Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fashion luminaries talk eating disorders at Harris Center forum

Dr. David B. Herzog, Natalia Vodianova, Michael Kors and Anna Wintour at the Harris Center Public Forum, "Health Matters: Weight and Wellness in the World of Fashion." Photo courtesy of Roger Farrington

The runways of Fashion Week and the pages of magazines are dominated by models who are chic and beautiful but too often also frighteningly thin. David B. Herzog, MD, director for the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Mass General and an internationally renowned eating disorder expert, has teamed with the fashion industry to help it address the problems of eating disorders and poor body image.

This year's Harris Center Public Forum - held March 22 at the Harvard Business School - reflected Herzog's commitment by featuring some of fashion's biggest names: Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, American fashion designer Michael Kors, and Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova. "Health Matters: Weight and Wellness in the World of Fashion," focused on efforts by the industry to tackle these problem and the obstacles impeding momentum.

"I see this forum as an important part of the dialogue to effect change," said Herzog in his introduction.

In her remarks before an audience of nearly 1,000 people, Wintour talked about the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Health Initiative, which was established to promote the well-being of the fashion industry's models. Its guidelines include setting minimum age requirements for models, banning alcohol and tobacco from the backstage of fashion shows, and educating models, designers and casting agents about eating disorders and how to get treatment.

"A model's weight and eating disorders were taboo issues before; the CFDA Health Initiative has helped to change that," said Wintour, while also recognizing that there are still many challenges.

"The sample sizes we get are just too small," she said of the clothes given to fashion magazines for photo shoots. "There has been a dramatic downward shift in the size of the clothes."

Kors made the biggest commitment of the event, pledging that he will raise the minimum age of models he hires to 16. "The fashion industry is starting to address real women again. Women are in vogue," he said to applause.

Vodianova talked about her own battles with self image and an eating disorder, which she described as "little gremlins" in her head. Vodianova has been an outspoken proponent of improving the health of models, speaking at the first CFDA Health Initiative event in 2007. She also lauded efforts to raise the age requirements for working models.

"The girls need to establish their own sense of self-worth before it is handed over to people who don't care about their emotions," she said.

There has been increasing pressure on the fashion industry to use healthier-looking models since high-profile cases of models suffering from and, in the case of Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, dying of anorexia or other eating disorders.

"The goal of the forum was to bring new momentum to this discussion in the fashion industry," said Herzog. "We hope that a commitment from the fashion industry will help change size standards from those that are unrealistic to those that reflect good health."

Eating disorders are serious, complex illnesses that affect more than 10 million Americans. The Harris Center is dedicated to research, education and advocacy in eating disorders and offers clinical assessment and treatment for children, adolescents, adults and families affected by these diseases. Since its inception two decades ago, the Harris Center has worked to identify new treatments for anorexia nervosa and is conducting research on the effects of anorexia on the body and brain. The Harris Center team recently began a study on the use of hormonal intervention for the treatment of anorexia nervosa.

"Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders, but there are treatments and early intervention is key," said Herzog, who is the Harvard Medical School Endowed Professor of Psychiatry in the Field of Eating Disorders.

This year's Public Forum raised more than $150,000 for the Harris Center. The Center hosts the forum annually to continue to raise public awareness of eating disorders. Past events have featured equally impressive speakers, including actress Natalie Portman, Olympic gold medalists Dara Torres, and host of TLC's "What Not to Wear" Stacey Clinton.

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