WASHINGTON — Modeling scouts have been gathering outside of Sweden’s largest eating disorder clinic, trying to lure critically thin patients onto the runway.
Let me type that again, with annotations. Modeling scouts—known for weighing young girls in public like cattle and targeting down-and-out families, but perhaps not for exploiting the life-threatening delusions of sick teenagers — were gathering — in the plural, so more than one person thought this was okay — outside of Sweden’s largest eating disorder clinic. They were there to recruit anorexic girls to their agencies, because where else would you search for perilously skinny young women who are unlikely to put on weight?
Anna-Maria af Sandeberg, chief doctor at the 1,700-bed Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders, told the Metro newspaper, “People have stood outside our clinic and tried to pick up our girls because they know they are very thin.” “It sends the wrong signals,” she added.
The Local reports that the clinic had to change when and where patients could take their daily walks around the grounds because girls kept getting approached. One 14-year-old was handed a business card; an agent interviewed another girl who was so emaciated that she had been confined to a wheelchair. When care coordinator Christina Lillman-Ringborg tried to explain to the scouts that her charges “suffered from a serious illness,” the article continues, quoting Lillman-Ringborg, “They claimed that they approach healthy, normally slim young people and that they never urge anyone to lose weight; that’s how they defended themselves.”
A remedial business ethics lesson: If you’re looking for “healthy, normally slim young people,” you may not want to start at a medical center designed to treat women whose low weights have resulted in their hospitalization. On the other hand, if you’re committed to “never [urging] anyone to lose weight,” collecting a stable of anorexic models is probably a good move. The eating disorder will do all the urging for you!
Of course, scouts are probably well aware of this, since up to 40 percent of models suffer from some kind of eating disorder. What’s shocking about the story is not so much what it reveals about definitions of beauty in the fashion industry — although the notion that agents are raiding hospitals for exemplars of contemporary loveliness is pretty disturbing — but how little people in the business seem to care about the health of the women who are making them rich. Or, indeed, of women in general.
One-fifth of girls and women diagnosed with anorexia die a premature death. Sixty to 70 percent never fully get better. Can we even imagine how confusing and harmful it might be for an eating disordered teenager, trying to recover, to hear praise for her rail-thin frame? To hear that it might propel her into a glamorous career?
Heartless, perverse, exploitative stuff like that makes the world more toxic all of us. So, Stockholm Center patients, if you’re reading this, sip a milkshake, enjoy your body as it returns to health, ignore those monsters outside. They wouldn’t know beauty if it bit them on the arsel.
Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s XX Factor. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com. @AlyssaRosenberg