Wasp Waists and Anorexia

The cover of Vogue Italy’s September issue–timed to appear during the Sept. 21-28 Italian fashion week–featured Stella Tennant, the striking 40-year-old super model and mother of three.

She’s wearing a posh dress and a nose ring.

But it’s not her clothing or her accessories or her arresting expression that stand out. It’s her absurdly tiny waistline, measuring just 13 inches, cinching her roomy gown.

Cases of anorexia and bulimia in Italy have been rising in recent years, according to an August 2011 study by Eurispes, an Italian statistical institute. It reported 3,500 new cases of anorexia during 2010 compared to an annual average of 3,000 in 2008. For bulimia, there were 6,000 cases in 2010 compared to 5,400 cases in 2008. Anorexia and bulimia were also the leading causes of death for young Italian women between 12 and 25 years old, Sisdca, the Italian society for eating disorders, found in a study published in June 2011.

“It is the worst way to attract readers with outrageous sensationalism,” said Fabiola De Clercq, founder of ABA, Anorexia and Bulimia Association, an Italian association based in Milan that helps anorexic girls resume a healthy life. “This picture mortifies women’s bodies.”

She said the common sense of Vogue Italy editors has been replaced by Photoshop, the software program widely used to enhance digital graphics.

“Anorexia is such a widespread psychological disorder because, nowadays, thinness corresponds to women’s power,” De Clercq, a survivor of 20 years of anorexia, said. “Exaggerated slimness is byword of a woman in total control over her life, someone who is even able to renounce a vital need: eating food. … Vogue understood this deviant trend and showed it yet again.”

Dr. Raffaele Ruocco, the head of research on eating disorders at the University of Perugia, says that fashion’s idealization of thinness is a major trigger of anorexia, and retouched images are often assumed to be real-life women.

Vogue Italy has drawn criticism in the past for excessive retouching of models’ photographs, but many of those controversial images also helped spur sales.

Carlo Ducci, executive news director of the magazine, said he wasn’t personally involved in determining the September cover, calling it stunning and harmless. He said Tennant’s picture was inspired by Ethel Granger, an English woman who died in 1982 and was married to a corset maker. Her 13-inch waist was the smallest ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

“Our magazine drew on reality. If this reality is perceived as bad, this is not our problem,” Ducci said. He said the image was too unusual to inspire other women to try to imitate it.

If one woman could achieve a 13-inch waistline, might not others  be tempted to outdo her if a fashion magazine suggests that’s desirable? Emulation is also suggested by the use of “avant-garde” as caption wording for the photograph of Tennant, aka Granger. Avant-garde, after all, means someone in the vanguard, or leading a trend.

What do you think?

Excerpted from Women’s eNews. Read the full article at womensenews.org.

Photo of cover of Vogue Italia’s September issue.


  1. Supposedly, the cover was inspired by Ethel Granger, the woman who holds the world record for the smallest waist. I am extremely troubled by the way Vogue is presenting the fiercely modified female waist as beautiful, sexy, and as a possibility. It would be different if the images clearly expressed the pain of this kind of modification, and the history of societal control over the female body. But Vogue didn’t choose that route, and instead subscribes to a much more sinister aesthetic–that women’s bodies must be forced into submission, that their organs must move out of the way so they won’t be considered “plain, unsophisticated girls.” The rest of my response to the Vogue Italia cover can be found here: http://androgynousfemme.blogspot.com/2011/09/your

  2. why drag us back to the wasp waist? have we not evolved? a mother of three? three kittens, maybe, but the nose ring suggests probably bulldogs, instead. and if it is children, what is she teaching them? how to look vicious in the backyard, pruning your bushes? this to me is not high fashion. it is a vulgar misrepresentation of a mother trying to look edgy and hot, but failed. give me a different scenery, more color, or even a bigger model-now that would be different, cause this same old nonsense of women emaciated and in stilts for heels is getting old. what if she had to run cause her bush caught fire? her too full dress would burn and she wouldn’t know cause her belt is so tight, she can’t breathe to smell the smoke!

  3. Anne Richardson says:

    I would say that this photo makes me want to throw up, but I would hate to give the impression that I am an advocate for bulimia. Disgusting.

  4. Scissors can’t easily prune canes of that diameter; I am hoping that they are there for her to cut the damn corset, as her expression of loathing and anger might suggest… An interesting choice of photograph for the issue: Is the price of fashion still too high? Are Vogue’s readers beginning to challenge the publication’s premises after all and this backlash seeping in via semi-subversive art like this?

  5. This is exactly why we are now dealing with the epidemic of anorexia and bulimia. Those two disorders have no physical causes.. It’s all psychological. The sick message is that in order to be beautiful, you have to be extremely thin. I am very disappointed that Vogue Italia is doing this. Where are the Italian women protesting this???

  6. It’s not at all attractive. Too thin is ugly. I believe that on some level a lot of anorexics know this, but they become too caught up in it to change their behavior.

    It’s brainwashing of the most dangerous kind. Displays of this kinds are irresponsible endorsements. I suppose that legislation to wipe these sorts of encouragements isn’t a likely possibility but perhaps self-regulation of the publishing industry can somehow be encouraged. Though they should be doing so already.

  7. I have always thought corsets were weird. I do have a feminism corset question for you all:

    My roommate in college was a die hard feminist and an amazing human being. We were hanging out one day and she suggested that we have corsets made. The thoughts of not being able to breathe and to distort my natural figure were terrifying. I refused and she dropped the subject. Why do some feminists wear corsets. Please enlighten me.

    • I wear underbust corsets because I think they look neat. I like the lacing in the back. I like the juxtaposition of soft flesh and velvet against the steel boning. I like looking distorted in some ways. I have a perverse delight in seeing how tight I can get it, but at the end of the day, I’m always happy for the relief and seeing my beautiful tummy. In some ways, I view corset-wearing as body art that can always be reversed. It’s also an odd accessory that can make outfits look revitalised. Overall, I like the way it makes me look, but I certainly don’t need it to look great. I never ever tightlace (I go for a more gentle curve than the wasp-waist) because that is dangerous for one’s organs.

      But that’s just me and my case.

  8. I think it might have made more sense to put the photos of the corset in the historical context in which that former fashion belongs, and which the article was describing (the life of that eccentric corseted lady). Maybe some before and after photos of the corseted model.

    I interpreted the photos the same as bondage, whips, form fitting latex, or any other public sexual expression that toes the edge of what other people will tolerate seeing — probably more suitable material for an adult site. (… but because she’s not showing her privates, and it was taken by a famous photographer, it’s displayed as “fashion”).

    I think there are better examples of images that would make a girl not want to eat… runway models and Vogue’s more normal fare of super-thin women wearing luxurious clothing and brands that girls would perceive as attainable if only they were thinner…

  9. He says NOT OUR PROBLEM!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!? what a fool. I hope those words haunt him.

    I also must comment that the model is at fault as well. Many models are too young and powerless to dare to have any say in their portrayal but this is a wealthy older famous model who has played into demeaning and damaging images for women before. She could have and should have refused to be part of this image.

    I work as a makeup artist and have noticed that in the past five years or so many very young girls who are enthused with the pervasively sold idea of “costume” are buying this silhouette as empowering and using all manner of severe corsetry to achieve it . I have seen this very publicly shown off at renaissance faires, nightclubs, fetish-y events, and even at otherwise tame teen events and I have more recently seen it affecting young femme boys as well. It seems that it is seen by these kids to be simply an extreme fashion choice and they are into showing off their bodies as objects plus this is a cheap thing to pull off. They seem to have this wish to see their bodies as cartoons…all surface and easily manipulated. The underlying suggestion of frailty and deformation is ignored or secondary at best to the surface effect.

    There needs to be a serious study/article/conversation??? about the politics/implications/healthrisks of corsetry as it it is increasingly sold to and adopted by young young people who are wearing it for more than a few hours at a time.

    And fashion [at all levels] needs to get out of the dark ages and reflect real bodies that are not maimed to fit a cartoon shape.

  10. Maybe I’m going to appear “anti-feminist” in this response, but I honestly found the image striking. I had the same impression as K2 bitingly suggested, “I am hoping that they are there for her to cut the damn corset, as her expression of loathing and anger might suggest” … In my opinion, the picture shows a subculture breaking away from tradition– the nose ring shows a playful ‘defiance of the norm,’ the gut-squishing corset is about to be slashed open by a pair of vicious-looking shears… I like it.

    Also, as an avid member of the body modification community, I must also suggest that the corset isn’t about punishment or submission anymore. It’s been taken back by the mod community for individuals who want to train and push their own bodies to new levels. They do it for THEMSELVES, not for some dominant, white-collar “master” who wants to oppress them.

    If someone wants to use his/her body as a canvas, how does this serve any purpose but self-empowerment? You can’t tell me that all of my modifications are being forced upon me by some fashionista. I do my work for myself.

    So, in closing, lighten up kids. I don’t think a picture of a skinny, corset-trained model is going to kill anyone who knows what they’re looking at.

    • I find the image striking as well. It’s a great photograph, and Stella Tennant is gorgeous. If you look at some of the rest of her body of work you will find gender-bending and strong female presence on display.

      All this skinny hate is gross, and I am not skinny by anyone’s account, but my sister has always had a natural waifish appearance and got called names very often because of her thin body. Healthy has nothing to do with being “thin” or “fat”, it has more to do with how much we exercise and what we eat. Modifying one’s body is a natural human instinct, whether it is through cutting our hair, wearing makeup, wearing clothes, getting braces, tattoos, high heels, etc. All cultures decorate themselves in someway, just as all cultures make art.

      I don’t deny that there is a problem with media and how soul-crushing it can be to a growing young girl’s/boy’s mind, but this is not an image to be going after. This was an image for art’s sake. The airbrushed to death covers of Cosmopolitan and their ilk (not to mention the horrid writing contained within), are far more destructive than this Vogue cover.

    • Though I primarily agree with the other posts, I have tried to understand and appreciate your perspective. However, I do have a few thoughts which I would like to offer.

      First, I do not believe that anyone can choose do anything independent of some outside influence, whether they are conscious of that influence or not. Therefore, I question your proposal that people might manipulate their bodies using corsets merely for themselves. If corsets are indeed so uncomfortable and unhealthy, I am confused why anyone would choose to subject themselves to the experience of wearing one simply for their own gratification. I have no objection to body modification if it does not hurt you or induce a desire to appear a certain way that will have mental and/or physical health consequences. In this case, I am still concerned that corsets are too entrenched in the culture of female objectification and the idealization of a certain (usually) unrealistic body-type in women.

      I really appreciate your observation of the nose ring, and I think it is important that she is deviating from a more conservative image in that way.

      However, I am concerned by her overall appearance. Her expression is grim; she appears tortured and unhappy to me, a sense reinforced by her black dress and the the dreary leafless tree and her overall gray-ish surroundings. To me this reveals the deep suffering that someone so determined to achieve such a sickly outlandish look is tortured by.

  11. That is so sad and gross. I don’t even know what else to say.

  12. Given that the wasp waist was achieved by using corsets, causing women to faint and have other physical problems, celebrating that seems strange. In addition, it was during a period when a woman’s role in society was severely limited. A 13-inch waist is small for a child. To celebrate this is celebrating a time when women had few or no legal rights. If this photo appeared on the cover of the American Vogue, women would be picketing. Perhaps we should picket in Italy.

  13. Blaming and shaming Vogue Italia is like treating a symptom instead of a disease. The deeper issue is that people are taking their cues on how to live from capitalist driven culture. Capitalism has no time for morality.

    Humans understand the world through stories. Ancient myth and religion are stories that set standards for how to live. The media and pop culture now provide the dominant stories for a lot of people. But tv providers, advertisers and magazine editors are beholden to the mighty dollar. They are not spiritual or health advocates.

    Capitalism and individualism have drained Western culture of spiritualism and community support. I am not advocating for organized religion, but believe we should focus on building the value of community and introspection. Let’s not give Vogue the attention they seek.

    • No surprise here. The high fashion industry has always catered to a small faction of the elite class and has historically considered itself exempt from the common aesthetic of the working class.

      Vogue magazine is a business enterprise with a specific demographic. Catering to the educated wealth requires a constant stream of new and edgy attractions. Sadly, it’s mainly at the expense of woman.

      Some would consider this particular Vogue cover high art. I personally find it a rather pathetic attempt at co~opting subculture fetish wear for shock appeal.

      I’m not anticipating any rush for corset’s at the local Wallmart any time soon.

  14. This is yet another example of how out of control and perverse the fasion industry is.Remember the”slave earrings”also in Italian Vogue?

  15. It just looks freaky and gross to me. There is nothing beautiful about this image what-so-ever!

  16. LittleDoe says:

    If you look into the biography of Ethel Granger (linked via her name above), you’ll find an incredibly controlling, off-balance, and abusive relationship. Gross. Emulating this poor woman’s situation is outrageous.

  17. I do not consider this art. A woman’s natural body shape is so so beautiful. I love my wide hips and waist, my full and natural breasts. I do not want to look unnaturally thin and emaciated for fashion’s sake. I wear what I like, when I want to. I don’t follow trends I just wear whatever compliments my natural body shape, my colouring and such. Destructive images like this is why I never waste my money on mainstream magazines.

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