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Are models naturally skinny?

Models are often portrayed as having naturally skinny bodies that don’t require much effort to maintain. However, the truth behind a model’s body is far more complex. While some models are naturally thin, many engage in restrictive diets and intense exercise regimens to stay runway-ready. Additionally, the modeling industry places intense pressure on models to conform to a very narrow ideal of beauty that glorifies thinness. This can encourage unhealthy behaviors and attitudes around food and exercise. Looking at the diverse bodies of models throughout history provides insight into how the standard has shifted over time, often in response to cultural trends rather than a model’s natural shape. Ultimately, the “ideal” model body represents unrealistic standards that most women cannot healthily attain.

A Brief History of Modeling Standards

In the early 20th century, models were often full-figured, reflecting the cultural preference for curves at the time. However, as thinness became more fashionable in the 1960s, model sizes shrank dramatically.

Decade Average Model Size
1960s Size 8
1970s Size 6
1980s Size 4

By the 1990s, the average model was a size 2. The increasing thinness of models since the 1960s demonstrates that the “ideal” body has become slimmer in response to cultural trends, not because models suddenly started being born skinnier.

The Heroin Chic Era

In the 1990s, the “heroin chic” trend glorified pale, gaunt, dark-eyed models who looked like heroin addicts. This disturbing aesthetic promoted an unhealthy appearance that did not reflect most women’s natural bodies. The fashion industry was rightfully critiqued for glamorizing a look associated with serious drug abuse. This troubling episode demonstrated the modeling industry’s willingness to prioritize shock value and skinniness over models’ health.

Extreme Thinness Required for Runway Work

Though print models tend to be slightly larger, most runway models meet a very strict standard of thinness. In the 2010s, over half of models were clinically underweight, with a Body Mass Index (BMI) under 18.5. For comparison, about 3% of American women have a BMI under 18.5. The average runway model is 5’10” tall and weighs just 115 pounds, with bust, waist, and hip circumference well below the average woman’s measurements.

Very few women could healthily maintain the thinness required of high fashion runway models without engaging in restrictive behaviors. Models are under tremendous pressure to stay rail-thin for their careers, leading many to develop dangerous habits like extreme calorie restriction, overexercising, smoking to curb appetite, and abused diuretics or laxatives. These behaviors can cause models to enter a cycle of malnutrition that damages their health in the long run.

Modeling and Eating Disorders

Multiple studies have found that models are at higher risk for eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia than the general population. Estimates suggest between 62-85% of models have eating disorders. Models are immersed in a high-pressure environment where their natural body shapes are critiqued and controlled through intense dieting and exercise requirements. Developing an eating disorder is often the only way models can maintain the underweight standard demanded of them. The glamorization of extreme thinness in fashion spreads can also trigger disordered eating in the girls and women viewing the imagery.

Genetics Play a Limited Role

Genetics do influence natural body size and shape to some degree. For example, Vogue cover model Karlie Kloss is 6’2″ tall, partially due to genetics. However, most experts agree genetics alone cannot explain models’ ultra-thinness. The modeling industry’s stringent weight standards override most models’ natural shapes. Models face constant pressure to lose weight through unhealthy means if their genetics give them curves or normal amounts of body fat.

While models like the Hadid sisters may seem to “naturally” have long, slim physiques, the reality is more complex. Even models born with slimmer body types engage in disordered eating to maintain underweight statuses. Genetics may give some models a head start, but the industry’s standards ultimately determine their bodies.

A Shift Towards Inclusivity

In recent years, the fashion industry has faced growing backlash for promoting unrealistic, unhealthy beauty standards that glorify extreme thinness. In response, some brands have started embracing more size diversity on the runway and in campaigns. For example, Rihanna’s lingerie brand Savage X Fenty famously uses models across a broad range of sizes. Sports Illustrated made history by featuring plus-size model Ashley Graham on their cover in 2016. However, these are small steps in an industry still fixated on thinness. Most major luxury brands continue casting mainly thin, tall models. While models aren’t required to be as emaciated as in the 90s heroin chic era, extreme thinness remains the expectation for runway work.

Average Measurements of Plus Size Models

Here are the average measurements of models considered plus-size in the fashion industry:

Height Weight Bust Waist Hips
5’9″ 165 pounds 38 inches 29 inches 43 inches

These measurements are considered “plus” only in comparison to straight-size fashion models. In reality, plus size models typically wear a size 8-14, larger than the average American woman who wears a size 16.

The Takeaway

Models face overwhelming pressure to conform to an unrealistic body ideal completely contrary to the natural diversity of women’s bodies. Their thinness is not simply genetic luck but the result of excessive dieting and exercise. While a few naturally skinny models exist, the industry requires extreme thinness regardless of models’ natural predispositions. Recently, body positive brands have embraced more size diversity on the runway and in print. But most high fashion brands still demand models maintain underweight statuses to work. Rather than reflective of models’ natural bodies, the “ideal” fashion model look represents unachievable standards that can promote disorderd eating and body image issues.