It seems like as each fashion week season rolls around, the issue of models and their weight is yet again brought to attention. Whether it’s the latest industry initiative to stop designers from using sickly-thin models, or society’s discontent with consistently seeing underweight models strutting up & down the runways, you can guarantee controversy.
Concerns about the fashion industry’s promotion of extreme thinness is nothing new. Too often, models are being pressured to jeopardize their health and safety as a prerequisite for employment. Unfortunately, it’s an industry where initially you are not chosen because of your experience, intelligence or personality, but by how many inches the measuring tape shows. As a working model, if you’re asked what your current bust, hip, & waist measurements are, chances are you are able to answer with your exact measurements on any given day of the week. It’s one of the obvious reasons the industry is an easy target when it comes to body image issues.
While not every aspect about the modeling industry is bad (some of the best moments of my life have been while modeling), it is a poorly regulated industry. When an entire industry is poorly regulated, it leaves the door open for a very unhealthy and unsafe work environment to evolve. With high expectations & unrealistic sample sizes, a perfect storm for disordered behaviors such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder & other specified feeding and eating disorders is created.
Due to genetics and youth (most models get into the industry around 13-14 years of age), many models are naturally thin. Despite already being thin, restricted diets and bizarre weight loss tactics among models are common. I myself have dealt with unhealthy thoughts about my weight and changed my eating habits to fit the strict industry standards. Even though I am naturally a size 2/4, throughout my career I have heard countless times that I am too fat to be booked for a client. Often, for fashion shoots or runway shows (high-fashion in particular), a solid size 0-2 is preferred or required. In a meeting with my very first modeling agent, he told me I needed to do whatever it took- smoking, starvation, cocaine, or all three- to get three inches off my already 36” hip and keep it off, or I would be dropped from the agency.
Although now I’m healthy & fit and have much better agents, what he said still nags the back of my mind. To this day I dread going to fittings and having to squeeze my 30-year-old ass into the same sized pants the 16-year-old standing next to me is also putting on. If a model shows up to a fitting or a job and can’t fit into the clothes, it’s considered disgraceful. There were times I felt like a complete failure because I couldn’t get the zipper up the back of a dress or get a skirt up over my hips. Handing the clothing back to the design team telling them it didn’t fit was humiliating and only added fuel to the thoughts of not being thin enough. What I can clearly see now is that it’s not my body that was the problem, it was the way the industry viewed (and still views) models.
So, where does the idea that models have to be tall & thin come from? It really boils down to designers and fashion houses and how that industry works. Thin runway models are easier to dress because their bodies have less variance than curvy models. Less variance means pattern design work is minimized, which in turn expedites the production of garment samples (saved time & material = saved money). These samples are usually one of a kind and made in one size (0-2) because when a designer makes a garment, there’s no telling how many orders they may receive from a buyer. Therefore, they don’t want to make many different sizes until they see what the demand will be for that particular piece. Those garment samples often travel all over the world to be seen on runways, in trunk shows, and in print campaigns. The dress you see on a New York runway is very likely the exact dress you see in a magazine editorial. If only one sample is made but needs to be worn by many different models for different occasions- the models must fit the garment. Cue the thin model requirements and the extreme actions to remain thin.
Although the reasons for developing an eating disorder are complex and different for each person, for models, a common factor is the constant degradation and devaluation of their bodies & who they naturally are. When you’re told daily that you need to lose weight and then get praised for looking so thin after you’ve taken unhealthy measures to get it off, it can cause major damage to your mentality.
For a long time, people have talked about extreme thinness in models as a social issue without recognizing that it’s actually a labor issue. In the US, what other occupation would we permit employers to encourage their employees to starve themselves or do illegal drugs in order to keep their jobs? Can you think of any? Me either. So why should the modeling industry be an exception? Modeling isn’t just a hobby- it’s a real job for real people who are trying to make a living. This is why it’s critical to have some industry-wide basic health and safety standards. Models’ rights are human rights, but because of the stigma and false glamour that surround the fashion industry and mental health (especially eating disorders), the government has long turned a blind eye.
But that’s changing.
In 2006, organizers of Madrid Fashion Week became the first to implement a code of conduct to ban models deemed underweight according to their body mass index (BMI). Italy followed shortly after, requiring models to provide a certificate of health from a doctor before they were allowed to walk the runway. In 2015, France’s National Assembly passed a law that requires models to have a medical certificate deeming them fit to work. Vogue Magazine even launched ‘The Health Initiative’– a pact between the 19 international magazine editors to encourage a healthier approach to body image within the industry.
Here in the US, former model Sara Ziff founded a nonprofit in 2012 called the Model Alliance, which advocates for fair labor standards and safer work environments for models. Since its founding, the alliance has pushed lawmakers in New York and California to protect underage models, partnered with researchers to study human trafficking and other issues, and launched a high-profile campaign to get Victoria’s Secret to commit to taking steps to safeguard its models from sexual misconduct.
Since the initial movements, there has been even more pressure on New York & California’s governments to pass a bill that would regulate modeling agencies and develop appropriate standards to protect models’ health. Though some agents are better than others (this I can personally attest to), they hold substantial control over models’ working lives, and many agencies have records of sexual abuse, coercion, and financial fraud. Such a bill would ensure models are granted worker protection rights that all other US employees are provided in different industries.
Protecting the lives of models by establishing safety and health regulations is vital, and it’s even more important in an industry that has such a powerful social effect. Though the fashion industry can’t take the blame for all body-image insecurities, it does strongly influence women and how we view our bodies. In order to make positive changes happen, we need a greater push from all members of the fashion community (agents, designers, models, buyers, media...). Without workplace health and safety standards, models will continue to be forced to sacrifice their health for their careers. It's time to make that change.