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Why are there so many high-fashion models from Eastern Europe?
In 2007, easily half of the high-fashion models working the fashion weeks in the four fashion capitals of the world were from Eastern Europe. The overrepresentation of Eastern Europeans among high-fashion models has increased in recent years. What could be the reason for this?
Apparently, Eastern European women are more likely to possess the characteristics that are required of high-fashion models. Fashion designers generally prefer tall, skinny and masculinized teenage girls with a Northern European appearance. I haven’t seen any data showing Eastern Europeans to be significantly taller than Northern Europeans. To the best of my observations Eastern European women do not look more masculine than Northern/Western European women. If one compares the ethnic composition and population size of Eastern Europe to those of the entire European population, then Eastern Europe should be supplying a minority of thin teenage girls with Northern European features. So what is going on?
I can answer the question in a single line, but many would outright dismiss it. Hence I will reveal the answer through the writings of others who would be considered more respectable/reliable. In the following excerpts, I will be highlighting some parts by making them bold and add a few comments in italics and red. The excerpts are taken from Emily Nussbaum (The unbearable thinness of being a model; New Yorker, Feb 2007) and Rebecca Johnson (Walking a thin line; Vogue Shapes issue, April 2007).
These days, fashion people do not talk about models with awe. Instead, they speak of them with condescending affection, as if they were lovable circus folk. Again and again, I hear that they are “beautiful freaks,” “genetic anomalies”—girls born to be bone-thin, with giraffelike necks and the wide, pretty doll faces that are the latest visual sensation. But there is also pity for the models, who are, many people pointed out to me, basically high-school dropouts, teenagers from poor countries, whose careers last a very short time. They are infinitely replaceable. Although top girls can make up to $100,000 in a week of shows, the vast majority get nowhere near that; some of the more prominent designers pay the girls only in clothes.
Emily Nussbaum on Natalia Vodianova:
At 19, Vodianova gave birth to a son and quickly became skinnier than ever, impressing the fashion world. At five-nine, she weighed only 106 pounds, her hair was thinning, she was anxious and depressed—and she was a runway star with her first major advertising contract. After a friend confronted her, she sought help and got healthier, adding on a few pounds. But when she got up to 112 pounds, her agent sat her down: Designers were complaining she wasn’t as thin as she used to be. “I defended myself, saying it was crazy to consider measurements like 33-27-34 to be normal. I think because I was one of the girls most in demand it helped me to be able to forget the incident quickly. On the other hand, it makes me think that if I had been weak at the time, I can really imagine how it could have helped me endanger myself.”
The models she had met on her way to the top, she told the audience, were more malleable. “They were very young, a lot of them were very lonely, far from home and their loved ones. Most came from poor backgrounds and were helping their families. They left their childhood behind with dreams of a better life, and for most of them, there was nothing they wouldn’t do to live those dreams.”
Emily Nussbaum on what high-fashion models say when interviewed:
All through Fashion Week, the models told me they felt persecuted by the media conversation, as if they were being blamed for their bodies.
“You know, I don’t sing because I don’t have the voice,” said Flavia, 22, with a sigh. “If I don’t have this body, I could not be a model. I eat like a pig!”
“I’m this kind of person who can eat whatever I want,” echoed Eva. “I’m so happy that I still can eat ice cream and everything.”
“There’s always going to be that one somebody who has taken it too far,” Sophie told me. I asked her if she knew of anybody who had. No, she said. “All the girls in my model apartment eat everything. We stuff our face.”
Emily Nussbaum on the reality of many high-fashion models’ dietary practices:
But another model, Marvy Rieder, told me she had no patience for that kind of talk. “It’s b.s.,” she said flatly on the phone from the Netherlands, where she was busily packing for a photo shoot in Zambia. A Dutch model who has worked to educate the public on the subject of eating disorders, Rieder beat out 20,000 girls to be the face of Guess watches. Then she came to New York, where she was told that if she wanted to do runway work, she needed to lose weight. She dieted and exercised, but that wasn’t sufficient.
“I started skipping things. I was still eating, but not enough, really not enough, and going to the gym every day.” Her roommates in the model apartment were eating a can of corn a day, Rieder said. “Or an apple. Or whatever. And that’s just one of the things I’ve seen.” I asked Rieder if models are open about restricting food. No, she told me. “They hide it. By saying, ‘I just ate so much at home, I’m not hungry anymore.’ I’ve heard it a million times.”
Emily Nussbaum on why high-fashion models’ don’t speak out about dieting and the pressure they are under to be thin:
“In my opinion, I think it’s because they’re afraid of losing work,” said Rieder.
Sabrina Hunter, 27, agrees...She’d left runway modeling, she told me, because the pressure was so intense that it required her to eat in a disordered way. At five-ten, Hunter was expected to be “115 or lower, preferably.” After she signed with an American agency, she was given a choice: Lose weight or gain and be a plus-size model. After trying to gain unsuccessfully, she went the opposite direction, eating 600 calories and jogging five miles a day. “It made me extremely moody and depressed. And I looked it, in the face. But that’s how all the models look,” she says.
Both Rieder and Hunter have known models who are naturally skinny. But many of these girls are exceptionally young: A model who is effortlessly flat-chested and hipless at 14 will start to struggle as she hits her late teens. If she’s already rising in the industry, she may find that she needs to take more- extreme measures to continue to fit the bony aesthetic. And that goes double for the new breed of models, many of whom come, like Vodianova, from the poorest regions of Eastern Europe. For these girls, pressures to stay thin may be a small price to pay for escaping the small towns they came from.
I walk up to Nataliya Gotsii, who grimaces when I ask her about new industry guidelines on eating disorders. Everyone at Fashion Week makes this face when I raise the subject: After a year of media coverage criticizing the size-zero model, fashion has gotten tired of explaining itself. But Gotsii has particular reason to worry. She was one of the models whose photos have been used to illustrate the controversy—a shot of her ribs was flashed on CNN in order to elicit shocked reactions from celebrities.
“It’s all about the Ukrainian models,” she tells me with frustration. “After last Fashion Week, I hear a lot about myself, in the news! I didn’t come back here for two months because clients refused to work with me. Me and Snejana and the other Ukrainian models.” All of the runway models are thin, she points out, and she wonders why she was singled out. “Maybe, some of the girls, they skinny, but they look natural? Some of the girls, they don’t look healthy?”
“One of the interesting things about these models today is that they get used and spit out so quickly,” says Magali Amadei, a model who has been open about her recovery from bulimia. “The era of the supermodel is over, so girls working today don’t have the earning power. These girls come into the business young, and they are disposable. On top of that, people often talk about your appearance in front of you, as if you can’t hear them.”
Rebecca Johnson on why those in the fashion business do not want to speak about models’ thinness:
Speaking out on the issue is what you might call a no-win situation for people in such a highly competitive business. In the days preceding New York Fashion Week, one very powerful agent sounded pretty sanguine on the topic once I got him on the phone. “These girls are naturally thin,” he said dismissively. “They were the Olive Oyls in high school, the ones who got teased for being a beanpole. If there’s a problem, we’ll talk to the girl. Everyone wants her to be healthy. We work with trainers and nutritionist. Maybe it’s just a matter of cutting down on carbohydrates.”
But a few days into fashion week, his tone changed. “I just got a call from a designer about a top girl they cut because the clothes don’t fit,” he said angrily one evening from his cell phone. “I asked them, ‘Is she too large?’ and all they said was ‘The clothes don’t fit.’ I/m not talking about 25 pounds here, I’m talking about two or three pounds! This is the new ear? I really thought things were going to change.”
Still, he did not want his name used. “This is a very competitive business,” he explained. “I want my clients to make good money into their 30s. If she has a problem, the last thing we would ever do is talk about it publicly.”
“It’s the paradox of the model,” said Natalia Vodianova, one of the few models who have been outspoken on the issue. “You’re supposed to be projecting this image of fun and health. If you talk about having a problem, you know it’s going to affect your career, so you don’t say anything. The girls talk about dieting all the time, but they never talk about the problems.”
If people don’t talk, it’s hard to know the true extent of the issue or where it begins and ends. “Why are the agents even sending these girls?” Donna Karan asked at the CFDA forum on the topic this part February. Answer: because those are the girls who are getting booked. “I know one of my girls has a problem,” one anguished agent asked, “but every designer in town wants that girl in their show, so what am I supposed to tell her? If I tell her she can’t work, she’’ just go to someone else.”
Rebecca Johnson commenting on Ana Carolina Reston’s death:
Fellow Brazilian made international headlines after Reston’s death when she said parents are responsible for anorexia, not the fashion industry, but others were more empathetic. “I didn’t know her personally, “said Vodianova, “but when I read about her story, I could understand. At home, girls are the little princesses, but then you get this opportunity and you think, OK, this is my job now. This is what I am supposed to do. Nobody is nurturing them, and suddenly, everything becomes about the weight. If you do allow yourself to eat something, you become nervous because you think the clothes won’t fit. It’s not that people even say things to your face; it’s more like a tension in the air during a fitting. Or you overhear something. In your off-time you start to overeat because you are so hungry, so now your normal relationship with food is gone.”
It’s no coincidence that many of the youngest, thinnest girls on the runway come from countries where economic opportunities for them are limited. Reston’s family was initially middle class, but after her family’s savings were stolen, she felt an added pressure to be a breadwinner. “My parents saw an opportunity for me to have a better life,” Vodianova said explaining why her parents let her leave home alone at seventeen. To make money in Russia, she used to sell fruit on the street next to engineers and professors, people with advanced degrees who needed cash to feed their families. The money she made from her first fashion show – $50 – was equal to a month’s salary for a teacher. “If I had stayed, finished school, and become a doctor, so what?” She shrugged, “I still would have been selling fruit on the street.”
Emily Nussbaum on “why skinny?”:
And for observers of the catwalk, there remains the nagging question: Why this skinny? Why now? Why are designers casting bodies that are, if not actively anorexic, practically indistinguishable from the girls at Renfrew?
I hear two dominant theories. The first is that fashion is aspirational. There’s makeup; there’s lighting; it is intended to be extreme, not realistic—to inspire envy, by providing a vision of an impossible life the audience member would love to live. One editor I spoke with wondered if the tiny socialites, the demographic that can afford these expensive garments, naturally prefer to see even tinier girls on the runway, so they could have something to aspire to. According to this theory, we would all love to be that thin.
The other theory is that the girls need to be skinny because they need to be invisible. Clothing stands out best when the body is a blank. And the better the clothes are, the more extreme the skinniness must be. Certainly, the glittering sacks that many designers are featuring these days flatter only a body that recedes inside them (like the Mary-Kate Olsen look, these puffy garments have an unnerving resemblance to the extra-large sweatshirts I remember anorexics wearing back in college).
“Models are quote-unquote hangers,” points out Kate Armenta, the booker for Vogue—although she is also eager to detach her own publication from any responsibility for this issue. “Honestly, I have to give credit to Anna,” she tells me. “She’s always been very outspoken against thin models. Vogue has never tried to perpetuate that look.” (A perusal of the magazine would seem to indicate otherwise.)
But, of course, these two explanations are diametrically opposed. In the first vision, the models must be thin so people look at them. In the second, they must be thin so that no one will notice them. And when I ask the buyers and the customers, they seem baffled about the reason for it all.
Such pressures [to be thin] can be the most intense on girls who walk the runway, a job that possesses a strange, Catch-22 quality. Models must not distract from the clothes, and yet their chance to succeed is to stand out. If she gets noticed, a model can grab the big prize—a major ad campaign. These contracts offer financial security and celebrity, which translates to a modicum of power, although nothing compared with the days when models rather than celebrities commanded the covers of fashion magazines.
The truth is, no one really has a good explanation for the change [wrong honey; read this site and you will learn more in a few hours than in months spent scouring magazines, newspapers, books and journals on the topic]. The sophisticated fashion observer notes that this is just how fashion works: The Gibson girl gives way to the flapper, then to the big-shouldered forties girl and her busty fifties counterpart, and on to Twiggy, the eighties Amazons, Kate Moss, the waifs, and heroin chic—and for the past ten years, thinner and thinner, younger and younger, in what can feel like some sort of terrifying endgame. Celebrity culture has added its own catalyst, that parade of starlets dwindling competitively in US Weekly. Women’s bodies have always been theater, and this is just another act [no explanation honey; here is the explanation for the twentieth century trend].
Emily Nussbaum on the tautology that a conversation with a fashion apologist ultimately boils down to:
The clothes are on very thin girls, so clothes must look best on very thin girls.
Emily Nussbaum on basic questions to ask the fashion industry:
And there are questions it is hard to ask in Fashion World, too bumptious and too basic: Aren’t clothes intended to flatter those who purchase them? What kind of message does this send to young women? And, the electronics industry aside [employing poor Third Worlders], isn’t there something a little creepy about using teenage girls from poor countries to model gowns that get bought mainly by incredibly wealthy adult women?
So what is the answer to the Eastern European overrepresentation?
It should be obvious that the pressure to be thin is coming from the designers; not all, but a good number of the dominant ones. So here is the one-line explanation for Eastern European overrepresentation among high-fashion models:
A large number of the dominant fashion designers are homosexual men with pederastic interests and they insist that their female models lean toward the looks of boys in their early adolescence, which requires a very thin and lanky appearance, and the tall and masculine girls willing or forced to starve themselves to present such looks are going to disproportionately come from regions comprising of a large number of poor individuals with a Northern European appearance.