updated 10/09/2006 AT 12:00 PM ET
•originally published 09/28/2006 AT 6:00 AM ET
At a party for designer Zac Posen in New York City on Sept. 14, the scene was fashion meets young Hollywood. There was Kate Bosworth looking whisper-thin in a black dress, dancing to Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” and smoking cigarettes. There was the always minuscule Mary-Kate Olsen, who stopped by just long enough to puff a cigarette and pose for a few photos. At the center was Posen, 25, a current red-carpet favorite who has dressed a range of young actresses, from the plus-size Marissa Jaret Winokur to the sub-zero Bosworth. “I like women’s bodies – I emphasize them in my clothing,” Posen told PEOPLE on Sept. 21. “Healthy women are much sexier.”
And yet the questions of who is healthy and what is sexy cut to the heart of a renewed debate that is currently raging everywhere from message boards to movie sets to modeling agencies. What makes this controversy new is that for the first time both designers and stars have been put on the defensive: In Hollywood, stylemakers like Bosworth, 23, and Nicole Richie, 25, are setting troubling new standards for thinness, while in the fashion world, frail-looking runway models drew gasps at New York City’s Fashion Week.
“In the past, some young models have had issues with eating disorders – but they were rapidly singled out and left with very little options other than to address their problem,” says David Bonnouvrier, head of DNA Model Management. “The latest trend of skinny models, however, has allowed many of these young women to continue working, living in total denial.” Adds Dr. Ira Sacker, a Manhattan-based eating disorder specialist and the coauthor of Dying to Be Thin: “I have a lot of A-list celebrities as clients, both actresses and models, and what they are telling me is that the pressure to be thin has never been greater. Why? Because whoever is thinner gets the job, and the competition is enormous.”
In the wake of Madrid Fashion Week’s controversial ban on underweight models, battle lines have been drawn in Hollywood and the fashion world. There are those like model Frederique van der Wal, 39, host of TLC’s style show Cover Shot, who in her heyday walked for Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan but says, “This season, it seems they went too thin on the runway – I could have never been in the uniform of what you see today.” Others, however, are crying foul at Spain’s stance, which has drawn support in countries like India and Israel but was flatly rejected by major fashion capitals Paris and London. “I think it’s not fair that people who can be naturally thin are getting attacked for it,” says superstylist Rachel Zoe, 35, who has been criticized for her roster of skinny clients – including Richie, Lindsay Lohan and Mischa Barton – even as she transforms them into Gen-IM style icons. Has she ever suggested to any of her clients that they lose a few pounds in the name of fashion? “Not in a million years,” says Zoe, “would I do that.”
Compounding the persistent cultural emphasis on skinniness is the fact that actresses are increasingly replacing models as designer muses and spokesmodels (Bosworth, for example, represents Revlon) and are feeling heightened stakes when they turn up at awards shows. “When you’re walking down [the red carpet], there are truly like 100 photographers, and you do want to look your best,” says Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines.
The result can be a saturation of relentlessly thin images from movies to magazines. “Young girls see celebrities losing weight, and the more famous they are, the more weight they lose,” says Costin. “It creates a climate that says it’s unnatural to be a natural size.”
In interviews with PEOPLE at malls across the country, most teenage girls rejected Richie’s body as “nasty” and “too skinny” but acknowledged that she and other stars serve as style role models. “Nicole’s body is gross because her skeleton shows,” says Kailey Koepplin, 17, of Eden Prairie, Minn. Other teens said they admire healthier-looking stars like Jessica Simpson (“She has cute clothes and she doesn’t show too much”), Beyoncé and Jessica Alba (“She’s tiny, but she’s not too tiny”).
Such talk is an open secret in Hollywood, says one source who has worked closely with a number of young celebrities. “If you’re in these circles, people aren’t quiet about it,” says the source, who says the prescription ADHD drug Adderall XR has become a weight-loss favorite. “To them, taking a diet pill is like drinking a beer. It has simply become an acceptable part of the young Hollywood culture.”
In an era when even healthy-looking stars like Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Lopez provoke preg- nancy chatter at the slightest appearance of a less-than-taut tummy, stars say the pressure to be hyperthin is out of control. And with television stars like Jaime Pressly and Portia de Rossi opening up about their struggles to conform to Hollywood standards of slimness, the question of how far TV pushes actresses has taken on new urgency. “Does [TV] put pressure on [actresses] to become anorexic? No,” says Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, 43, who has talked of battling bulimia and anorexia in her teens and early 20s. “Does it put pressure on them to become excruciatingly thin? Yes.”
If that kind of extreme pressure is unlikely to change anytime soon, some stars are hoping that by bringing it out into the open, progress will come slowly – even if it means acknowledging their own insecurities. At the Emmys this year, Matenopoulos says she was three pounds heavier than she’d recently been. “I tried my hardest to look in the mirror and say, ‘You know what? Nobody’s gonna be able to tell you’ve gained three pounds,’ ” she says. “And nobody noticed – except for me, in my ridiculous little head.”
By Michelle Tauber and Ashley Williams. Alexis Chiu, Vicki Sheff-Cahan, Julie Jordan Jenny Sundel, Jed Dreben, Nicholas White and Jessica Herndon in L.A., Jeffrey Slonim, Steve Erwin, Nina Burleigh, Kelly Carter, Kristen Mascia and Lesley Messer in New York City, Courtney Rubin in Milan, Monique Jessen and Pete Norman in London and Sheree Curry in Minneapolis