Jan. 28, 2013 -- A trade group of fashion designers has partnered with a prominent juice cleanse company to provide "nutritious" and "convenient" food for models at a discount during Fashion Week, but critics say the move just puts more pressure on models to be dangerously thin.
"Sending a model to a juice cleanse place is like sending an alcoholic to a bar," said Whitney Thompson, the first plus size winner of "America's Next Top Model," who became an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association in 2010. "It's baiting them."
The Council of Fashion Designers of America, an invitation-only trade organization of about 400 designers, announced this week that it partnered with Organic Avenue, an organic weight loss company in Manhattan, to provide a 50 percent discount on juices and food to the models during the annual weeklong fashion event in New York City that starts Feb 7.
A juice cleanse, or juice fast, is an extreme diet that involves drinking juice -- and little or nothing else -- for a number of days in a row. Another popular diet called the Master Cleanse calls for drinking a mixture of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper whenever the dieter is hungry. Taking a laxative before bed is also recommended. Organic Avenue cleanses involve a variety of juices but cost $75 a day.
Thompson, a model in New York City, said it is "extremely common" for models to do juice cleanses, adding that many of them struggle with anorexia and bulimia as they struggle to fit into their size 0 dresses for the Fashion Week shows. She said Organic Avenue is known primarily for its juice cleanses because celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow do them.
Organic Avenue offers solid food as well, but many options appear to be between 100 and 300 calories a dish. The "Dandelion-Kale Salad" has 194 calories, and the "Cauliflower Salad" has 146 calories. The "Big Arugula Salad," on the other hand, has 533 calories.
Dr. Donald Hensrud, Mayo Clinic's chair of preventative medicine, said the food could be good as part of a healthy diet, but there is no evidence to suggest juice cleanses or colonics (which Organic Avenue recommends in its FAQ section) have any health benefits. In fact, Hensrud said, they could be dangerous.
"In this group where there is some baseline concern already to not take in a lot of calories, I'm concerned this may not be part of an overall healthy diet plan," said Hensrud, who edited The Mayo Clinic Diet blog.
Hensrud said "cleanse" and "detoxification" are buzzwords with no scientific evidence behind them.
"What 'toxins' are people getting rid of? The colon is full of bacteria," he said. (This flora of bacteria and other microorganisms plays a key role in gastrointestinal health.) "Nobody's been able to tell me specifically what 'toxins' they are talking about."
Juice cleanses can result in diarrhea, which can result in dehydration and electrolyte deficiency, Hensrud said. He acknowledged that people often say they feel better on juice cleanses, but the mental state does not correlate with their physical well being.
Models worry about staying thin during fashion week because they often lose their jobs if the dresses don't fit, Thompson said. It's not uncommon to see models fainting, eating a single blueberry to get through a show or being told by designers, "You look like you just ate a cheeseburger," she said.
Thompson added that models often don't get paid, are underage and can't afford even the half-priced Organic Avenue offerings. A 4-ounce cup of granola costs $6 at regular price.
Model-turned-filmmaker Sara Ziff said Fashion Week models -- including child models -- are often forced to work "grueling" hours that don't afford them time to eat.
"Viewed in this light, the CFDA's offer to provide half-priced juices -- although better than nothing -- suggests to me that they still don't understand the depth of the problem, which is even more a labor issue than it is a health issue," said Ziff, the founder and director of The Model Alliance, a group created to protect model rights.
The Model Alliance estimated that 64.1 percent of models have been asked to lose weight by their modeling agency, 48.7 percent of them do fasts or cleanses to lose weight, and 31.2 percent have had eating disorders.
One of the alliance's key issues is child labor, which CFDA attempted to address by banning models under 16.
"Minors are defined as under 18, not 16," Ziff said. "And models under 18 have legal protections such as mandatory work permits, limited working hours, and provisions for meal breaks -- protections that designers, including some CFDA board members, have a history of ignoring."
Thompson said younger models are more desirable to designers because they haven't hit puberty yet and lack the natural curves of the older girls.
Since Thompson made a name for herself on "America's Next Top Model," designers have dressed her in their clothes and given her front-row seats to their New York Fashion Week shows, but she has not been able to participate. That's because there has only been one plus size show in Fashion Week history, she said, adding that it was in 2011 and has not been repeated since.
"I realized they were just doing this for their own publicity. It made them look like they supported a healthy body image," she said. "I thought, 'I'm not going to do this anymore unless they're putting real women of different sizes in the show.'"
Neither CFDA nor Organic Avenue was available for comment.