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.
General Disclosures & Disclaimers