© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

The price of beauty in New Zealand

Gabriella Kuhns was 14 years old when she started modeling in New Zealand. She says the industry affected her mental and physical health.

She slams her hand blindly on her bedside table, trying to find the source of the shrill sound. Her efforts in vain, she reluctantly opens one eye, trying to focus on the fluorescent glare of the alarm clock digitally informing her it’s 7 am. Gabriella faces the ceiling, cocooned in the centre of her hotel bed, her stomach churns, she ignores it.

She forces the covers off her - they’re heavier than they were yesterday. She catches a glimpse of her ethereal frame in the bathroom mirror, shrinking past quickly into the shower.

She’s been in Auckland for 9 days, the two centimetres she needs off her hips stubbornly hug her bones; two centimetres holding her back from success. But she has a good nose, from the side especially and her hair is long – so that’s something. Soap suds get into her eye, the sting momentarily distracting from the hollow pain in her belly.

Gabriella stands at 6 feet tall – she’s an inch or two too tall but the biggest flaw in her body is her wide hips. At 16 years of age, they’re already too wide. No designers will want her, they said.

For breakfast, Gabriella will eat a handful of pumpkin seeds and a cup of green tea. For lunch, Gabriella will eat a handful of pumpkin seeds and a cup of green tea. For dinner, Gabriella will eat a handful of pumpkin seeds and a cup of green tea. It’s day 9 of her modelling career in Auckland and she’s down to 48 kilogrammes.

Denyse Saunders has been a part of the fashion industry for over 40 years. She modelled both nationally and internationally, later starting her own agency Spotlight which in it’s prime was the largest modelling agency in Australasia.

The models have changed from when she began, they used to be shorter…they’re more slender now.

Saunders says the New Zealand fashion industry is dying – clients who come to New Zealand bring their own models whose frames fit the international standards.

While Saunder’s own ethos is to embrace beauty in all its sizes, her current agency Portfolio is home to sizes from 6-22, she is matter-of-fact of what it takes to be successful overseas.

“It’s not about how brainy you are, your job is your body and you use it to sell a product and to make it look good”.

Standards, however, are slowly changing. A law in France banning unhealthily think fashion models is the latest step in the industry.

Models must provide a doctor’s certificate to prove their overall physical health. Doctors will determine the health of a model using their body mass index (BMI) – measuring their weight in relation to their height.

France follows suit of Italy, Spain and Israel and from the 1st of October, digitally altered photographs of models must also be labelled as so.

Employers at modelling agencies breaking the law will face fines up to 75,000 Euros ($117,544.10 NZD) and up to six months in jail

The change is a step of the French Health Ministry in its aim to fight eating disorders and inaccessible standards of beauty.

In a statement, French Minister of Social Affairs and Health, Marisol Touraine said, "Exposing young people to normative and unrealistic images of bodies leads to a sense of self-depreciation and poor self-esteem that can impact health-related behaviour,".

In New Zealand, psychologist and world-renowned expert in eating disorders Dr Virginia McIntosh believe this is a step in the right direction.

Fashion and Psychology

Anorexia and Bulimia are eating disorders that stem from dissatisfaction with one’s body shape and weight.

Dr.McIntosh says there is an increase in eating disorders in young women which show no signs of plateauing or decreasing any time soon.

“Around 10% of young women in western society will struggle with some form of an eating disorder."

Percentage of the population of adolescent women suffering from eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder bar none; approximately 20% of women suffering from the disorder will die prematurely.

The two main causes of this premature death will be the toll taken on the body from starvation coupled with the depression, which stems from the dissatisfaction of the body, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Since 2013, the Ministry of Health have documented over a thousand New Zealanders receiving specialist eating disorder services. This approximation does not include those who choose not to seek medical assistance beyond their GP or primary care services.

Gabriella is getting ready for a lingerie runway show. The medication for her skin is so strong side effects show bruising along her legs. She’s told she can’t walk the runway like this. Someone sits her on a stool, they spread her legs apart and two people start concealing the bruises with makeup. Two more take an arm each and do the same. A fifth stands behind her, brushing and teasing her hair.

Gabriella Kuhns, now 26 is a nutritionist. She remembers day 10. Her flatmate, the web designer for her modelling agency hears her in the bathroom. She makes the call on behalf of her friend “If you don’t send her home now, I will”.

Gabriella is on her knees, staring at a toilet bowl filled with blood – she’s thrown up so often in the past week and a half, she’s burst a capillary in her chest. She gets a call from her mother, “Gabs, if you keep doing this you will die. You’re coming home”. She picks herself off the floor, walks out of the model house to the store across the road and buys a muffin. It’s the only solid food she’s held in 10 days. She walks back to the hotel but she can’t go in, she sits outside and weeps. She can’t eat without guilt. Her hips are 2 centimetres too wide. Designers will never work with her, they said.