Executive Women and Anorexia: Leaders May Imply Lean is Powerful

Executive women in a business meeting

Eating disorders among women over 30 is becoming more common, and a study suggests that almost 4% of middle-aged women between their 40s and 50s are affected by an eating disorder [1].

Executive Women and Ideal Beauty

Eating disorders encompass anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Top leading fashion magazines more often than not display lean and underweight models to showcase products or clothing.  Eating disorders are mental health disorders that can change a person’s eating, sleeping, exercise, and daily routine. It often interferes with day-to-day functioning and can cause significant health issues eventually leading to death.

In a study that looked at eating disorder prevalence among middle-aged women, it was found that 1 in 10 women stated that they had suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their life [1].

Magazines, social media, and television tend to highlight the idea that lean is influential and often models are underweight and undernourished but glamorized as sexy and desirable.

The message that thin is beautiful is sent to Westernized societies where girls, boys, men, and women are striving for that same ideal.

Women and men who are older in the modeling industry often have to compete with their younger colleagues, to look younger, to be thinner, and to be just as desirable.

Frequently, this can come with severe consequences such as eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and abuse of substances to try to control weight.

Policies and Laws

Vogue Magazine adopted a policy that all of its international and U.S. editions would not hire models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder [2].

Professional business woman

They highlighted the importance of hiring models who both look healthy and promote a positive body image.

The Model Alliance was started in 2012 by the president and founder Sara Ziff who is an advocate for models within the fashion industry [3]. She works to implement practices and laws that protect models.

She worked with Harvard on a study early in 2017 that looked at 85 models during New York Fashion Week to gain insights into the prevalence of eating disorders in the modeling industry and what factors sustain these behaviors.

The study was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders and started a letter signing campaign by various models to bring awareness to eating disorders within the industry, and the promotion of extreme thinness.

The study revealed that eating disorder behaviors are being pressured by fashion industries for models to be underweight and promote the “thin ideal.”

More than 62% of the models in this survey reported being asked to lose weight or change their shape or body size by someone from within the fashion industry [3].

Ziff and researchers reported that these participants were already under-average body size and considered underweight as according to the World Health Organization (WHO) weight standards.

In addition to the 62%, 54% were told that if they did not lose weight that they would not be able to find a job within the fashion industry.

It suggests that the pressure to lose weight and be ultrathin is the requirement for a career within the fashion industry.

Besides the pressure to lose weight or maintain underweight body weight, models are also told that they would no longer be represented by their agency if they did not lose weight or get plastic surgery.

France Steps Up

In May of 2017. France stated that to be able to model within its industry a person must submit a certificate from a certified medical physician that they are not medically unstable to be able to work [4].

The policy extends to those who are modeling within the EU as well as within the European Economic Area.

BMI was set as a standard for doctors to use within their criteria of health. The law states that “unless specified and identified in medical records for a model over 16 years of age, the BMI will be taken into account, particularly when its value suggests moderate or severe thinness after the age of 18, and is lower than the third percentile in French references for height and gender before that age.” [4].

Executive business woman

The French law also stated that if a photo has been retouched with a program such as PhotoShop, then the photograph must state that it was a Retouched Photo.

These rules are in hopes that a more body positive image is being sold to the public and allows for individuals to be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

A downfall to this is that the law only applies to advertising and not fashion magazines where the pressure to be underweight and extremely thin is highly prioritized. This creates a tremendous force for models to be thin.

Even with small victories, statistics are staggering in how often women and men are asked to change their bodies in unrealistic ways to keep a job or career.

Being able to change the idea that lean is powerful or that thin is beautiful is a continuing battle, but changes can occur at any level within our community.

Being able to change the way we think, talk, and communicate with ourselves and each other is one small step you can take.

Visit the Model Alliance website and look for ways to get involved. Help change society’s views of a ‘one size fits all’ ideal. Taking a stand rather than being a bystander can change the way people view perceptions of body and beauty.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Eating disorders in middle-aged women ‘common’ – National Library of Medicine – PubMed Health. (n.d.). Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/behindtheheadlines/news/2017-01-18-eating-disorders-in-middle-aged-women-common/
[2] Casserly, M. (2012, May 25). Vogue’s New Beauty Standard: No Underage Models Or Eating Disorders. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/05/03/vogue-sets-new-beauty-magazine-standard-no-underage-models-or-eating-disorders/#7d5fa4d46b3c
[3] Yotka, S. (2017, May 25). A New Study Takes on Eating Disorders in Modeling. Retrieved December 14, 2017, from https://www.vogue.com/article/model-alliance-eating-disorder-study
[4] France Outlaws “Unrealistic Body Images” for Models. (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2017, from https://fashionindustrybroadcast.com/2017/05/10/france-outlaws-unrealistic-body-images-for-models/

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on January 31, 2018.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com