By  on February 6, 2007

NEW YORK — All the experts in the world couldn't have crystallized the controversy of fashion's role in eating disorders better than model Natalia Vodianova.

At Monday's Council of Fashion Designers of America health initiative panel discussion, Vodianova was responsible for the most revealing and touching moments, offering insights into the psychological impact being a model can have.

"Oscar Wilde once said that to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance," she told the audience of health experts, designers and editors. "But I hope you would agree with me that no relationship comes that easy. Perhaps the trickiest and most complex relationship is the one between you and yourself, your body and your mind. Sometimes it's even possible to be crueler to yourself than you would be to your worst enemy."

Designers like Donna Karan, Gilles Mendel, Tory Burch, Reed Krakoff, Daniel Silver of Duckie Brown, Carlos Falchi and Stan Herman came to the Bryant Park tents to hear the CFDA's strategy in the fight against eating disorders. In addition to guidelines for designers' use of models proposed late last month, the panel — which consisted of Renfrew Center's Susan Ice, KCD's Nian Fish, trainer David Kirsch and nutritionist Joy Bauer — disclosed it was planning several seminars in the next 12 months to educate the industry.

Some audience members from the health field expressed their disappointment that the guidelines didn't go far enough, and Karan raised the heat a little when she suggested the modeling agencies shouldn't be sending models to castings if they are too young or show signs of an eating disorder.

"It is important that we project health as part of beauty and do not encourage unhealthy behaviors," said CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg. "The fashion industry cannot take the blame for eating disorder diseases, but by being aware and sensitive to it, we can change a lot of things

Vodianova, who is the face of Calvin Klein, charted her course from her poor upbringing in Russia, where she viewed food as a necessity rather than an extravagance. Her weight was never something she obsessed about until she arrived in Paris in 2000 to model.

"I was meeting other models and our conversations, more often than not, revolved around diet, gym and weight, which was then totally alien to me," she recalled. "At first, I kind of sneered, thinking this would never affect me, but as I began working, modeling and trying on clothes, I began to pay attention to my body shape for the first time and to compare myself to other models."The pressures of the industry, though, really started to kick in when she began doing runway shows two years later, and her schedule became so hectic that eating became secondary. At age 19, Vodianova gave birth to her son, Lucas, and afterward weighed 117 pounds, less than before pregnancy. She was catapulted to the top of her game. The stress took its toll. When Vodianova's weight dropped down to 106 pounds, her hair started thinning and she was always nervous and overly sensitive, a doctor friend intervened.

"The next season, I got healthy again, but when I returned to work, my weight was questioned," she said. "Some fashion houses called my agency complaining that I was two centimeters over [in measurements]. I was extremely upset since I felt very healthy and good about myself. I defended myself, saying it was crazy to consider measurements like 33-27-34 to be normal and not to expect some change.

"It makes me think that if I had been weak at the time, I could really have endangered myself," she continued. "At any age we can handle success, but at what age can we handle failure?" One of the guidelines suggests designers should not hire models under 16.

David Kirsch, owner of Madison Square Club, a Manhattan fitness center, recounted his personal experience with eating disorders, having had two sisters who suffered from bulimia and anorexia. "I see body image at the heart of this disease, and how these girls perceive themselves, and as importantly, how they think other people perceive them," he said.

Ice outlined the subjects of the upcoming seminars. "We will talk a lot about the demographics of eating disorders," she said. "Unfortunately, there are those who would simplify the problem and the illness around body weight, when we know that body weight alone, or BMI alone, is not really the only indicator of an eating disorder."

Nutritionist Bauer, who hopes to educate models about healthy eating at the seminars, echoed the sentiment, adding that BMI can be misguided, as some models may genetically have low BMIs and be perfectly healthy, and others who have normal BMIs could be struggling with eating disorders. "We also don't think that it's realistic or effective to start regularly weighing the models," she said. "In fact, the pressure to get weighed may cause more weight anxiety and preoccupation, and could, in fact, result in more disordered behavior."Fish, meanwhile, raised a red flag at those who feel the CFDA or the health committee should impose rules on designers. "This is their aesthetic choice. What we are taking on is to create a structure inside the current thin aesthetic that educates and promotes the concept of a natural healthy thin."

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