Although the fashion industry has made some steps towards increased diversity and better representation on runways and in campaigns, there is still a long way to go. Industry insiders seldom break rank and critique the brands and companies that employ them, but models are breaking the silence in a new survey.
Working models registered on the major industry database models.com answered a survey, some anonymously, some under their own names. Models.com asked: ‘How do you, the model, want to be treated?’ in an attempt to find out how the fashion industry can begin to ‘reconcile’ with its models. They shared their experiences of discrimination, sexual harassment, exploitative working conditions, and body shaming.
Here are some of the testimonies from the responses. Although there were positive comments, many of the testimonies are outright disturbing. The first one is a good summary:
‘I feel like we all are supposed to deal with the mistreatment: we have a job that millions of girls would kill for, so we should be happy with what we’re doing, even if it has a dark and sadistic side to it. It has gotten to a point where it is hard to justify your own complaints – of course we’d rather give up sometimes, but when it all comes down to it we would never dare to speak up about anything because of the risk of losing future job opportunities.’
The industry’s move towards diversity can be exploitative
Cailin Hill Araki
‘I’m happy to see more street castings happening in the fashion industry – times have changed. We’re ready to see a more racially diverse selection of models and body types, but I can’t help but think brands are profiting off this new crop of models unfairly: with zero experience in the fashion industry and no agency behind them, these models don’t know their own value. A job that would go to an agency model for $1 500 can go to a ‘street cast’ model for a couple hundred bucks, cash-in-hand. How many times have I seen street-cast models being held on set for 12, 15, 18hr days for $150 or the exposure of working with a good brand or photographer. In the long run, I see it as the exploitation of these diverse new faces. We say we want fashion to be more inclusive, but hitting up a kid on Instagram and offering a couple sweatshirts instead of payment is fucking BS.’
Models highlighted various forms of discrimination
‘The modelling experience, as someone who has first-hand encountered it all, and also as a black woman with curly hair, isn’t easy at all. In the industry, the younger you are, the more you will thrive, and if you have a notable social media following, chances are you will thrive too. Seeing minor-aged girls thrive in the industry can be positive, but as James [Scully] said, “We’ve become desensitized to the way we treat these girls and just discard them. It’s so much more sadistic and so much more mean than you can believe. We have to support girls more and stop treating them like Tinder swipes” and I find that to be certainly true. Sometimes, because I have a walk that exudes attitude or because I represent the diversity the industry needs, that in itself gets me declined jobs and should frankly be the opposite. Change needs to happen and models should be treated fairly, as human beings. In castings where models are judged based on their weight or race or skintone or religion, we are divided and diversity is barely present. I wish representation was a reality for all girls, not just white ones, tall ones, thin ones, and women of colour with European features.’
‘I think one of the biggest problems with using girls under 18 on the catwalk is that they haven’t properly finished puberty and so if you’ve been modelling since then and then your body changes, the pressure that is put on you to return to your 14-year-old body is immense and I do not think it is healthy. Getting told you are “out of shape” or “wide” by agencies and clients because you have a 36″ hip instead of a 34″ hip is ridiculous and potentially damaging to girls who of an age when they are generally insecure.’
‘The agency said that they loved me but wanted me to lose a little weight, and they gave me a month to do it and then resend digitals. And so I lost a lot of weight in a short time and just got obsessed with it after that. I became anorexic and was extremely underweight, passing out in rehearsals. After the month they never got back to me and my mother agent. Since then, my weight has fluctuated so much because of how poorly I treated my body.’
They are often not paid properly or forced to pay for things themselves upfront
‘I had an extremely bad experience with my first agency. My first “big thing” was having an exclusive during Fall/Winter 2016 for one of the biggest brands, and I started to work a little after that while still being in school. My mother agency is a small boutique agency in Germany, only having five working girls or so, but the person who runs it has very good relationship with some of the biggest casting directors and agencies that he signs his girls with. After working off my debt that my foreign agency had built up, many times without asking me before making unnecessary high expenses, I started to earn a bit of money. Even four to five months [after signing], I didn’t get paid, hearing things like ‘you need to trust me’ and ‘you are going to make so much money one day’ from my mother agent while being completely broke, living between agency pocket money and my parents; I became suspicious. My agency in London that I was mainly making money with knew that my mother agency was doing this and I eventually got my money from them, but that was six months after earning it.’
‘The discussion of how models are treated often omits a very important point: the financial transparency and security of models. I work in the European market, and most of the agencies take high fees and make models pay for every bit of communication they are supposed to do in order to promote their models (comp cards for example). Let alone travel, accommodation, and other fees that a model usually has to cover. Could anyone think of a situation like that in other fields of work—imagine, you are working for some big company and your job requires traveling and staying in hotels in different cities. If your boss were to tell you several months later, “You know, you have to cover it all yourself.” There would already be strikes everywhere and every newspaper would have pronounced on the topic. This situation is precarious and I consider that either agencies or clients should take on more financial responsibility. It is not OK to get into debt in order to work (especially if we keep in mind an amount of unpaid jobs like editorials).’
They experience sexual harassment but can’t say anything
‘There are too many who take advantage of a model’s young age and use this to their self satisfaction. A regular, normal-minded human should not be attempting to prey on a girl who is there to work and is afraid of speaking up (as being someone ‘hard to work with’ may cost you a job). I was once shooting a lookbook where the stylist, helping me dress, used this chance to feel my body up much more than necessary and continued to do so throughout the entire shoot. Countless times have I had to undress in undesirable public situations, but even now I can remember the disgusting feel of this man’s hands tracing my body. Most of us start when underaged, we develop and mature as women under all this as the norm. What has already happened has happened, but please do not let this continue to be so.’
Modelling can be physically gruelling
‘The fashion industry is fickle and only luck is on your side, or perhaps it is not. The determining factors of your success are predisposed before you are even born; your height, body type, facial structure, etc. It’s all a genetics game before you can even call yourself a ‘model’. After that, only luck comes into play whether your look is ‘in’ and you receive work. Success arrives exponentially as a model, however once your time is up, you are thrown away like used goods as another model comes to take your place instantly.
‘The reality of a proper, agency-signed model is far from what anyone may imagine. Your body is essentially your product to sell. The maintaining of your appearance, dealing with the aftermath of heavy make-up and hair, going to an endless amount of castings, holding unnatural poses for hours, shooting winter clothing in summer, and summer clothing in the winter, fashion month, is hard. This is a physically demanding job that is also very mentally draining, especially when you do not speak the language of whatever country you are in.
‘I am positive that all models have cried trying to untangle glued-in extensions or very, very tightly curled hair (and failing) very late at night thinking the only way is to cut it all off. We’re dancing in the palms of the industry’s whims and the dreaded measuring tape (but that’s a completely different story that expands endlessly).’