KAI RYSSDAL: All eyes in the fashion world are on New York City. It's a solid week of see and be seen at a phenomenon called Fashion Week. Models will be parading the newest and hippest looks down the runways. But this season's biggest debate isn't whether hemlines are above the knee or below. Marketplace's Alisa Roth has more from New York.
ALISA ROTH: Another season. But the same, skinny models.
[MUSIC: I'm a model you know what I mean and I do my little turn on the catwalk, yeah on the catwalk, yeah, I shake my little tush on the catwalk. . . ]
Those little tushes may be too little. The industry's worried that young women are starving themselves to stay on the catwalks.
The fashion world scoffed when Madrid took the drastic step last year of banning any models it deemed too skinny. But the snickering stopped when a Brazilian model died last month from complications of anorexia.
New York, Paris and Milan aren't mandating boxing style weigh-ins just yet. But nobody's sure the "common-sense" guidelines they're offering up instead can keep models healthy either. Especially in an industry where looks are everything and The Look is decidedly thin.
MAGALI AMADEI: We all choose those models and we're all part of those images that are completely unrealistic. And I think it really starts with educating the industry.
Magali Amadei is a model and actress. She's appeared in top fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle. After struggling with bulimia for seven years, she made a second career talking about the dangers of eating disorders.
She says it's become acceptable for victims of illnesses like alcoholism to talk about their struggles publicly.
AMADEI: But very rarely I can probably guess, very rarely have you been to a dinner party where someone says, oh you know, I used to be an anorexic, I don't diet. Sure I'll have a second piece of dessert. It's just not something that people are comfortable talking about.
Of course, culture's been telling women what to look like for centuries.
Harold Koda's curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum.
He says oddly enough the quest for thinness started when styles changed at the turn of the last century. And women stopped being able to rely on corsets.
HAROLD KODA: So if you needed a slender waist, it meant, it had to be your body.
But even some designers agree that today's insistence on skeletal models is too much.
Tim Gunn chairs the fashion design department at Parsons School of Design.
TIM GUNN: I don't want to sit and watch a runway show and wince and recoil because that model on the runway looks like she should be in the hospital bed. It's really unsettling and worse yet it's a distraction from the clothes. You really want to see the clothes, you don't want to see the elbow and knee joints.
Still, he says, clothes do look more elegant on lithe figures than those with bulging bellies or double-wide backsides.
So what's the answer? Gunn says he's not sure, but that it's not New York's suggestion to have young models sleep more.
Nor is it offering healthier food backstage at the fashion shows.
GUNN: If I'm used to smoking a pack of cigarettes before a show and having a glass of champagne, if the cigarettes and the champagne aren't there, am I going to go eat the broccoli? I don't think so.
Maybe not. But the Costume Institute's Harold Koda wonders whether all this angst is misplaced.
KODA: I think that the focus of the debate is not proportional to the real impact. Which is not to say that it isn't real, but that it is looking at something that is associated with the world of glamour and luxury whereas obesity which lives and exists in our community is just simply not that glamorous.
Meanwhile rangy-limbed young women will strut down New York's runways until next Friday.
Maybe the spring shows will have some size-16 models. Or at least a few 2s?
In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.