Fashion Models Are Workers, Too
Historically, labor unions, through collective bargaining, helped workers to raise wages and pull the unskilled up to the middle class. Freelancers, by law, are not allowed to form unions. Still, the Model Alliance and organizations like Freelancers Union, which provides health benefits to its members, are part of a new labor movement trying to organize today’s flexible workplace. In a recent survey, Freelancers Union found that 29 percent of its members earn less than $25,000 a year. This is in line with what sociologist Mears found about models. It is currently very difficult to spin contract work into a stable, middle-class existence. On average, according to Mears’s book, models last about five years. It’s not a career as much as a stint, she says.
In this respect, models are less like wannabe pop stars and more like Olympic athletes—in that their careers are painfully brief. Models are often forced out of the industry in their early 20s. Sabin said she’s heard of girls as young as 18 lying about their age to avoid dwindling job prospects. “It’s sort of uniform that girls lie about their age,” says Sabin. How could women so young be considered undesirable? Sabin’s theory is that it has to do with the industry’s obsession with the newest and latest thing. “To me, it goes back to that word fresh,” she says, a word she heard scouts use often. “Maybe if they’re too old, they’re seen as sort of spoiled or something.” But it also has to do with oversupply—the sheer number of girls means that rapid turnover and a reliance on new versus established talent is a given.
After they hang up their heels at 18 or 20, what’s next for these young women? There is very little information collected about the trajectory of their post-modeling lives. Those we know about are the ones who succeeded, like Ziff, but what happens to a model scouted from, say, Belarus at the age of 13 who has no education and few opportunities back home? “That is a big question,” says Sabin. “There are not many statistics. The industry is really tight-lipped. They don’t really want you to understand.”
It remains to be seen how the fashion industry will respond to the new legislation—will it continue to book underage girls at the same clip, and just follow all the rules? Some predict that it won’t, and that the legislation will bump up the average age of runway models to 18. If the women on the catwalk and in the pages of fashion magazines are indeed women instead of children, this labor legislation just might have a profound impact on body image ideals as well.
This isn’t the first time the physical ideal in the fashion industry has skewed extremely thin. Twiggy made waifishness all the rage in the 1960s, and Kate Moss brought it back in the ’90s. As designers like to say, thin bodies make the best hangers. But the average size of runway and fashion magazine models has gotten far smaller in recent decades, and that has something to do with the prevalence of underage bodies. There’s also a bigger divide between models and the average woman. According to PLUS Model Magazine, twenty years ago a model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman; today, she weighs 23 percent less.
“What people don’t realize is that most of those girls are adolescents,” says Ziff. “They haven’t gone through puberty yet. And when it’s a 14-year-old that’s setting the standard for feminine beauty, that puts pressure on her not to grow up; it puts pressure on older models to starve themselves to get that gangly physique, and then there’s the effect that it has on consumers as well.”
For any model who hopes to have a career past the age of 16, this has come to mean maintaining something close to the physical appearance of a child. At the Model Alliance informational session in August, Anne Vyalitsyna revealed that when she went through puberty at 16, her agency told her to slim down. “Your body changes and you become a woman and there’s nothing you can do to control it,” she said. “I freaked out because your agency tells you to lose weight, and you don’t know how to do it. You don’t know what to eat, and they tell you to go work out.”
The fashion industry has attempted in earnest to regulate itself, to resist the inexorable pull toward hiring the extremely young. Vogue banned the use of models younger than 16 last year, and the CFDA, the organization of the top US designers, has a health initiative that recommends that models be at least 17 to walk the runway. But the regulations aren’t easily enforceable and are sometimes outright flouted. A 15-year-old model appeared in a Chinese issue of Vogue in September 2012, and Marc Jacobs—who sits on the CFDA’s board of directors—stirred controversy after he knowingly put two 14-year-old girls in his spring show last year and then defended his decision in The New York Times.
There is still a way to go toward getting the wider public to take Ziff and the Model Alliance’s idea seriously—that models aren’t just pretty faces, the winners of a genetic lottery, that they are workers who need regulations and representation to protect them from exploitation. But the attitudes are slowly showing signs of change, as the new legislation has shined a spotlight on the issue in the industry.
At the information session in Manhattan, model Hana Mayeda said she attended to find out exactly what the Model Alliance is about. She had the sense that the group was trying to do something greater than trying to prevent young models from working, as a publicist had tried to convince her. Her takeaway: “It’s not about not having models work, and it’s not about having casting directors not hire people under 18. It’s to protect them.”
The word, it seems, is getting out.
In “A Brooklyn Corner” (April 1), E. Tammy Kim described how day laborers who clean for ultra-Orthodox Jewish households are learning about their rights.