The fashion-industry group that organizes the biannual Fashion Week in New York has issued a list of recommendations for those ultraslim models parading the catwalks.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) is one of several fashion-industry groups from around the world to encourage -- and, in some cases, force -- models to adopt healthy eating and lifestyle habits. Some of the groups have put out weight limits, though the New York group stops short of that.
Instead, the CFDA guidelines emphasize education -- about the warning signs for eating disorders, and about healthy dietary and lifestyle issues.
The guidelines discourage models from working the runways if they're under 16. In addition, all models should work limited hours, take rest breaks and be supplied with nutritious snacks and nonalcoholic beverages behind the scenes.
They encourage models who do have eating disorders to seek treatment and also recommend that smoking and drinking be banned from backstage areas.
The group, which will host New York Fashion Week starting Feb. 2, says their position is "about awareness and education, not policing."
They add in a statement: "Other groups have set strict rules about how much (or little) models are allowed to weigh. However, the CFDA is not recommending that models get a doctor's physical examination to assess their health or body mass index to be permitted to work ... Eating disorders are emotional disorders that have psychological, behavioral, social, and physical manifestations, of which body weight is only one."
The issue first made headlines four months ago when 30 percent of the catwalk models were banned from the Madrid Fashion Week due to low body mass index.
Since then, governments and institutions have become more sensitive to the subject. "I feel like we should promote health as a part of beauty rather than setting rules," Diane von Furstenberg, the president of the CFDA, tells The New York Times. Von Furstenberg was joined by a nutritionist, a psychiatrist and a trainer in creating the guidelines.
The Italian government and representatives of Italian designers recently signed a self-regulatory code of conduct aimed at fighting anorexia. It requires models to show medical proof they do not suffer from eating disorders, bans models younger than 16 and calls for a commitment to add larger sizes to fashion collections.
On the other hand, the British government has preferred not to take parliamentary action. Hilary Riva, chief executive of the British Fashion Council tells ABC News, "The BFC does not, at this stage, believe that regulating the size of models on the catwalks would be a productive or enforceable measure."
The council is now carrying out individual discussions with designers and model agencies to encourage designers and the image-making community to use their influence and to choose healthy models for their catwalks before issuing an official letter based on a common consent.
Whether the models will be able to adjust their behavior is another matter. Every day they are barraged by images of chic women who are ultrathin and Web sites that promote anorexia. The allure of the catwalk is sending dangerously underweight models straight into hospital beds.
On these Web sites model wannabes are taught how to stave off hunger pangs by punching their stomachs or drinking vinegar. The Eating Disorders Association warns that there are more than 500 pro-anorexia Web sites that promote the disease as a form of control over one's body.
Steve Bloomfield, press officer for the association, explains that these Web sites have a strong impact on sick people as they finally find someone who perfectly understands how they feel and supports them. "Only 1 percent of anorexics feel able to talk to their parents or teachers," says Bloomfield.
Because anorexics refuse to think they are ill, they never associate their health problems with starving themselves. Therefore, they refuse treatment, and as Bloomfield notes, "One in five people who don't get treatment die prematurely."
The Great Ana Competition is a Web site that awards a diploma to the girl who eats the fewest calories in a two-week period. The competition has even codified a scoring system: Eat less than 150 calories per day and you are awarded nine points, accomplish a 24-hour fast and you'll be awarded the grand prix.
Here's how it works: competitors register by giving their names, actual and goal weight, height and age. Then for two weeks they diet, taking notes of their achievements on the Web. Consuming between 751 and 850 calories earns them two points; running 10 minutes earns one point. Each half litre of water they drink is one more point, while taking dieting pills is worth two points.
The health authorities in Madrid have acted to shut the sites down and asked a judge to determine whether the owners are criminally liable for the content.
Although the Eating Disorders Association strongly supports banning the Great Ana Competition, it acknowledges that it's practically impossible to censor the Web sites. Nowadays, it is easy to find cheap Web space in countries with loose regulations regarding content.
Marianne Goldstein contributed to this report