In the 90s, British model Karen Elson was on the rise. On the catwalk she represented luxury fashion brands such as Channel, YSL, Gucci, Dior, Anna Sui and many more, as well as making a frequent appearance on the most prestigious international magazine covers. On her first Model Mentor Zoom seminar she touched on a sensitive topic and spoke honestly about her experiences, calling to former and aspiring models, as well as casting agents and legal professionals to action on the issue that’s been spoken about for years – body shaming.
Elson shared a personal story about health-affecting restrictions she’s been advised to follow in order to meet luxury fashion industry standards. For example, being 18 years old Elson was told to get off birth control but to have more sex. Additionally, she’s been through circles of bribes and threats in relation to her weight, such as being offered additional money for the pounds she’s lost. “Being hungry should not be a sign of success,” Elson reminded, confessing that fear of her weight being made into an issue at work has resulted in a lifelong unhealthy relationship with food.
Worst of it all is that the advice, bribes and encouragements how to reduce her weight in extreme and dangerous ways came from people who were meant to look after Elson’s wellbeing in the industry.
Despite being in her 40s and a mother of two children, Elson is in recovery from an eating disorder right now. She fears that her relationship with food will never be what’s considered normal, sharing with the seminar attendees that she still suffers from immense embarrassment whenever seen eating.
According to her, “There’s this fetishization of prepubescent bodies in high fashion. A look that is hollowed out and androgynous.” In her experience, Elson has seen many models leave the industry in a very unhealthy state. Unfortunately, the industry of today has not changed and she still recognizes signs of malnutrition on the models such as hair growing all over the bodies and the jutting bones.
In Elson’s opinion, the bullying and body shaming that occurs in luxury fashion industry would not be tolerated elsewhere. In the past decade the world’s mindset has shifted towards acceptance of body in every shape, high-fashion still being an exception. However, the issues it raises are still kept hushed. Elson hopes that her speaking out about her experiences will trigger a chain reaction and force the industry to change. She hopes no other model will have an editor on a fashion shoot yell to them “How fat are you right now?” like she did, and that they will be able to keep their jobs if they gain 10 pounds. Elson admits she still works with few designers that have body shamed her before, but she has not forgotten a single mean comment.
To end on a bit of a lighter note, Elson shared a story from last year that could be seen funny had it not been alarming. A designer who tailored a garment to suit her body dropped the following comment: “Can you walk without your hips? Your hips are too distracting.”
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