Male Eating Disorders Are the Latest Trend in the Fashion Industry

By Kerri Jarema

Last fall, fashion powerhouse Ralph Lauren released an advertisement featuring Filippa Hamilton, a 5-foot 10-inch, 120-pound female model whose thin frame was so extremely Photoshopped that her waist appeared smaller than her head.

Outrage in the blogosphere and entertainment news media put Ralph Lauren on the defensive. But a similar — and growing — problem among male fashion models is getting much less attention.

A number of recent studies have found increases in anorexia and bulimia among men. One quarter of all those who suffer from eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, are men, up from 15 percent in 1990, according to a 2007 Harvard University study. Other studies of men with eating disorders have found the sharpest increases in the gay community.

No one knows for certain why the number of male sufferers has risen, but some people are pointing fingers, at least in part, at the fashion industry.

Jason Stame, an agent at Red Model Management, acknowledges that in the fashion industry the aesthetic has shifted drastically. “The fashion industry has always sought a specific body type,” says Stame. “Before it was mostly a brawny macho type.” Now, he says, “it’s pretty much been taken over by the waifish skinny men.”

Designers have the last word on what body type is in and modeling agencies have little control over what models do to stay current, says Stame. “I don’t encourage extreme weight loss, although what one is told on a go-see is something I can’t control,” he says. “At Red Model Management, we try to recruit a specific male: tall, and versatile, meaning someone who isn’t afraid to put on or lose a little muscle if asked.”

One look at the models populating the runways of big-name designers like Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen makes it clear that many designers are, in fact, seeking out a particularly emaciated male frame to display their clothes.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average weight for an adult male in the United States is 189.8 pounds — putting the average man in a suit size of 42 to 44. But pieces that designers create for runway and fashion shoots use a 38 or 40 in men’s suits, Christopher Muther wrote in The Boston Globe.

The problem has been exacerbated by European designers. When European retailers like Zara come to the States, they bring their smaller, European sizes with them. A man who fits in a size 34 in a store like the Gap won’t be able to squeeze into a size 34 at Zara.

Joseph Culp, a male model with Red Model Management who is considered a “thin frame” model, agrees that designers have a lot to do with the current skinny obsession, but says agents also play a role. “If anything, I feel agencies put a lot of pressure on models, too. In order to stay in, we have to pass like, an inspection – they check our weight, physique, et cetera,” Culp says.

Culp says his own thin physique is not due to unhealthy eating habits. “I’ve always been lucky in the sense that I look like this,” he says. “I’m thin.”

“I’m even luckier that this is what a lot of major European designers want for their collections.” He adds, “A lot of people have eating disorders in this industry, but that’s mostly for people who are a little more muscular than me.”

The bottom line is that it’s the thinnest models who appear on most runways and in fashion spreads, even for more moderately priced designers. One New York resident who feels the pressure to be very slim is Colin Owens.

“I want to have the ‘hip’ look,” says Culp, who is 21. “All the guys under 30 in Williamsburg and the Village are skinny, wearing black jeans and plaid – that’s what’s hot right now.”

“I wouldn’t say I have an eating disorder. I just think that I have to eat less to be the kind of person I want to be. I want to wear certain clothes and I want to have a certain persona — being thin fits the type, no matter how I get there.”

One former male model, who asked to be called only by his first name, Jamie, left the industry in 2006 after three years of working and says part of the problem with male eating disorders is that no one notices them. “I saw guys not eating,” says Jamie. “But everyone pays so much attention to women and eating disorders. By the time they notice the guys have gotten sickly skinny, it’s become an extreme problem — someone needs to start speaking out about healthy standards for male models, too.”

Like the Photoshopped Ralph Lauren ad featuring Hamilton, gay magazines also promote images of skinny men.

Yet, even as male models get thinner and thinner, the discussion of how the fashion industry impacts eating disorders continues to largely exclude men.