“What if instead of wanting to be perfect, we tried to be better?” asks Ruthie Friedlander. She’s talking about the fashion industry, but really, she could be talking about our daily lives—how we can constantly critique our bodies, our faces, our failures.
As Friedlander—a former ELLE.com editor—knows, those damnations double down at fashion Week. From no-sleep schedules to street style comparisons, it’s a stressful time for everyone, and a triggering one for those recovering from disordered eating.
Enter The Chain, a peer network for women in fashion and entertainment. Co-founded by Friendlander and writer Christina Grasso, the group is on high alert during NYFW, connecting with those who need support and giving gentle-but-firm guidance to the style world at large.
That includes their newest ambassador Kit Keenan, the teen designer and model muse for Cynthia Rowley (her mom). “I wanted to get involved because I’m super invested in social media,” says the 18-year-old, who has 30k followers and IRL friends like Kaia Gerber. “I had never thought about how some words we use online, like ‘detox,’ might really hurt someone. When I started learning about their mission, I was like, ‘Make me part of The Chain in some way!’”
We sat down with the trio to discuss practical strategies for staying sane—and checking in with recovering friends—during fashion Week and beyond.
We talk a lot about fashion and body image. But can the booming wellness industry have an effect on disordered eating, too?
RUTHIE FRIEDLANDER: Absolutely. The health and wellness space can be complicated for us, because “wellness” is such a double-sided word. Actually, we love Cynthia Rowley as a brand because it does such a great job equating health and wellness with sports and just playing around. In their ads, they show women surfing, roller skating, hiking… they get that moving your body is what you do for happiness. You exercise, in whatever form you like, because it’s fun. That felt powerful for us.
KIT KEENAN: It’s really eye-opening to hear about workout posts and how they might affect people [with eating disorders] because I post a lot about health and fitness on my account. I show my workouts in videos, you know? So it was eye-opening to me to have the opportunity to think through some things I post online and be like, “Wait, how can this affect somebody going through this mental turmoil? How is my presence online interpreted in different ways than I think about?”
RF: But I want to make it clear, we’re not saying, “Don’t post your workout.” We know it’s a complicated conversation. There aren’t complete answers. There aren’t always words that are always appropriate to use on Instagram. There isn’t just one answer to questions like, “Is it possible to like fitness and be in recovery?” And that’s okay.
KK: We talk about the word ‘detox’ a lot. I didn’t realize that word can be very validating for people with eating disorders. It can give permission to “cleanse,” even though it’s not a cleanse, it’s basically just starvation! Or purging, you know? And I listen to so many health podcasts I love, like Goop, that talk a lot about detox. I’ve never even considered the mental repercussions of ‘detox’ for somebody in recovery.
#NYFW is a hashtag with millions of posts. What might we avoid saying online to make eating disorders get worse?
CHRISTINA GRASSO: One major thing we can do for one another is avoid—it sounds so simple, but it has a huge impact!—avoid talking about what we’re eating in a negative way. Avoid talking about gaining weight. Avoid talking about how much you ate or how guilty you feel for skipping a workout. Stop calling yourself “good” or “bad” because of what you’re eating. Those little things reignite the kind of feedback loop that goes on in the head of someone recovering.
RF: What I would urge is more action-oriented. We all get stressed about time during a busy day of shows. But if somebody says they need to stop and get food, don’t discourage them. Don’t say “there’s no time to eat.” There’s always time. Honestly, when I came back from treatment into fashion Week, feeling like I had the right to say, “I need to stop for food” was so important.
On social media but also in real life, people love to talk about models’ bodies during fashion Week. How do we stop those conversations, especially if they’re instigated by someone with more power, like someone’s boss or a really important designer?
RF: When I’m part of conversations where people are like, “She looks really sick!”—and it’s not just models, people talk about influencers and editors that way all the time, too—I just casually disengage in the conversation. For better or worse, we can’t affect how other people talk about body image. But there has to be something more fun to talk about. Talk about the clothes you just saw. Talk about the makeup. Seriously, there’s so much else to discuss!
CG: One of the main messages of The Chain is that you don’t know anyone’s story by the way they look. Sometimes, the sickest girl looks the healthiest. Sometimes, it’s not anorexia but a different eating disorder. Sometimes, being super skinny is just natural. It’s important not to assume anything about anyone. You just don’t know.
Recently, there’s been a lot of applause around non-airbrushed campaigns. But everyone in the Aerie campaign, for example, is already gorgeous! Isn’t that just as harmful?
CG: But weight isn’t the only piece of diversity. When Jameela Jamil got called out on Twitter for being a smaller size and still being “body positive,” she was like, “Diversity is more than size!” But it’s also more than a trend. The ads that bug me are the self-congratulatory ones, as opposed to the fashion campaigns that just have body diversity as the ethos of their brand. Outdoor Voices, I love. Christian Siriano and Brendan Maxwell really get it. Yes, the women in those campaigns are still so beautiful and wearing expensive clothes, but on a larger scale, size diversity really does have an impact on how people see themselves. That’s so important.
RF: We don’t expect tomorrow that every brand will make larger sample sizes. We expect people will talk about what makes them feel bad, either in ads or at fashion Week. The point of The Chain is to start those conversations. But because we all work in fashion, we know that it’s a business and there are financial repercussions for everything, from sample-making to casting to store inventory. This isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being more aware and hopefully doing better.
Help! I think a friend has an eating problem. Can I do anything?
CG: Please do something.
RF: Please! I certainly wish, when I was at my worst, that more people had reached out to me. When I told people I’d gone to treatment, so many people said, “Thank goodness. I was so worried about you!” But nobody told me that at the time! And it’s an awkward thing for adults to talk about. I wasn’t a teenager. I didn’t have a guidance counselor, or live with my parents. If we destigmatize the conversation—“Hey, I noticed you lost a lot of weight; is everything ok? I noticed you didn’t finish your food; are you feeling ok?”—that’s a start. And if you’re compassionate about it, instead of accusatory, the worst thing your friend can do is freak out at you and say, “You’re crazy.”
CG: This is my motto, and I hope it’ll be yours too: It’s better to risk losing a friendship than losing a friend. I’m speaking as someone who’s lost friends recently to this disease. I’m speaking as someone who was hospitalized for it, and who knows it’s the most deadly mental disorder for women. In college, my friends were very adamant about getting me help, and they saved my life. Yes, I was very angry at them at the time. But now? Thank God.