Two models, one goal: to free women from fashions weight tyranny

As London fashion week opens, Rosie Nelson and Jada Sezer have joined a Womens Equality party campaign to tackle the use of tiny clothing sizes, underweight models and the resulting crisis of eating disorders

Grains for breakfast, vegetables for lunch, smoked salmon for dinner. No wheat, no dairy, no sugar; 45 minutes of exercise every day. Its a draconian and unbalanced regime even for someone with a sensible reason to lose excess weight. If youre a 21-year-old who weighs eight stone, its clearly both unnecessary and profoundly unhealthy. And yet this was Rosie Nelsons daily intake and expenditure of energy for four months back in 2014, as a result of a visit to one of the countrys most powerful modelling agencies.

Nelson had started modelling work at the age of 18, when her body was still developing. When she moved from her native Australia to Britain, her intention was to continue. And the agency in question liked her look except for the fact that she was, they said, too big. Specifically her hips, which were around the 37- or 38-inch mark, but needed to shrink to 35.

I ask Nelson, now 24 and still modelling, what that moment felt like. You get sucked into thinking that what they say is the only way to be, she replies. They control your life. Theyre getting you your jobs, theyre providing you with your income, and you become like a slave to it. The industrys so consuming that you forget about the real world. In the real world Im incredibly thin, but in the modelling world Im still too big. So when they asked me to lose weight, I accepted it. But worse was to come. Grains consumed, exercise taken, social life shunned, she slimmed her hips down to 35 inches and went back to the agency.

They said, just lose more weight get down to the bone, remembers Nelson. They pressed on my hips and I just sat there thinking, no, I cant. I cant physically lose more weight. I was in shock. I didnt know what to say.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment. In its aftermath, Nelson decided she couldnt return to her previous weight-loss programme, which she describes as a horrible routine of essentially killing myself.

She started working with smaller agencies, where she was encouraged to remain at a healthy weight. At the same time she began to speak and write about her experiences, committed to raising awareness of the potentially destructive power the fashion industry wields. Thats why, after a days work, she has joined Sophie Walker, leader of the Womens Equality party (WEP), and Jada Sezer, a plus-size model on the verge of launching her own clothing range, to talk about WEPs forthcoming campaign, which will operate on social media under the hashtag #NoSizeFitsAll.


Jada Sezer, pictured in 2013, was the face of London Fashion Weeks first plus-size show. Right, Rosie Nelson in her ultra-thin days. Composite: Rio Romaine and courtesy Rosie Nelson

For Walker, whose organisation has existed for a little over a year and is committed to change through cross-party collaboration, we are in the middle of a public health crisis that includes 1.6 million sufferers of eating disorders, 89% of them women and girls, and brings with it an economic cost of 1.3bn a year in lost productivity and healthcare bills. WEPs campaign, which is backed by industry commentator and professor of diversity in fashion Caryn Franklin, will focus on what Walker believes is at the root of the problem: the sample sizes used by the fashion industry.

These tiny, tiny little clothes, says Walker, are such that normal-sized women have to starve themselves to fit into them. And were not talking a three-day soup diet here, which would be bad enough; were talking weeks and weeks and weeks of systematic malnutrition, for which young women are paid to fit into these tiny little sizes. And so the first part of this campaign is to say that we think that by this time next year, when London Fashion week kicks off, the British Fashion Council should have in place a system whereby the designers showing in London must show at least two sample sizes, one of which must be more than a UK size 12.

In addition, WEP is calling for legislation that will require all models hired or rehired by agencies to have a minimum body mass index (BMI) of 18.5; any lower, and they will have to see a doctor from a list of accredited medical experts to be signed off as healthy. This, says Walker, would bring the UK into line with law in France, Spain and Italy. She deems it frankly embarrassing that we havent done this yet. Her partys campaign also calls on UK fashion magazines to feature at least one editorial piece per issue that includes plus-size models, and for body image to become a compulsory part of personal, social and health education at school.


Sophie Walker, head of the Womens Equality party, is leading the campaign against tiny, tiny little clothes. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

How likely does Walker think a change in legislation really is? She points to the fact that her party is the only one to work across political divides to achieve change, and to what happened when she ran in the London mayoral race, suggesting that it led proud feminist Sadiq Khan to launch a gender pay audit in City Hall. He stole the policy because he was worried about losing the votes. Her party, she argues, can bring its thousands of members and registered supporters to the table the campaign will mobilise them to write to the British Fashion Council in support.

Does she worry that one plank of their demands the insistence that models BMIs be monitored will seem to some as if women are once again being medicalised or placed under enforced scrutiny? You think thats not already happening? says Walker. What were doing is the first step towards liberating women from that scrutiny. We have all lived with that pressure all of our lives.

I have been everything from a size eight to a size 18, and I can tell you at every point in my life which size Ive been and when. We live with this. And I am 45 years old. I have been living with it for 30 years and Im tired of it. Im seeing it happen to my children, Im seeing my daughters my seven-year-old and my 14-year-old under the same pressures. She adds that there are girls in her younger daughters class who talk about their thigh gap the crucial space that indicates ones legs are thin enough to be considered attractive. What we are doing here is about removing that scrutiny, not adding to it. We are creating a situation where women can be healthy and work, rather than being paid to be unhealthy and contribute to this awful public health issue.

The images that bombard women and girls are nothing new. For as long as there has been mass media, idealised pictures of the human body (generally, thin women and muscled men) have permeated cinema, television, newspapers and magazines sometimes attempting to sell consumers products, sometimes simply illustrating a story. But in the age of the internet, says Sezer, an additional layer of imagery has appeared not courtesy of businesses advertising their wares, but produced instead by the individual, via such platforms as Instagram or YouTube. Often, she says, such images are Photoshopped, or highly selective and yet they are presented as authentic everyday life. In that category one might put extreme clean eating and hardcore exercise regimes.


Mark Fast Catwalk show at London fashion week in 2010. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Yet Sezer also believes that social media has brought much that is positive, and can be utilised as a force for good. Now 27, she was doing a masters degree in child psychotherapy when she realised that she was drawn to finding out the root causes of peoples lack of confidence and flipping it on its head and saying, you can do anything you want. The immense popularity of her own Instagram feed led to her being signed to agency Models 1 and becoming the face of London Fashion weeks first ever plus-size show.

She stuck to modelling for the following two and a half years, including a stint in New York. It was there, she says, I became really flat, and stripped back of everything. I felt like Id hit a glass ceiling, and I felt like they werent pushing the boundaries fast enough, they werent seeing a gap could be broken into. She was also segregated, a plus-size model restricted to working with plus-size brands. I felt, surely thats not right? When I got into modelling, I didnt even know I was a plus-size model. I had no perception of what my body looked like. Returning to live in London, she began to develop other strings to her bow, working as an ambassador for the charity Young Minds, and designing her own range of clothes, Sezer, which will launch online this month.

Both Sezer and Nelson are realistic about the fashion industry, and the paths theyve pursued. Sezer accepts that, in New York, I didnt feel like I could be as much of an activist. I didnt feel like I had much control. Youre a model. You do as youre told… youre being hired to look beautiful on set, and thats it. Nelson acknowledges that the bigger agencies are the ones that get you the greater jobs the high fashion, the Top Shop, the H&M. Does she feel that shes lost out? Definitely. I definitely would have had better clients being with a bigger agency, because they have the contacts for it. So I have potentially ruined my career by not being a slave to the industry. But I chose my own health and happiness over my career, which is the best decision I could have made.

Sezer ascribes the continuing power of such agencies to the ingrained idea that they can make would-be models dreams come true. But, she says, its a flawed idea, because the agencies themselves are always chopping and changing, telling their charges to alter their appearance according to their latest guess of what will appeal. And, as she points out, agents have a role to play, but theyre the middle man between the designer and the model. If a designer is producing such a small size, then agents can only give them the models that fit into their sizes.

Which brings the argument back to the issue of the sample size, which all agree trickles down into the wider fashion and retail culture. Given that womens bodies are so various, why has its dominance persisted for so long? Walker argues that weve collectively bought into the myth that creative integrity is dependent on the fantasy of a tiny woman. Which to me is like saying that the tobacco industries were presenting a myth of the wild west, and that actually it was nothing to do with them that we all got lung cancer.

And, adds Sezer: If you look back at the history of fashion, the majority [of designers] were men, and it was their ideal of what beauty was. And that seeped down into being these frail, almost boy-like figures.

What does Walker hope will happen now? Her ambition is that the landscape will have changed by next years London fashion week. She is soon to approach Sadiq Khan to ask that, if it doesnt, he should be withdrawing LFW funding. Shes also writing to Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities select committee, to consider holding a public hearing with those fashion designers to explore why they believe that their success is so intrinsically linked to an unattainable level of thinness in women.

And underlying all this activity is her belief that the fashion industry, quite apart from its ethical responsibilities, has allowed itself to be constrained by its own rules, and is thereby marginalising a potentially huge market.

She is determined that the campaign represent a step change, in which the onus is no longer on women and girls to resist the messages that surround them, but on the disappearance of the messages themselves.

The previous work thats been done to contest this has been a very gentle, softly-softly approach, and there was a lot that had to be done in terms of raising awareness, she says. All of those campaigns are valid and important, but now were at the point where weve got to say, enough: this has got to stop.

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