Fashion Musings — A Lesson from Audrey Hepburn

by Valerie on August 29, 2008 · 6 comments

Remember my ode to ballet flat post a couple weeks ago? In it, I mentioned Audrey Hepburn being so thin because of malnutrition living in the Netherlands during World War II. Since then I have done a little more research on it as, looking at pictures, I started wondering if this icon of thinness (as well as beauty and talent, but for some she is truly an icon of thinness) was as underweight as models are today.

I always thought Audrey Hepburn was barely 5’2” and petite/thin but she was actually 5’7” and weighed in the 110-115 pound range, meaning her BMI was one of someone truly underweight (I did not link to the various sites, as many of them invariably links to pro-anorexia sites, but I checked her various biographies individually. They are well-summarized here). In fact, in addition to malnutrition she suffered from acute anemia, respiratory problems and edema, which means excess fluids in any organ (and generally resulting in awful swelling). Everything I read about her does not specify which of her problems followed her in life, but makes it clear the damage stayed.

I remember my shock at finding out six years ago (when visiting her museum in Switzerland) that her size was the result of malnutrition. At the time it really changed my perception of her in that I no longer envied her tiny frame and birdlike elegance, though I still love how talented, graceful and elegantly dressed she is in her movies (and her ballet flats), The museum, however, did not emphasize the long-term and complicated effects of the malnutrition.

Now I am even more shocked that she is an icon for her thinness. She had lifelong problems as a result of malnutrition. Her health and size were literally the result of a war. Given the choice, I am sure she would have chosen to eat a nutritious diet over being birdlike AND suffering from lifelong repercussions of malnutrition, ultimately dying of colon cancer at age 63. And, given the fact that Audrey Hepburn worked for UNICEF, focusing specifically on issues of child malnutrition, I am pretty sure she would rather be remembered for that than as an icon for her underweight thinness. There are several interviews and articles quoting her on this site, and she clearly associates extreme thinness with malnourishment and suffering rather than beauty.

So Fashion Friday this week is addressing the darker side of fashion, namely how incredibly thin some of the models are today and how it’s an industry where eating disorders are rampant, sometimes even resulting in death. And it’s not changing anytime soon. The Wall Street Journal, a week ago, featured an article called “Slim Chance, and Aspiring Model’s Challenge” where a woman who is 6’2″ and a size 4 has been told to drop to a loose size 2 (aka almost a 0).

At 29, I still remember when Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista were supermodels – and they were thin, yes, but still looked (mostly) healthy. And while I did not obsessively calculate their BMIs (I found too many different weights recorded for both of them), they seem to generally be in the thin range for a good part of their careers, not the completely underweight range like Audrey Hepburn’s.

And now here is what is really scary: some models today are even more underweight relative to their height than Audrey Hepburn was. How sad is that?

While I was researching this post, I came across these articles (part 1 and part 2) about a woman who aspired to be Audrey Hepburn’s size back in the late 1950s. This woman, who is now a nutritionist, went on a 2 week fast, regained the weight, and then went on the first generation of diet pills, which caused a whole host of lifelong problems. As sad and scary as reading these articles were, I found it fascinating that someone who was practically a contemporary to Audrey Hepburn idolized her weight and frame (from what I gleaned from the article she was only about 5 to 8 years younger than Audrey Hepburn). While I know that eating disorders and body image issues are not something of the last 20 years, I always think that illnesses around body image issues are worse now because of how the fashion media bombards us with an ideal of thin that is very gaunt. And knowing that some models are even more underweight than Audrey Hepburn really hit that one home for me.

So, while Audrey Hepburn may be known for her talent and style, I think my biggest lesson from her is that her thinness was not by choice nor should it be aspired to.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Karley August 29, 2008 at 1:16 pm

Wonderful post. While Audrey Hepburn is often considered the epitome of American style and grace, she was unhealthy and suffered because of her malnutrition.

I recall going to great lengths in college to be a size 4 (I am an 1/8″ shy of being 5’9) because I did not want to be “fat”. I obsessed over not going past the 120 pound mark and I was so unhealthy.

After years of striving to meet the perceived ideal of thinness in America, I did not stop being obsessed with the size on the tag of my clothes or the number on the scale until I was around 30.

I might not be “thin”, but I am healthy, have a BMI in the normal range and am not ashamed to say that I wear a size 12 (sometimes a 10, sometimes a 14…depends on the brand and the fit).

Years ago I cried when I needed to get a size 8 from a 6. I do not have daughters. I do have nieces and friends of mine have daughters, and it is shocking and saddening to see how the media has defined thin as being the ultimate picture of beauty and likability.

I think I was most struck by this when, as the preschool room mother, I served a 4 year old a cupcake for a holiday and she wouldn’t eat it because she “doesn’t want to get fat.” This was from the mouth of a precious 4 year old.

I am glad you wrote this piece today.


2 The Curator August 29, 2008 at 2:11 pm

Yes, malnutrition is why she was so thin and had health issues (she also had a few miscarriages). I still think she’s stunningly gorgeous despite knowing her waif-like figure was due to starvation earlier in her life. But I certainly don’t think it’s a look ANY woman should strive for, model or not. I bet Audrey would be rolling over in her grave knowing that some women are actively trying to be as thin as she was, especially since her low weight wasn’t by choice.

In any case, it’s Friday, so let’s kick back this weekend and maybe watch some Hepburn films (Sabrina, Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are my top 3) and remember her not for her thinness but for her work as an actress and humanitarian. :)


3 JennDZ - The Leftover Queen August 29, 2008 at 4:59 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this post. I think it is so sad the fight that still goes on today between girls and women and their body image. Even smart women who know how sick all of this is, still feels bad sometimes because they are not as thin as what they see on TV and even in real life! It is amazing that there seems to be no middle ground anymore – people are either too overweight or too underweight.
I remember models like Helena Christiansen (same time frame as Crawford and Evangelista) and I still think she beautiful and has a great figure!


4 Pink Heels August 30, 2008 at 2:43 am

I had no idea that Audrey Hepburn had suffered from severe forms of malnutrition. Although her style and waif figure was reveered, it is sad to now know the reality of it.


5 City Girl August 30, 2008 at 3:44 am

I am so glad this post resonated with all of you :)

Karley — I remember being 7 and worrying about putting on weight — it’s so sad you have seen it worry a 4 year-old :(

Ms. Curator — So funny you mention her movies. I Netflixed Roman Holiday a while ago, and am finally getting to it this weekend :)

jenndz — you are SO right about how there’s no balance anymore. The only images the media bombards us with are either the waif size 00 models OR the fact that this country has an obesity crisis :(

Pink Heels — I was really struck myself — and like I said, I knew malnutrition had something to do with it, but until I researched this post, I had NO idea just how underweight she was. It’s also interesting to note that while she was a beautiful woman, it seems she never considered herself attractive, largely because of her extreme thinness. So the scars of her hardships continued in that sense too.


6 Carolyn September 5, 2008 at 2:41 am

Omg i’m SO glad i stumbled upon this post. I just watched Funny Face again w/ a friend who had never seen it, and we commented on how tiny she was in the movie (particularly the dance scene in the French cafe). I had no idea malnutrition was the reason behind her figure – I just thought she was blessed with “good” genes. This post really was an eye opener, and I thank you so much for writing it!


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