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Behind India’s glamour industry: Anorexia, Size Zero and the elephant in the room

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While loudly denying anorexia exists in Indian modelling scene, many agree that misconceptions around being thin affect today’s younger generation.

There is another elephant in the room. The Size Zero one.

Anorexia popularly refers to an obsession with body image, particularly being thin, which manifests itself in the behaviour of (mostly) women and girls who either starve themselves for fear of putting on weight, or induce themselves to forcibly vomit or purge themselves after eating meals so that the act of eating itself does not affect their propensity to gain weight.

More explicitly, in connection to the fashion world, it is often attributed to the idolization of the stick-thin bodies of models that walk the ramp. Implicit in this is the assumption that models themselves are likely to be anorexic.

In the last decade there has been more public debate around it in India, with the word anorexia finding its way into the media. Despite it being a well-known term bandied about in the media in connection with models, here were many women in the modelling industry who did not know what the term meant. Some used the word ‘anorexic’ as a synonym of ‘thin’ to describe the preferred body type in the fashion industry, without realizing that it was a reference to a medical condition or an eating disorder. Pragati, who is with an international modelling agency for the last two years, talked about her encounter: ‘I went to Shanghai for a contest representing India. There I saw the other foreign models were so skinny and so young! They were 13-14 years old,and did not eat the whole day. Some fainted also. Some would just starve themselves and vomit… I did not understand what it was. Anorexia? No I have never heard of anorexia… But these girls were so young it was shocking. In it there was a lesson for me. That you should not starve yourself.’

Some had noticed odd eating patterns in their everyday interactions with one another. Swati recalled, ‘I’ve seen people who during shows, when we spend the full day together, they just don’t eat.’

Only one case of medical anorexia was reported (of a third person) in one interview in which a young model underwent such a drastic weight loss that she was forced by the agency to quit modelling. However this was the only (and vague) incident that I heard about in the course of my interviews.

Veteran model Niharika suggested this is because of issues of scale. ‘Here the industry is not large enough for something like this to get so rampant. So knowledge is low because there’s no one who has been majorly anorexic or bulimic. You’ll not get any models who have died of anorexia or touchwood have gone to that extreme a situation.’

‘No one had died of anorexia yet’, unlike the West. Couched in the language of problems with ‘dieting’ (a much favoured term in Indian vocabularies, especially of older generations who wonder if you’re ‘dieting’ if you refuse the third rasgulla), anorexia is outside the imagination of the Indian mindset. Anorexia remains in perception as a Western problem that has not reached Indian shores – or at least the Indian modelling industry.

While loudly denying that anorexia exists in the Indian modelling scene, many agree that the misconceptions around being thin affect the younger generation today. This guilt – that the industry leads thousands of gullible young girls to starvation in pursuit of bodies similar to theirs – is a recurring feeling in interviews with better known models and choreographers. Niharika often comes across people who are trying to become thin, through any means possible.

‘I met a waiter of a hotel whose daughter was 13 years old and wanted to be a model. He told me, she considers you a role model, I don’t know what to do with her – she is dieting and she doesn’t eat at all. She has been hospitalized once. I told him that I want to talk to her. Unfortunately she was not in the city at that time, so I told him. Please tell her, this is a personal message from me, to NOT do this. If she does this she is never going to make it because she is going to kill herself before that! And this is not what we advocate. And I say this at every interview, at every place I can to aspiring models. You can’t go on a crash diet. Try and change your style of eating, eating healthier food and eating the right quantity, the right combinations, rather than doing irrational things!’

Vidyun, choreographer and godmother to many of the older generations of models seconds Niharika’s claim that it is people outside the industry, young modelling aspirants, who are more susceptible. She says, ‘Those who are aspiring to be models tend to take fairly drastic measures. And I am saying this from experience. I was a judge in one of these regional competitions (for a model hunt), and I do remember being alarmed – and I am reusing the word alarmed – because at the end of that, when I was waiting for my car outside, somebody who did not make it through to the next round came up to me with her mother. She was weeping and saying I want to know why I was not selected.

And I said, listen, we can only take 10 or 20 out of a 100, so…Then she said, “But I haven’t eaten a square meal in one year! I have been so passionate about this as my profession! What don’t you like about me?” I was getting quite psyched by the entire thing,because… I mean, I didn’t even know which number she may have been as part of the competition! But she continued saying, “If you think my nose needs to be redone I can get a plastic surgery done.” Now that’s very very desperate which could lead to severe disorders, to health problems, to mental self esteem problems. I’m afraid it does happen.’

But can you blame it on the models? Vinita, a senior model, echoed several of her colleagues when she said, ‘You can’t stop the media, you cannot stop TV. At 12 you have what, parents and teachers? Everybody wants to be a rock star, a singer, an actress, a model. It’s a child’s dream. But it’s up to the parents to guide them sensibly.’

Perhaps we need to look elsewhere to find where to place the blame’, several suggested. We live in a world with abundant food choices, a lifestyle that encourages eating out, socializing in restaurants and coffee shops. The same world gives importance to being slim and idealizes and rewards thin women. Perhaps anorexia is an outcome of these contradictions that globalized culture creates in a young urban population, especially women?

In 2006 the organizers of Madrid Fashion Week banned underweight models from participating. They ruled that no models with a Body Mass Index (BMI, ratio between height and weight) below the standard 18 were permitted to walk on the ramp, as they contributed to an unhealthy body image. This made the headlines in Indian media but models maintained a discreet silence. What emerged again was the opinion that such a ruling did not affect India. The incident led me to calculate the BMI of the women I interviewed, based on the heights and weights they had claimed to be. All those who reported their heights and weights (20 out of the 30 women I interviewed) – assuming that they had given their correct heights and weights – were underweight, as per international standards. Not one person made the lower limit of the normal weight BMI range, that is, 18.5.

Excerpted, with due permission, from Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry. Publisher: Zubaan 

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