Viewpoint: Do models need more rights?

Amy Lemons, Sara Ziff,  Linda Vojtova, and Jeisa Chiminazzo Sara Ziff (in blue) with fellow models Amy Lemons, Linda Vojtova, and Jeisa Chiminazzo

Fashion modelling has a dark underbelly, with exploitation and unfairness rife, writes American model Sara Ziff.

Modelling is a seemingly glamorous profession, and models are certainly not the people you picture when you think of bad working conditions. But wipe off the sheen and another reality emerges.

At 30, I've worked as a model for over half my life, since the age of 14 when a photographer scouted me on the street one day after school.

I've been very lucky in my career and have worked as the face of major brands. I enjoy modelling, a job that not only pays my bills, but also allowed me to put myself through school and made me financially independent.

For the most part, the work itself can be really fun. So I have no reason to speak negatively about an industry that has given me so much.

And, yet, a few years ago I decided I could no longer stay silent about some of the systemic abuses that my peers and I had experienced first-hand.

About the author

Sara Ziff
  • Sara Ziff is a model and documentary-maker, and the founder of Model Alliance
  • The Problem With Fashion was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 28 November at 20:45 GMT

In 2010, I released Picture Me, a documentary that chronicles my and other models' experiences of the business - both the good and the bad. After five years of carrying small video cameras on location to shoots and fashion shows to document behind the scenes, we probably had 300 hours of footage.

Stories of sexual abuse, unfortunately, were very common. One model described a casting with one of fashion's most celebrated photographers who asked her to take her clothes off, then took his clothes off and demanded that she touch him sexually.

The film marked a turning point - for the first time models were on the other side of the lens sharing our perspectives of an industry that sometimes left us feeling mute.

Our glossy industry often provokes superficial criticism of models' weight and body image. I hear a lot of "eat a hamburger!"

The prevalence of unusually thin models on the runway is well known. What's less well known is that for a long time the industry has relied on a labour force of children, and they are valued for their adolescent physique.

Model rights: UK union Equity's 10-point plan

  • Maximum 10-hour working day
  • Suitable meals laid on
  • Expenses for journeys of 10 miles or more travel
  • Respect and dignity towards model at all times
  • No long-lasting change of appearance (including hair) unless agreed
  • Nudity or semi-nudity must be approved in advance
  • Private changing area and bathroom facilities
  • Studio temperature must be at least 21C
  • Insurance cover and prompt payment
  • Models aged under 16 must be chaperoned

It's this obsession not just with youth, but really with extreme youth, that's the problem.

A 13-year-old girl can be naturally skinny, like a beanpole, in a way that a grown woman, who has hips and breasts, generally can't - and shouldn't aspire to be.

And I think we need to ask ourselves why that's become the ideal. Why do we have this perverse fascination with images of such young girls who are so small and inexperienced and really quite vulnerable?

There's a Peter Pan syndrome in fashion. As soon as we start to get older and show signs of maturity, we're told to go on an extreme diet, a lot of the time, or we're discarded and replaced by a younger model. The models never grow up. And that sends a message to women - we're not allowed to grow up.

My friend, the model Amy Lemons, who started modelling women's clothing when she was 12 years old, reached instant supermodel status when she graced the cover of Italian Vogue.

She was 14 years old.

But just three years later, as she began to fill out physically, a New York agent advised her only to eat one rice cake a day. And, if that didn't work, only half a rice cake. So Amy got the hint. She told me: "They were telling me to be anorexic - flat-out."

Amy Lemons Amy Lemons recalls being advised to stop eating

The fashion industry has no restrictions regarding who can model adult clothing. Personally, I think that only adult models should be employed in those situations.

But the pressing issue is not so much whether we should allow models under 18 to work, but whether we can do anything about the poor conditions in which many models have to work.

As I toured festivals and I spoke at screenings of Picture Me, the film became something of an organising tool. Models sought me out to share their stories. And while most people think of modelling as a lucrative career, the vast majority of working models do not command large sums.

Some told me they had lost their life's savings to unscrupulous agencies. Others had been put on the spot to take nude photos against their wishes.

In New York, many designers pay their models in "trade", meaning just clothes, not cash. This practice is not illegal - models are generally considered to be independent contractors, not employees, and so minimum wage laws do not apply.

Kate Moss on being a teenage model

But you can't pay your rent with a tank top - and there is something deeply unsettling about some of fashion's wealthiest, most powerful brands hiring minors and not compensating them financially.

The models who spoke to me really did love their jobs, but not the unfair, and sometimes illegal, treatment that came with it. We realised that we could do better, and that we would be stronger collectively than as individuals.

So in February 2012, with the support of other models and the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, I formed the Model Alliance, a not-for-profit labour group for models working in the American fashion industry.

In May, a few months after we met with editors at Vogue, all 19 international editions of the magazine agreed not to hire models under 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder. I think that language is a little problematic, but considering how resistant the industry is to change, it's a really significant step.

We also established a discreet grievance reporting system, have been working with industry leaders to improve financial transparency at agencies, and established a Backstage Privacy Policy at New York Fashion Week to avoid invasive photography while the models are changing.

Parade Modelling is seen as a glamorous and lucrative profession

We still have a long way to go. We're working to get legal protections for child models in the US. We also want to make sure that there is a policy of informed consent for jobs involving nudity, and to get models access to good, affordable health care.

More from the Magazine

From super-skinny celebrities to models with low BMI, people are speaking out about women they perceive to be too thin. But some experts worry this behaviour makes things worse.

Photographs of models pervade our culture, and we cannot promote healthy images without taking steps to protect the faces of this business. I realise that fashion is a kind of escapism, and that most people don't want to consider these things when they flip through a magazine.

It messes with the glamour if you stop to wonder, is this girl 13? Is there a clause in her agency contract that she cannot gain more than 2cm on her hips? Shouldn't she be in school?

But correcting these abuses starts with seeing models through a different lens - not as dehumanized images, but as human beings who deserve the same rights and protections as all workers.

So I think that if we put more work into empowering the models themselves, we can change the kinds of imagery that we see.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    @ 410. cherryblossomengland
    "I don't understand how their families can allow this?"
    Agents and photographers know parents won't like the photos they take, so they dissuade parents from chaperoning their teenage daughters. Coupled with pressure from the teenager who doesn't want mummy hanging round all the time, it's much easier for parents to not be there or know what's going on than you think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    @430 beachbum4
    "if you're lucky to be born with the right attributes then good luck, but don't complain if the job's tough"
    They're not complaining the job's "tough"!!! They're complaining about exploitation and sexual harassment, which are things NOBODY should ever have to tolerate: good looking or not. I can't believe the amount of people saying "models are pretty, so it's tough luck for them."

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    Tigger, the area is regulated in a number of ways, but most people are ignorant of them. Look up the conduct of employment agencies and employment business regulations 2003 as an example. Infact, the Gov't will be consuting on this particular area in the next few weeks.

    Anyone who thinks a model agency is exploiting a model should ring 0800 917 2368 (pay & work rights helpline) and report them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    Models only exist because of demand, social attitides only perpetuate this, but agreed it's not justification for exploitation / unfair employment. But, not everyone can be a model, if you're lucky to be born with the right attributes then good luck, but don't complain if the job's tough, in the "real" world folks vote with their feet, get an education or suck it up, why should models be special?

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Right is an out come for fulfilling an Obligation and the issue of more Right can only be exercised when one is asked beyond his/her Obligation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    What about the invasive photography coming from the models themselves which is a privacy issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    Modelling appears to be becoming seedy, perhaps like prostitition. We should protect people from being exploited whatever the cool name of the business is. The UK should uphold standards for all workers, the rest of the world can do its own thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    We should start by banning any modelling under the age of 18. A society and an industry obsessed by the body shape of pre-pubescent girls is deeply creepy. It causes an epedemic of eating disorders in teenagers. All to flog a few clothes. Enough already.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    @422. maxrodon No-one's forcing the models to tolerate any hardship, but the fact is that if a model refuses to pose nude or whatever, she can very easily be replaced given there are thousands of girls waiting in the wings for that 'big break'. To keep working and earning, they put up with it because if they don't, they'll be on the dole queue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    I dont think it has anything to do with having sympathy for them it is more about having equal rights and expectations across all job sectors regardless of what that sector may be, in this case, fashion. Models do serve a purpose in life, many go on to become exceptional role models and life examples to teenage girls. You shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    Give me a tubby girl anyday , These models are like bicycle frames , must be miserable eating like a sparrow .

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    I totally agree that despite the glamour, it can be really rough behind closed doors. The only thing that puzzles me, is that if it is that bad, why put up with it. It is a voluntary decision to make, it is not like they were forced to do this. So in the end who is actually at fault? Is it the industry that makes these conditions or the models that voluntarily accept them in the first place?

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    418. Vampire "And you *are* lucky to be paid anything for such a pointless job."

    oh dear, the bigotry and self absorption. maybe if you were less bitter people would be more inclined to support and celebrate the issues you identify with. just saying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    I think the work that Sara is doing is incredibly important. I only recently became aware of how exploitative the modelling industry can be. It's wonderful to hear her tackle the issues so thoroughly and articulately. I hope we hear more about the work she's doing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    Cleaning agencies and restaurants are full of ex models who chose to leave behind that horrible, horrible reality and prefer to work as janitors or waitresses ... please ....

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    @416 WoelsMe

    "the opinion among employers is that "You should be lucky to work in this industry that everyone wants to be in!" The result is poor salaries and low job security." There are poor salaries and low job security in plenty of more worthy careers. And you *are* lucky to be paid anything for such a pointless job. As I said in post 414...if you don't like it, leave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    414. Vampire "Models don't need more rights. They have exactly the same rights as the rest of us. If they don't like what they are doing, get a new career"

    try reading past the headline... it'd help you with your ignorance

    models, like all people, should have the right to not be sexually harassed or exploited by their employers

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    It seems like these women are getting together to form a kind of union to collectively press for fair employment rights: I approve.

    I've worked in fashion (not as a model) and can tell you the opinion among employers is that "You should be lucky to work in this industry that everyone wants to be in!" The result is poor salaries and low job security. Glad to see people showing some self-respect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    Cat walk.

    Says it all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    Models don't need more rights. They have exactly the same rights as the rest of us. If they don't like what they are doing, get a new career.


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