the exception. Nussbaum finds that as models’ autonomy and agency have diminished, so too has their physical statures, until they become, much like Elmalich, “nameless, faceless manual laborers with short shelf lives.”
Yet fashion designers persist in casting models that are, if not actively anorexic, practically indistinguishable from the eating disorder sufferers at Renfrew. In America, the Council on Fashion Designers of America continues to fight proposed legislation that would implement height and weight regulations and enact age restrictions on models.
“The President of the Council of Fashion Designers was quoted as saying that the government would be involved in regulating models size ‘over my dead body,’” said Bronx Assemblyman Jose Rivera, who introduced New York’s “Skinny Model” bill. “We don’t want anymore dead bodies, that’s the point of my legislation.”
There are some who see this and Spain’s decision to enact BMI standards for models as a continued effort to regulate the lives of women. And I agree – to a point. And here’s the difference: this argument is rooted in the assumption that women with anorexia are making an informed, rational decision for themselves to whittle their body in such an extreme fashion.
They aren’t. Eating disorders are psychiatric mental diseases, and it’s time we treated them as a mental illness and not just as a “fad,” a temporary diet, a “lifestyle” choice – or any of the other numerous euphemisms we label eating disorders with in efforts to avoid acknowledging them for what they are and/or to justify our idolization of them.
This is not to say that such regulations will reduce or minimize the rising numbers of eating disorders. As I’ve written about in length, banning super-skinny models isn’t the cure-all prescription for eating disorders – they’re much too complex in origin to point the bony finger of blame at any one influence.
But the sad fact is, many an eating disorder begins as a simple diet. And many a diet is influenced by the unrealistic and often unattainable images girls and women find themselves bombarded by with in the media. The Women’s Forum Australia recently released a publication which shows that images in the media lowered girls’ perceptions of body image and contributed to a rise in dieting and eating disordered behaviors.
Elmalich’s friend, Israeli fashion photographer and modeling agent Adi Barkan, is honoring the memory of Elmalich by campaigning internationally to change attitudes in the fashion world. His three-year activism saw fruit when, in 2004, Israel became the first nation to pass laws requiring modeling agencies to hire only models with a BMI of 19 or above.
Elmalich’s death is a tragedy; it is no irony that Marya Hornbacher settled on the double entendre “Wasted” as the title of her memoir, which describes her battles with anorexia and bulimia. But Elmalich’s death doesn’t have to be in vain.
Write the Council of Fashion Designers of America and contact members of its board and urge them to adopt and embrace BMI regulations. Stop the glamorization of anorexia by protesting with your pocketbook – don’t buy or patronize designers who continue to flaunt a disregard for eating disorders. About-Face.org has 10 other ways in which you can empower yourself and others.
Hila Elmalich’s obituary needn’t only read “Died of complications from anorexia.” It can also read “Provided the momentum for sweeping changes in the modeling world.”