Italy Works to Ban Overly Slim Models

The Italian government is working with Italy's fashion industry to ban super-skinny models. The new rules, which are intended to discourage eating disorders, will require models to provide a certificate of good health before they may work the runway.

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The Italian government and Italy's fashion industry have agreed to a code of conduct to ban ultra-thin models from the catwalk. This is part of a nationwide campaign against eating disorders. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

(Soundbite of TV advertisement)

Unidentified Woman: Designers at work...

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Fashionistas have their own 24-hour TV channel. As the camera zooms onto the skimpy clothes, Anna Passoti(ph) of the fashion house La Perla describes he latest collection.

Ms. ANNA PASSOTI (La Perla): For what concern the length of this collection is everything very, very short.

POGGIOLI: The reed-thin models strut down the catwalk. Their collarbones and ribs stick out from under their pallid skin. Their faces are vacant and unhealthy. For years now, emaciated has been the in look. In top-end Italian shops, it's hard to find sizes above a 12, so women here are beginning to say there is such a thing as being too thin. This is now a favorite talk show topic.

Rosanna Cancellieri covers fashion for Italy's RAI television.

Ms. ROSANNA CANCELLIERI (Fashion Reporter, Italy's RAI Television): (Through translator) Designers love thin models. They serve as clothes hangers. The message they're sending is thin is beautiful. But what these models really look like is cadavers - zombies who never smile, who look like they hate the world.

Unidentified Woman: (Italian Spoken)

POGGIOLI: One guest, a tall, skinny model who says she works in the fashion capital of Milan, agreed its designers who imposed the hyper-thin androgenous image. You can't work, she said, if you're not a size eight, or better yet, a six. She acknowledged that many models have serious eating disorders. Another guest, a nutritionist, said up to 80 percent of models in Italy are underweight.

Three million Italians are said to suffer from anorexia and bulimia. Psychologists say the fashion industry alone cannot be blamed for an increase in eating disorders. But designers were put on a hot seat after the death of an Uruguayan model from heart failure in August after she went several days without eating. And last month, a Brazilian model - who was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 88 pounds - died of anorexia.

Organizers of the Madrid Fashion Week in September were the first to ban underweight models. But it's the powerful Italian fashion industry that helped set global definitions of female beauty. Italy's minister for youth policies, Giovanna Melandri, is spearheading the campaign to shift the Italian female model of beauty away from skeletons and toward the full-bodied look associated with actresses Sophia Lauren and Monica Belucci.

Ms. GIOVANNA MELANDRI (Minister for Youth Policies, Italy): Italy has always had a solar, Mediterranean, healthy idea of beauty and of aesthetics. We are quite convinced that the fashions in Italy can do that again.

POGGIOLI: The new code of conduct includes banning models under the age of 16, and requires models to produce a certificate of good health. Those with apparent eating disorders will be barred from fashion shows. The criteria used will include the body mass index, a ratio of weight to height. The World Health Organization classifies women with an index of less than 18.5 as underweight.

Ms. MELANDRI: The Italian fashion business is a strategic part of the global fashion business, and I am quite sure that if Italy picks up this role, it can influence the global market.

POGGIOLI: The code of conduct was drawn up by Minister Melandri and the Italian Fashion Chamber, which organizes the twice-yearly fashion shows. Its members include heavyweights Giorgio Armani, Prada, Versace and Gucci. Director Mario Boselli says possible sanctions for designers include being left out of the fashion show calendar or even expulsion from the chamber. But Boselli acknowledges it won't be easy to apply the new code.

Mr. MARIO BOSELLI (Director, Italian National Chamber of Fashion): (Through translator) For example, a top model arrives in Milan, say Naomi Campbell, and I'd like to see who he dare ask her for her health certificate.

(Soundbite of crowded street)

POGGIOLI: Near Condotti, Rome's fashion street, is crowded with window shoppers. A young, trim, slender woman looks longingly at a skimpy item in the glittery Prada show window.

Ms. VIVIAN MONTANIAN(ph): (Italian Spoken)

POGGIOLI: Vivian Montanian won't go in because she says the sizes are always too small, even for her. She thinks the new code of conduct against skinny models is a good idea, but she's skeptical. She says designers prefer to exhibit their wears on a breadstick rather than on a real woman.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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