The Soapbox: In Response To Vogue Editor’s Speech On Eating Disorders

Franca Sozzani excels at many things. She is the long-standing editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia and, in 1994, she was even made the editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Italia in its entirety. She is acknowledged as a contemporary and collaborator to, among others, Steven Meisel, Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh, and Paolo Roversi, unarguably the most influential fashion photographers of the past two decades. She is credited as the driving force, alongside Meisel, behind the groundbreaking “supermodel” movement in the ’90s. Last year, she launched Vogue Curvy, a branch of the magazine’s Italian edition geared towards plus-sized women. Sozzani has accomplished a great variety of things, but despite her apparent devotion to targeting her publication towards a medley of body shapes and sizes, she herself champions thinness. It’s a true study in contradiction: she encourages others to appropriate acceptance of all body types, but at the bottom line, the girls that land the coveted cover of her magazine — not to mention Sozzani herself — are built like greyhounds.

Which brings me to my point: Vogue Italia has a history, more so than any other Vogue publication, of promoting the emaciated look, so why, in the name of all that is good and holy (which is nothing, these days), did Franca Sozzani, notorious for her use of strikingly thin models, give a speech about anorexia, obesity, and body image at Harvard?

Let me preface this by saying that I don’t know who, exactly, this speech (which you can read in its entirety at Stylelist) was meant for. I don’t know if she gave it to a certain class or group of people, or if it was intended for the entire student body. Sozzani asks some very good questions:

“What lead us to establish that thin is beautiful and that thinness is the aesthetic code we should follow? Why the age of supermodels, who were beautiful and womanly, slowly started decreasing and we now have still undeveloped adolescents with no sign of curves? Why is this considered beautiful?”

But she doesn’t answer those questions. Not even close. She addresses the existence of pro-eating disorder websites and forums, of “thinspiration,” and even admits her guilt under the circumstances. But really, while I believe that she may have good intentions (at best), so much of her speech is a misguided attempt to dissuade one from thinking that the fashion industry is to blame. She strives to absolve herself of guilt and to justify her choices.

Sozzani also brings obesity, and the threat it poses to health, into the conversation. She’s right; propagating obesity with the constant temptations of high-calorie foods and massive portions is just as harmful as applauding thinness as the answer … but there’s no magazine in the world that has obese women on the cover, front and center, being endorsed as the ideal.

Take, for example, the controversial images of Karlie Kloss in various states of undress that the magazine featured in December. The 19-year-old model’s lithe frame was the subject of much discussion, not for its nudity or vulgarity, but its stark thinness. The images were uncomfortable and shocking, to me and to many, because of how high (or low, rather) the standards have been set for weight. When the glossy hit the stands, Kloss was heralded by the fashion community as “the Body.” The Body, in which a young girl’s hipbones and ribcage protrude, and the sinew in her limbs strains. In response to the fallout that the photos caused, Sozzani contended, “Karlie is not anorexic … [she] is first of all a classical ballet dancer and her body and muscles reflect this.” Now, make no mistake, Karlie at this point in time may not be in the throes of an eating disorder, but here’s the thing: she was anorexic, and yes, while she has “recovered,” there’s no doubt in my mind that she may very well still resort to such tactics. 

As someone who has grappled with some form of disordered eating for the vast majority of my adolescence, old, hardened habits are hard as hell to break. Karlie may look comparatively healthy now: she’s muscular, she’s athletic, she’s particularly tall and probably naturally thin, but it’s quite possible that she’s traded one eating disorder for another. Compulsive exercise and controlled eating may not be as physically harmful as down-and-out anorexia, but the premise is still there: thinness, at all costs.

It’s so difficult — and I know firsthand — to skim these magazines that I love for their creativity, their artistic leanings, their beautiful layouts and glossy spreads, and know that I will never be one of those girls, those “bodies.” It’s both entirely isolating and incredibly compelling, because I look at the photos and say, “I can’t look like that, but what if I could?” It drives me crazy, keeps me up at night, that I will never be 5’10 and willowy-limbed, because that is the beauty that’s shown to me. My mind is so warped by fashion, by the runway, by magazines, all of which I love shamelessly, that I’ve lost any sense of my own personal ideal. I don’t know what I expect from my own body anymore, a body I used to be comfortable in. I also used to embrace and idealize bigger, more beautiful girls, but now I find myself grimacing, thinking, “What’s she doing wrong? What’s she eating that’s bad?”

But it’s not their problem, it’s my problem, with the way I see myself, with the way I fit into clothing, with the way my shirt drapes over my shoulders just-so but still not enough, with my skewed concept of self-worth. It isn’t Franca Sozzani’s problem, either, nor is it Anna Wintour’s or Karl Lagerfeld’s or anyone’s; I could go on and on. They are responsible for eating disorders, for girls fainting backstage at fashion shows, for withering bones and muscular atrophy as much as McDonald’s is responsible for obesity: not at all. But they sure as hell enable it, and god, do they make it so damn easy to get pulled into the tide. Some of us come out. Others never do.