- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007


Vanesa Lopez gazed at the mannequin in the store window and burst out laughing. It was mostly leg, impossibly long and thin, with shorts hugging a tiny waist and a frilly top on delicate shoulders.

“That’s out of my league,” says Miss Lopez, a 30-year-old interior decorator with a medium build. “You see it and say, ‘Wow, I’d like to look like that.’ ”

Such skeletal fashion dummies, symbols of a culture blamed for fueling a preoccupation with weight, are now doomed in Spain under a groundbreaking accord between the Health Ministry and major retailers like Zara and Mango.

Also targeted for extinction is the dilemma of a given size fitting a woman just right in one store but tightly in another outlet – yet another way for a person to feel fat.

The program is one of several moves around the world aimed at changing the images of super-skinny women that some believe are contributing to eating disorders. Both Madrid and Milan banned super-skinny models from their fashion week runways late last year, and earlier this year, the Council of Fashion Designers of America announced new guidelines designed to help models eat and live more healthfully.

The offensive might seem odd coming from Spain, a nation that to the casual eye is neither fat nor thin, nor readily associated with anorexia, bulimia or obesity. Spain prides itself on a Mediterranean diet rich in fruit, vegetables and heart-healthy foods like olive oil and fish.

But just as Spain has quickly caught up with its European neighbors economically and culturally in the generation since it shed a right-wing dictatorship in the late 1970s, so has it matched them in the more dangerous trappings of affluent, go-go consumer society.

Today’s socialist government, vigorously assertive on a bevy of social issues ranging from homosexual “marriage” to gender violence, is now taking aim at the fashion world as a source of risky thought and behavior.

“We are aiming for a model of healthy beauty,” says Angeles Heras, director of consumer affairs at the Health Ministry. “There is a lot pressure, not just from the fashion world but society in general, for women to seek models of beauty that are unreal and even unhealthy.”

So two big changes, announced in late January, are in the works: Stores run by four big names will start replacing window display mannequins so that none goes below size 38 (10 in Britain, 6 in the U.S.). And the designers will standardize the dimensions of their women’s apparel so that a given size will fit the same way no matter who sells it.

To get a better idea of the shapes of Spanish women’s bodies, the government is employing some heavy technology. Using laser-fitted booths that can take 130 measurements of a body in 30 seconds, the Health Ministry is fanning out across the country to assess the true sizes of Spanish women.

The program will study a sample of 8,500 women ranging in age from 12 to 70, and pass this data on to the clothing designers taking part in this drive — they account for 80 percent of production in the Spanish fashion industry — for them to make garments reflecting the dimensions of real women, not catwalk waifs.

The standardization is to be phased in once the study is completed later this year.

Other designers have asked to join in the program, and Italy sent a letter asking how it works, Miss Heras says. “It seems we are pioneers,” she says.

An estimated one in five Spanish women aged 13 to 22 suffer from an eating disorder, placing Spain roughly on par with its European neighbors, says Dr. Gonzalo Morande, a physician who runs the eating disorders department at Madrid’s Nino Jesus Hospital.

What sets Spain apart is that, whereas such illnesses became prevalent roughly 20 years ago elsewhere in Europe, Spain got a later start but caught up quickly. The same applies to drug use and obesity, a category in which Spain now surpasses the rest of Europe among young people, Dr. Morande says.

“One of the peculiar things about Spain is that when processes happen, they happen very quickly,” he says. “This society’s capacity to absorb is quite large.”

He welcomed the planned standardization of women’s clothing sizes, saying women here are taller and bigger than they were a generation ago, due to changes in eating habits.

But Enrique Berbel, a psychologist who also works with eating-disorder patients, says fashion and the beautiful people of pop culture are only part of Spaniards’ weight-obsession woes. Another big one that is not being addressed, he says, is Spain’s newfound wealth.

He says the mechanism works like this: Spain’s economy — poor under the past dictatorship but now world’s eighth largest — has spawned a consumption-crazed society that creates artificial needs and fuels dissatisfaction. Teenagers have cell-phones but they want a BMW. They want it now, and they often take out their frustration on themselves.

“‘I can’t get the things I want. I can’t lead the lifestyle I want. I can’t be like I want, but I can control my body.’ There are people who think this way,” Mr. Berbel says.

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