Comment: Don’t blame skinny models for anorexia

David and Victoria Beckham attend the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Fashion Gala, Victoria & Albert Museum, London UK, 12 March 2015, Photo by Richard Goldschmidt Source:

Pointing at Posh Spice is pointless if biological markers for anorexia are visible in brain tests and medical imaging, argues Helen Razer.

Britain is not without serious problems. Wealth inequality is on the rise and so is racist nationalism. And, let’s be honest, the cooking is still total slop.

Such matters should weigh so full on the minds of policy makers that they have no time to grumble about Posh Spice. But, apparently, they do.

Caroline Nokes, Conservative Party MP, this week told the UK Telegraph that Victoria Beckham’s recent runway show “sets unrealistic ideals”.  The models, she said, were sufficiently thin to “promote ‘anorexia chic’”.

Let us first briefly wonder that Nokes (a) isn’t worried more about the fact of a promising and newly appointed Labour leader than she is about Fashion Week and (b) hasn’t ever noticed that the entire point of couture shows is precisely to “set unrealistic ideals”.

If you feel that high fashion is something you could possibly afford, or even wear, then it isn’t high fashion anymore. Impossible perfection is kind of its entire deal.

Of course, we can argue that any market that sells false aspiration is intrinsically corrupt. Heck, give me a glass of bubbles and I’ll argue it until Karl Lagerfeld tells me to shut my fat gob.

Between you, me and many of the world’s leading authorities on eating disorders, this assumption is (fat-reduced) baloney.

But Nokes, or anyone prepared to allow freedom to merchants, cannot stop these fibs. If she did, then she’d be morally bound to tell her constituents to stop believing they could ever afford the dazzling smiles of toothpaste ads on Britain’s miserable wages – and its rotten NHS.

You could insist that “skinny models” are a public health policy concern and in this, you’d be in accord with the French parliament and a short-lived Australian government “body image” advisory scheme.  

So let’s move to this very common position – as upheld by Nokes, who has started her own “body image” parliamentary group – that “skinny models” produce anorexia.  Between you, me and many of the world’s leading authorities on eating disorders, this assumption is (fat-reduced) baloney.

A surface view leads many of us to believe that the whittled-down woman, seen so often in media, is largely responsible for what we presume to be a rise in prevalence of anorexia nervosa. The medical view is different. Scholarship increasingly finds that the disease has a strong biological component.

Unique among mental disorders, anorexia has emerged as something that shows physical signs other than its symptoms. You can’t do a test for depression, but it seems imaging for anorexia may soon be possible.

There are no brain tests for anxiety, but UK researchers are on the brink of finding them for anorexia. And bipolar has no biomarkers, but Australian research is indicating that anorexia does

This is not, for a minute, to suggest that any of these very serious afflictions are less “real”, simply because medical science is yet to take a picture of them. It should, however, remind “body positive” campaigners that the single disorder for which psychiatry has truly begun to see hard biological origins is continually dismissed as the result of “skinny models”.

There can be little doubt that “skinny models” are not going to be especially helpful to anorexic patients.  But nor should there be any doubt that it is absolutely worth studying the biological origins of this disease.

Anorexic patients don’t deserve our tedious and actively obstructive insistence that models made them do it.

However, a popular focus on the social – or Victoria Beckham – impact upon anorexia is having a real and unfortunate funding result. You don’t get research dollars so easily for biologically based research as you do for those which focus on the social, or the Beckham effect.

Anorexia, as positive body image campaigners often remind us, is a deathly serious bugger. Unlike Binge Eating Disorder, which accounts for the vast majority of eating disorders, it has a relatively rare lifetime prevalence (between 0.3% and 1.5% in females and between 0.1% and 0.5% in males), but a very high mortality statistic (estimated at 1 in 5).

It is, particularly in the face of late study on its biological origins and biomarkers, absolutely deserving of research. Meanwhile, anorexic patients don’t deserve our tedious and actively obstructive insistence that models made them do it.

What Nokes – and all those who seek to fatten up “skinny models” – really seek to cure is not anorexia, but the problem of self-esteem. It’s certainly not pleasant to feel a bit shit about your waistband, but it’s also not potentially fatal. And it’s not a problem in which we can reasonably expect the state to intervene.

The Butterfly Foundation offers help to anyone with an eating disorder or body image concerns: call 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or email

Helen Razer is a writer, broadcaster and publisher of the blog Bad Hostess.

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