NEW YORK — Education, not enforcement, is the way the Council of Fashion Designers of America thinks the industry should confront the growing controversy over too-thin models.

In the newly released CFDA Health Initiative, of which WWD has obtained a copy, the organization stresses the responsibility the industry has to protect the mental and physical health of models in the fashion business and recommends a series of guidelines. The recommendations are the first development in what is widely expected to be a series of responses as the initiative is further developed.

The guidelines were created by a committee of industry and health experts that was put together by CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg and Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue. The committee consists of von Furstenberg; fitness specialist David Kirsch; Susan Ice, M.D., vice president and medical director of the Renfrew Center, which is devoted to treating eating disorders; nutritionist Joy Bauer; Nian Fish, creative director and senior vice president at public relations and event production firm KCD, and Louis Chaban, an agent at modeling agency DNA.

The guidelines, which are expected to be made public today, are:

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  • “Educate the industry to identify the early warning signs in an individual at risk of developing an eating disorder.
  • “Models who are identified as having an eating disorder should be required to seek professional help in order to continue modeling. And models who are receiving professional help for an eating disorder should not continue modeling without that professional’s approval.
  • “Develop workshops for the industry (including models and their families) on the nature of eating disorders, how they arise, how we identify and treat them, and complications if they are untreated.
  • “Support the well-being of younger individuals by not hiring models under the age of 16 for runway shows; not allowing models under the age of 18 to work past midnight at fittings and shoots, and providing regular breaks and rest.
  • “Supply healthy meals, snacks, and water backstage and at shoots and provide nutrition and fitness education.
  • “Promote a healthy backstage environment by raising the awareness of the impact of smoking and tobacco-related disease among women, ensuring a smoke-free environment, and address underage drinking by prohibiting alcohol.

The American guidelines do not stipulate a body mass index for models. As reported, Italy’s Chamber of Fashion last month formed its “ethical code of self-regulation,” which would include granting models a license issued by a committee including Milanese city officials, the Chamber of Fashion, the Association of Fashion Services, and a scientific committee of doctors, nutritionists, psychologists and other experts. The code also stipulates that models have to be at least age 16, and comply with a body mass index of 18.5, set by the World Health Organization.

In the past week, several health experts have stepped forward to offer their opinions on the debate, which has become the most-talked about issue in the fashion industry since President Clinton raised the red flag at the fashion industry for promoting heroin chic. The Northbrook, Ill.-based Academy for Eating Disorders issued its own guidelines for the fashion industry, which includes a minimum age of 16, a medical certification for aspiring models confirming they don’t suffer from an eating disorder, and a minimum body mass index of 18.5.

Other experts on eating disorders, though, caution that the index can be a dangerous measuring point to promote, especially for young adolescents. The Highland Park, Ill.-based National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, for instance, has been working in the U.S. to fight eating disorders for 31 years, and takes a stance that a certified body mass index, while it has a variety of uses, can send out the wrong message to young girls, particularly at the beginning of their growth spurt, as they are most likely to naturally outgrow their baby fat. If the fashion industry enforced a set body mass index, it could send out the wrong message to these young, often impressionable girls, who could try to aspire toward this adult measurement.

“The body mass index should be expressed very carefully as far as adolescence is concerned,” said Keith Anderson, a spokesman for the association. “We believe that it is important to look toward the fashion industry to promote a healthy lifestyle and image. Hypothetically, women who meet the body mass index could still be very thin. Rather than legislation, it’s important to work towards images and lifestyles that are healthy.”

The CFDA is staging an event to discuss health and beauty on Feb. 5 to an invited audience of designers, models, agents, editors, industry leaders, and health experts and specialists from eating disorder organizations.

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