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Young models dying to be skinny

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Traveling the world between catwalk shows, photo shoots and parties and appearing on the covers of glossy magazines, models are used to living in the spotlight.

Yet this week, with fashion weeks under way in Madrid and London, models are finding their lifestyles under examination for different reasons.

The move by Madrid organizers to ban models considered too thin has raised questions about whether the industry is putting young women at risk -- both inside the business and among those influenced by its ultra-skinny idealization of femininity.

All models were required to have a body mass index -- a ratio of height and weight -- above 18, the minimum limit considered healthy by the World Health Organization. That means a 1.75-meter model must weight at least 56 kilograms.

Up to one million Spanish women are considered to be at risk from or suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia and the ruling followed years of pressure from politicians and consumer groups.

"The fashion industry's promotion of beauty as meaning stick thin is damaging to young grils' self-image and to their health," said British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell at the weekend, urging London Fashion Week to follow Madrid's example.

"The fashion industry is hugely powerful in shaping the attitude of teenage girls and their feelings about themselves."

Meanwhile, last week it was reported that British supermodel Kate Moss, whose emaciated frame once made her the poster girl of "heroin chic," had made £30 million ($54 million) in the 12 months since being dropped from several high-profile campaigns amid tabloid revelations concerning her alleged drug use.

In an industry renowned for its wild side, it seemed that far from damaging her career Moss' notoriety had ultimately only enhanced her marketability.

So is the fashion industry encouraging young women to risk their health?

Michael Gross, author of "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women," told CNN that such concerns were irrelevant to fashion's main job of shaping aspirations to sell clothes.

"The fact of the matter is if women brought clothing and magazines as a result of realistic looking models then there would be realistic models in adverts for clothing and in magazines," said Gross. "But they don't -- women buy magazines with unrealistic models on the cover."

He said that models were considered "disposable" by fashion bosses: "Models are Kleenex, there's always another pretty 17-year-old girl just dying to be a model. They're infinitely replaceable so the people in the industry don't care. They're not people, they're hangers."

Writer Harry Shapiro, a spokesman for drugs charity Drugscope, also warned that models could be under added pressure to take stimulant drugs such as cocaine because of the pressures of the lifestyle.

"It's a bit like the music and the film business in the sense that drug use and in particular cocaine performs a functional purpose," Shapiro told CNN.

"It's not necessarily a pleasure thing. You need to be seen at the top of your game all the time and you can't let the mask drop."

"That's also compounded in the fashion industry because of the issue of body image. Cocaine is a strong stimulant drug which suppresses appetite and the net result of that is people not eating properly."

Shapiro said he believed the fashion industry needed to show greater care for young women coming into modeling, often in their early to mid-teens.

"I don't know what the fashion industry does within itself to make sure that girls of 14 or 15 who are desperate to get into the business know [of the dangers.] There should be general health and lifestyle information available, not just in terms of drugs but nutrition as well."

But Gross said it was not fashion's responsibility to ensure that people coming into it were able to cope with the pressures, saying that parents and teachers were better placed to fulfil that role.

"The modeling business is what it is -- it is not evil, there is no grand conspiracy. It doesn't care about anything except selling frocks. The only thing a young girl can do to protect herself is to be prepared to do the best she can to keep her head screwed on straight.

"It's a world full of temptation. Young people tend to be tempted and beautiful young girls tend to be exploited and any beautiful young girl who doesn't understand that has not been well prepared for this world."

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London Fashion Week has been criticized for employing "stick thin" models.

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