Catwalk Confessions: How the Modeling Industry Fails Its Laborers

January 10, 2014 | The Ventured Life

“They take cotton balls and they dip it in, like, I don’t know, cranberry juice, or orange juice, or something sugary, and then they eat them.” 19-year-old British fashion model Lydia Farr explains a fashionable “dieting” technique: eating indigestible cotton balls, which expand in the stomach, to evade hunger. “And then you do cocaine. If you’re not eating, you have to get your energy from somewhere, right?”

The elevator door opened and we stepped into the Paris office of Jennifer Elgot, the bookings editor of an influential fashion magazine. She meets with countless models every week, most of whom are from outside of Paris, passing by for an assignment or staying a few weeks to try their luck in the French market. While an assistant took shots of the model from three different angles, Elgot silently thumbed through her portfolio. The assistant disappeared to prepare the photos for submission as Elgot held a brief conversation with the model about her portfolio. After the photos were taped to a sheet of paper (and after Lydia had departed, of course), Elgot scrawled next to the Polaroids: “Great personality. Wide hips—not so great legs.”

The modeling industry and its pitfalls have gained widespread publicity in recent years due to deaths related to eating disorders and depression, such as Korean top model Daul Kim’s suicide in her Parisian apartment in November 2009. Recent studies by the British Fashion Council have shown that models are not only malnourished, but are also encouraged to starve themselves. Models depend on their looks for a paycheck, and extreme expectations can lead to eating disorders or low self-esteem. Labor in fashion has become a controversial, career-killing topic that many models are afraid to speak out about—they fear being blacklisted from the industry. All names in this article have been changed to protect their anonymity.

As I climbed into the elevator ready to leave the office after a few hours of shadowing Elgot, I ran into a model that had stopped by a few minutes earlier. “You have such confidence in yourself. I don’t know how you can handle getting your body looked at all day,” I said, attempting to make awkward small talk in that claustrophobic cube of space. She repeated a sentiment that other models would express to me again and again: “Well, I’m not really my body… This is just my job.”

Body Discipline As Labor

On an early June morning before her first casting appointment of the day, 19-year-old British model Shelby Daniels led me into her apartment in Paris. We had scheduled a chat, but instead of the intimate face-to-face dialogue I had anticipated, halfway through our meeting she started changing her clothes. “Sorry, are you comfortable with this?” she asked me, realizing that I wasn’t used to watching strangers disrobe.

“Are you comfortable with this?” I asked, forgetting that she changes her clothes in front of strangers for a living. Instead of taking offense at my question, Shelby shrugged her jaunty shoulders and replied, “I’m not my body… Well, I am, but…” She trailed off to get me a glass of water. Sensing her discomfort and hesitant to upset her before a big day of casting for haute couture shows, I moved on to other topics.

The glamorous and lucrative world of modeling depicted in the media—American’s Next Top Model, for example—is not the reality of everyday life for most workers in the industry. The website for top modeling agency Ford details that a female model must be between 5’8” and 5’11” in height (notable exceptions to this rule are supermodels Kate Moss at 5’7” and Karlie Kloss at 6’1”). British bookings editor Gemma Watson told me that she only sees models between 5’9” and 5’11” with shoe sizes between 38 and 41. While there are hoards of young women around the world who satisfy this strict height requirement, their profitability as laborers is dependent on being pegged for that season’s look. The girls strutting the runways for London Fashion Week will walk for Paris Fashion Week a few days later. Like birds traveling in flocks, the girls—and girls they are, as most models start their careers before they turn 16—fly around the world for jobs, depending on the season and trends. Unlike other performance based careers, like athletics and acting, the modeling industry lacks universal—and effective—regulation. Models are both the product and laborers in this industry, and as a result, they are objectified and at-risk for exploitation.

Model-turned-sociologist Ashley Mears explains in her dissertation Pricing Beauty: The Production of Value in Fashion Modeling Markets, “companies today want their employees not only to act the part, but to look it, too. The modern business organization demands not only emotional management, but corporeal control as well. This aesthetic labor demands transformation of the ‘whole person’ for corporate ends.” But unlike service workers at the mall, models don’t interact directly with customers. They rely on magazines, catwalk producers, and ad agencies to disperse their image, which is also their product.

24-year-old French Eurasian model Melanie Song—the most hesitant and last of the models I convinced to speak with me—describes the act of modeling as “a lot of acting. You need to embody the client's vision. Does he want you to be sexy, moody or girly? And furthermore, if a client asked me to lose weight, I would do it. It’s part of my job.” The importance of the body is emphasized in plus-sized, high-fashion model Crystal Renn’s memoir, Hungry, written with Marjorie Ingall: “Bodies are our business. Models talking about bodies are no different from mechanics talking about parts of cars.”

Of the 15 models I interviewed, only one remarked that her agency provided her with some guidance for body maintenance by giving her a discounted gym membership. The rest revealed that they were often told to lose weight with healthy-sounding euphemisms like “You should tone up a bit.” Models are able to manipulate their weight in order to become marketable and employable, but beyond physical factors, they do not have much control over their careers—so little control, in fact, that the model’s decision to maintain a certain body image is controlled by the ideals of the industry. By disciplining their bodies and personalities into a marketable package—wearing high heels to elongate the legs or losing an extra two inches off their hips, for example—models are using the control they do have over their own bodies to transform themselves into products for sale.

Why The Law Fails

25-year-old Australian model Melissa Grimes, an established older model with a college education and a burgeoning film career, told me a story about getting naked in front of the camera. She and a friend were working with a reputable photographer—possibly one of the biggest in the UK, she notes—and he put a camera down her friend’s top. The playful session, which involved some joking and fooling around, suddenly became exploitative. “She was just sitting there. She was on a chair, a swivel chair, so she was trying to kind of swivel away from him, and it’s very like, I was like, are you serious?” she recounts. They never told anyone because it would ruin future working relationships in an industry focused on a model’s reputed compliance with everyone and anything, whether it’s giving in to lecherous photographers and casting directors or wearing a bathing suit in sub-zero temperatures. In a crushingly similar scene in model Sara Ziff’s documentary, Picture Me: A Model’s Diary, she is seen crying in a bathtub because a photograph attempted to film her while she was changing backstage at a runway show. When she told him to stop, he told her that she’d be “lucky” if she got to work with him someday.

Legislation fails to protect model laborers both from sexual harassment and extreme expectations of body discipline. The free market-based idea that ‘the model can leave whenever she wants’ prevails. Because modeling is a global industry, nation-based legislation has consistently served to decrease the competitiveness of local fashion industries where enacted. And where legislation does exist, it is frequently ineffective. Sexual harassment laws in France and the UK are unable to overcome a code of silence. Many models are unwilling to speak against clients, who are more powerful and have the ultimate ability to determine whether the model will be hired or not. The Model Health Inquiry, a 2007 study put together by the British Fashion Council, acknowledged that few models were willing to respond to their surveys and questionnaires out of fear.

Legislation may ban “extremely thin” images, but it does not address the structural problems of an industry that encourages an unhealthy relationship between body and labor. While laws can define the contractual and financial relationship between agent, client, and model, they cannot define the relationship between personal image, health, and work.

Model Health Inquiry also noted that over 25% of the models polled felt “very heavy” or “quite heavy” pressure to maintain an unhealthy weight, and that many of these models were from Eastern Europe and felt pressure to stay thin in order to support their families back home.

With over 70% of models walking at London Fashion Week hailing from outside of the UK, the industry has not been able to acknowledge that the high-fashion modeling industry is a globalized industry. Models are migratory and may not even reside in their home country for the majority of the year. Their constant movement from city to city requires the fashion capitals of the world to share responsibility for their welfare. 

London, Milan, Paris, and New York, with their billion-dollar fashion industries and glitzy prominence in the media, set the precedent for the rest of the world when it comes to labor regulations. And yet, if models are only getting paid $100 for a Vogue photo shoot because “the exposure is payment,” the free-market system has failed aspiring models. The successes of a few supermodels have obscured an otherwise distorted system. Despite campaigns by models and pamphlets by the British Fashion Council, the law remains inadequate because there is little incentive for casting directors, agents, and editors—those who have total control over a model’s career—to change the way the industry works. A top few supermodels are rewarded handsomely, while masses of striving girls at the bottom are exploited and left with debt and memories.