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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Pugs Among Greyhounds Snarl at Fashion Plates

March 21, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

I was going along, happily eating everything in sight, when Twiggy happened. I was 21 and nice and round and suddenly thinness was all anybody talked about. Thin is beautiful. You can never be too thin. Look like a boy and everyone will love you.

--Actress in the movie "Eating"

*

I have bad news and good news.

The bad news is . . . the Twiggy look is back. Open any fashion magazine, and the model of the moment is a string bean with a flat chest.

The good news is . . . you can ignore her, because the clothes she is wearing are hideous and the fad is bound to pass.

Still, just the fact that a woman who looks like she should be hospitalized for anorexia is being touted as having the look is enough to make anyone who wears a two-digit size run screaming toward a case of Girl Scouts cookies.

What we're witnessing is just another in a long series of the fashion industry's time-honored insults against women.

People often wonder why women are so weight-obsessed. There is no simple answer, but this I know: The vision of fashion designers, fashion editors and modeling agents has a lot to do with it. They are the image mongers and if they choose, they could go a long way toward putting a stop to the tyranny of the female figure.

But they won't, because consumerism is driven by fantasy. Boring doesn't sell. Average doesn't sell. Fantasy sells.

For the sake of my infant daughter, and the pain I know she will face as an adolescent, I wish I could wave a wand and make the matter of weight irrelevant.

Doesn't everyone?

*

There was a time when I took fashion very seriously. This was in the mid-'80s; I was a fashion editor. This period corresponded--not by coincidence--with my enrollment in several different Weight Watchers groups and an obsession with size. I tried to convince myself that "nothing tastes as good as being thin feels," (the WW mantra), but that one always stuck in my throat.

When I began covering fashion, the "ideal" body type was undergoing one of its inevitable cyclical changes. The long, thin limbs of Jerry Hall were giving way to the curves and muscles of Cindy Crawford and Elle MacPherson.

At first, this sounded like great news. What a sham. It soon became clear that, in fashion, a radical aesthetic shift involves the leap from Size 6 to Size 8, preferably on a 5-foot, 10-inch frame. Poor me. No matter how I starved myself, I would always be four inches short of perfection.

During that time, my worst ugly attacks and unhealthy eating patterns coincided with fashion collection season, when I'd find myself in crowded elevators with models after runway shows in New York and Europe. Surrounded by tall, lithe young things, I felt like a pug among greyhounds. Not that there's anything wrong with pugs, mind you . . . but a certain comparison is inevitable.

As it turns out, the effortlessly beautiful model is one of the biggest myths of the fashion business. Many have horrible problems with food. And they always seem to be smoking instead of eating. Models-with-eating-disorders, in fact, has been a popular subject in magazines and on television talk shows lately. One story recently featured a trio of top models who told harrowing stories about not eating for days or fainting from hunger during shoots.

Should we feel sorry for them? Tough question. I reserve my pity for the rest of us. After all, models are well-paid for their sacrifices. We pugs suffer for free.

*

Because of the extraordinary pressures on women to be thin, the issue of food is transcendent. We talk about it in terms generally reserved for discussions of morality.

In a wonderful essay about her weight and relationship to food, Harper's contributing editor Sallie Tisdale writes in this month's issue: "I would weigh myself with foreboding, and my weight would determine how went the rest of my day, my week, my life . . . A lot of my misery over my weight wasn't about how I looked at all. I was miserable because I believed I was bad, not my body." Nearly every woman I know talks about herself this way.

Tisdale is a soul sister of the women in Henry Jaglom's 1992 movie "Eating," due out on video next month. It's a wrenching, honest look at the insane relationship between women and food.

In mock-documentary style, 38 women attending an all-day birthday party tell the camera about their hang-ups with food. Their stories are based on journals Jaglom asked the actresses to keep in the months before shooting began. The thinner and prettier the woman, the more weird the story.

"I'm never going to ever be able to be like normal people with food," says one lovely actress, her eyes welling with tears. "I mean, I'm always going to be at the mercy of it. And it's a very, very scary feeling. And I hate it."

*

Maybe women wouldn't be so pained if the desire to be thin were internally driven. But it's a standard imposed externally, and the social price paid by those who can't conform is high indeed.

Hostility toward fat people, especially women, is an accepted--even celebrated--part of the popular culture.

Several years ago, you couldn't drive along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu without seeing "No fat chicks" spray-painted on walls. At the time, I chalked it up to a less mature aspect of the surfer personality. But now when I think about it, it seems universal, an explicit expression of the same rude demands made on women everywhere: "You can't be too thin."

This is why it sometimes seems the world is divided into two kinds of people. Those who are obsessed with food. And men.

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