Fashion Icon Tackles Eating Disorders

Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg encouraged young women to reconsider traditional perceptions of beauty at an event presented by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders last night at the Business School’s Burden Auditorium.

Von Furstenberg—who rose to prominence in the fashion world after she designed an iconic wrap dress in the early 1970s—presented on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

She spoke about the complex relationship between the world of high fashion and eating disorders, a topic that has drawn increased scrutiny in recent years.

Greeting the audience with a hearty “Happy International Women’s Day,” von Furstenberg discussed her personal history in the world of fashion and the inspiration that she gained from her mother, a woman who she said at one time weighed roughly 50 pounds not because of an eating disorder, but because of her forced imprisonment in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.

“I always say that the most important thing in life is the relationship that you have with yourself,” she said, recalling an important lesson she learned from her mother.

Von Furstenberg also spoke about the importance of celebrating womanhood in order to develop greater self-confidence among young girls.

Reflecting on the hardships she encountered while juggling family and a burgeoning career, she light-heartedly noted that “terrible moments become your best souvenirs—at least after they happen.”

In recent years, von Furstenberg, as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, has spoken out against the immense pressure to stay thin in the fashion industry.

Director of the Harris Center and Harvard Medical School Professor of Psychiatry David B. Herzog, whose research focuses on eating disorders, also spoke about the importance of “helping young models better meet the challenges they face” in their careers.

Commenting on the demand that models remain dangerously thin, Herzog added that “there is no simple cause and there is no simple solution.”

When asked about the media’s unrealistic portrayal of body image, von Furstenberg criticized modern reality television programming for pressuring women to maintain an unhealthily slim physique.

“There’s a worse obsession now. How about having fake tits? What kind of a role model is it to objectify women in such a way, on such shows like The Real Housewives?” she asked, to audience laughter.

Reminding her audience that the ideal of beauty is health, von Furstenberg implored those in attendance to reconsider how they view themselves and how they perceive others.

“Beauty is perfect in its imperfection,” she said.

—Staff writer Matthew M. Beck can be reached at mbeck@college.harvard.edu.

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