We chatted with the founders of The Chain to put together some tips for improving the fashion industry, both inside and out.
Here’s an alarming statistic: According to the National Eating Disorders Assocation, some 20 million women and 10 million men will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. That means you almost definitely know someone struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder, and since it’s almost impossible to know from the outside — eating disorders affect people of any age, s*x, gender, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic group — that person is likely suffering in silence.
While it’s important to note that the fashion industry isn’t responsible for causing eating disorders, which are brought on by a number of different factors, it’s unquestionable that our field is doing more harm than good. One study quoted by a NEDA representative found that “of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69 percent say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape, and 47 percent say the pictures make them want to lose weight (Martin, 2010).”
“While there is no single cause of body dissatisfaction or disordered eating, numerous studies have found exposure to the thin ideal online and in mass media to be correlated with body dissatisfaction,” says Chelsea Kronengold, senior communications associate at NEDA. “The media and fashion industry often perpetuates dieting and a drive for thinness in women and young girls.”
And it isn’t just people on the outside; the strong pressure to achieve thinness is pervasive from within the industry, affecting people at every level. Working in fashion can make the recovery process even more challenging than it already is — and we may be affecting our co-workers and friends in ways we don’t even realize.
Earlier this summer, I attended an open forum hosted by The Chain — a nonprofit founded by Ruthie Friedlander and Christina Grasso to provide a peer support network for women in fashion and entertainment struggling with eating disorders — and I was struck by how our actions can seriously impact someone else’s recovery. From seemingly innocuous comments about eating habits to straight-up mean-spirited jokes and gossip, we are triggering people every single day.
There’s a lot of work to be done to make the fashion industry a kinder, better place for those with eating disorders. As a jumping-off point, I reached out to Friedlander and Grasso, as well as Kronengold, to get their input on ways the industry can change itself to make the recovery process easier for those struggling — both within fashion and those consuming it from the outside.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide, and many of these issues aren’t necessarily unique to fashion, but it’s our hope that this will spark off conversations in workplaces across the industry. Here, we put together some tips for avoiding common triggers that could be putting people’s health and well-being in danger.
Stop talking about food and definitely stop talking about other people’s bodies.
“I think it’s pretty astonishing the behavior that’s still used among fashion people specifically related to food — how it’s so normal to comment on what other people are eating and how much other people weigh and how much weight people have gained or lost,” says Friedlander. “The ease with which people think that’s an appropriate thing to talk to a colleague about is quite shocking.”
It’s become a bonding tactic between women to complain about our bodies or our diets, but not only is this behavior not helpful to ourselves, it’s potentially harmful to others. Whether it’s at a dinner event or on your social media, it’s time to curb the food and diet chat. (There are exceptions to this, like raving about a recent meal you enjoyed or a restaurant you just tried.) If you are experimenting with a diet or food change, or you have gained or lost weight, keep it to yourself; what you think of as a harmless diet change or a passing comment about your own body could be extremely triggering to someone else.
“Even though I always like to give people the benefit of the doubt and learn to pick my battles, it’s really hard not to blow a gasket every day because I feel like the weight talk and the diet talk has become so common, and it’s such a common way for women to connect,” says Grasso. “It’s so incredibly unhelpful, and harmful even, to someone who’s struggling, and the thing is, we all work with someone who does, whether we know it or not — and it’s unlikely that that person is going to be able to speak up and say, ‘Can you not?'”
If you’re looking for a way to change an uncomfortable conversation or stop any potentially triggering talk, Friedlander has some tips. “You don’t need to make a political statement and tell that person that they’re doing something bad. Just change the conversation — that’s the easiest, most comfortable way you can do it,” she says. “Talk about a collection you loved, talk about a book you’re reading, talk about the last meal you ate that you loved. You don’t have to not talk about food. Changing the dialogue is the best course of action in that case.”
It’s perhaps most essential to stop commenting on other’s bodies. It can be extremely harmful to someone battling an eating disorder to hear how great they, or someone else, looks after losing weight. Changes happen to people’s bodies for all kinds of reasons, including health reasons, and commenting on weight loss — no matter how well-intentioned — can be hurtful. You may believe you are giving someone a compliment, but it’s time to stop thinking of “thinness” as an accolade.
“I think there’s still such an insane pressure to be thin and an attitude that being really thin, even if it comes at the expense of your health, is something to revere. I can’t pinpoint where exactly it comes from, or why, but I know it exists because I see it every day and I feel it every day,” Grasso says. “When I was actually at my worst, eating disorder-wise, I had people in the industry who would compliment me and tell me I looked great even though I was in grave medical danger. I think there’s such a disconnect by the way that we approach thinness in this industry.”
And, truly this should go without saying, but stop making jokes or gossip about someone else’s body. Talk about literally anything else. It’s cruel and sends harmful messaging to others.
“Going into fashion week, one thing that happens a lot is that you’re seeing people you haven’t seen in a few months, so oftentimes they’ll be like, ‘Did you see this person, she’s lost so much weight, what’s wrong with her?’ or, ‘She’s gained so much weight, do you think she’s pregnant?'” says Friedlander. “The interesting thing to talk about instead of people’s weight is: ‘They have a new job and they’re sitting with a different team,’ or, ‘Did you read the amazing article they wrote?’ — that’s never something that people get into a car and start gossiping about. It’s always, like, ‘She looks so anorexic,’ or, ‘She looks so fat.’ And the fact that I’m in my 30s and that is still happening is disturbing.”
On that note, we must stop prioritizing “thinness.”
“The fashion industry often presents a limited and false notion about beauty through the use of ultra-thin models and a narrow range of ‘standard’ clothing sizes,” says Kronengold. “Most fashion models are thinner than 98 percent of American women (Smolak, 1996), and this highly unattainable depiction of thinness and beauty often has women feeling like they don’t measure up, thus impacting their self-esteem.”
There is nothing wrong with being inherently thin! This is not to say that there is a “right” and “wrong” body type, and certainly there are fashion models whose bodies are the result of genetics, and we are not trying to shame those people.
It’s also time to increase size offerings. People beyond a size 10 — where many fashion brands stop — are just that: people. And they deserve to be able to participate in the fashion industry, as well. It’s outdated and, frankly, cruel to keep sizes small as a form of gate-keeping. People should not have to feel they have to punish themselves or their bodies to take part in fashion, and yet many — and here, I’ll include myself — feel that they have to shrink themselves to participate in fashion because they can’t find anything in their size.
“The best way to ensure that young women and men see themselves in the media is to include models that actually look like the average American, rather than some unrealistic image that our youth strives to become,” says Kronengold. “While there has been recent improvement involving the inclusion of diverse images in the media, there’s still a lack of representation of non-thin, non-white, differently-abled bodies.”
Be careful with the ways in which you discuss topics like wellness.
No doubt, wellness is one of the industry’s biggest trending topics. But it’s important to avoid phrases like “clean eating” when talking about diet trends. And when dining out, remember that everyone’s bodies and eating habits are different — so nix the talk about how certain foods or food groups are “bad” when out with others.
“As someone recovering from restrictive-type anorexia, it really easily throws me, or a lot of other people that I’ve spoken to about this, into a tailspin thinking that it’s actually normal or commonplace to eradicate complete food groups or whatever it is,” says Grasso.
“Specifically, the word ‘clean’ is very problematic,” adds Friedlander. “Women with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists, so the implication that there’s such a thing as ‘eating clean’ implies that if you’re not doing that, you’re dirty.”
Let’s not dedicate any more press space to “doctors” or “nutritionists” shilling crash diets or cleanses, or to “fitness gurus” pushing untenable workout routines. The same goes for writing about the diet habits of actresses or models; they may be traffic gold, but they can also be harmful. And please: No more office-wide diets.
Additionally, change the wording of any stories that are related to body trends. “The headline ‘How to Look Thinner by Tonight’ will always perform better than ‘How to Feel Better by Tonight,'” says Friedlander says. “Anyone who works in digital knows that ‘How to Look Thinner’ is always going to be a really catchy keyword and has high SEO value; there’s just a science behind that stuff.” Instead, she says, Friedlander has found that choosing more careful wording ultimately results in more traffic than the easy way out. She uses “How to Find a Bathing Suit if You Have Broad Shoulders” as an example.
This also goes for covering eating disorders in and of themselves. It is essential to avoid presenting those with eating disorders as having “incredible self-control” or being glamorous. “Research strongly suggests that testimonies which dramatize dangerous thinness can provoke a ‘race to the bottom’ among those struggling with or susceptible to an eating disorder (i.e. ‘She’s thinner than I am and she’s still alive. I should lose more weight.’),” says Kronengold. “A focus on the physical descriptions of the body is not only dangerous, but can also be misleading.” (NEDA recommends peeking at their “Guidelines for Sharing Your Story Publicly” before covering to avoid accidentally providing any “how-to’s.”)
Check your social media.
All these rules apply for your social media channels, too — that means not cataloging every single thing you eat on Instagram Stories or commenting on someone’s body on social media. Think about what you post: If you want to comment on, say, a too-thin model, instead of documenting the moment on social, pass along the note to the designer. And again, this should go without saying but: No more “anonymous” body-shaming.
Ultimately, don’t forget: You are in control of your own social media. Friedlander recommends unfollowing anyone who might be triggering to you. “Something that we’ve forgotten about Instagram is that it’s actually this incredible tool to only look at stuff you want to look at, and only look at stuff that makes you feel good, and I think we’ve gotten away from that idea,” she says. “I really urge people to get back to that idea. Curate it for what makes you feel happy.”
Make time to eat.
Of course, everyone is different. But anecdotally, I personally have noticed that it’s very popular in fashion, especially around fashion month, to claim that you are so busy you just haven’t had the time to eat. And I’m not alone.
“My biggest pain point — and it’s something that I deal with every day, especially because I don’t want to judge other people — is this concept that if you take the time to have a meal, you’re not working as hard as everyone else,” says Friedlander. “It’s very dangerous for me because it makes me equate how successful I can be with how little I can eat, and I would say that my personal, biggest thing with my eating disorder is, okay, if I can work for six hours and not need to take a break for a meal, then that means I’m working harder than everyone else.”
It’s a significant part of work culture that needs to change. People in positions of power should make sure employees feel comfortable leaving their desks to get food in the middle of the day, even if there’s something major going on. (The Chain is partnering with Postmates for an activation at Spring Studios this season to make that possible for its members.) Encourage co-workers to get up and leave their desk, and if invited to grab food with someone, a simple, “I’m going to grab food a bit later” is better than “I’m too busy right now.”
If you see something, say something.
Someone struggling or in recovery might not feel up to correcting a co-worker or standing up for themselves; changing the culture of an office or a publication takes time and the joint effort of many people. But ultimately, what we can do as individuals will help move that needle forward every day.
“You can kind of have the conversation about the type of content magazines produce and all of the rest, but there are a lot of people who are in control of that,” says Friedlander. “The only thing we’re actually in control of is ourselves; the words we use and the jokes we laugh at, and the times we choose to say, ‘Hey, that’s not funny,’ or, ‘Don’t use that word.'”
Whether it’s stepping in and steering the conversation away from diets at a dinner table or pushing for better diversity in your company’s next campaign, your actions can make a difference to someone struggling. And if you believe that someone in your office could be suffering, saying something to them — anything — is better than letting them go on in silence.
“There’s something to be said for asking people how they are and really listening; they think it makes people feel so awkward because nobody knows what to do or say, but I think the worst thing that anyone can do is not say anything,” says Grasso. “From my point of view, as somebody who has gone through it, I would much rather someone say something and have it be the wrong thing — at least to me, that was like they cared and they said something.”
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, you can contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237 on Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET, and on Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Crisis support is also available via text message by texting “NEDA” to 741741.
Homepage photo: Caroline McCredie/Getty Images (Please note: This is an image from a street style moment and does not imply that the people depicted are affected by eating disorders.)