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 113.

    There are a number of industries where abuse of staff is rife. For instance, chefs swearing at junior staff. The only solution is for the people in those industries to stand up for themselves. That means Unionise.
    Love or hate them, Unions stopped a lot of abuse in many other industries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Recent advertisments about anti-aging creams ring alarm-bells in my minds.
    Since when did aging become something to be ashamed of and cover up?

    Fashion models would be much less exploited if we; the consumers; start caring less for the products of companies which exploit them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    @96 ' They know what they're getting into'

    Did you not read the article. Do you not understand the issues with minors and modelling? Young models are vulnerable at the age of 12/13 and promised to be the next big thing. They end up flunking school and find themselves in their 20s, over the modelling hill and not being qualified to do anything else. Yes to over 16 modelling, AFTER school.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    I know a few people in the fashion and photography industry. What is amazing is how some parents who send their 13 year olds to modelling careers and then squander their money. Our society has such a distorted image of beauty and they all want the easy money. This gives the fashion industry insiders/exploiters a chance to extract as much out of a model as they can on their own terms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.


    The fact you even make those comments shows you are devoid of ant empathy! Or intelligence!

    It's equivalent to saying because a women wore a short skirt she deserved to be raped! She got what she deserved!

    If a young girl is a model she deserves respect just as if she becomes an architect or a police woman!

    They are our daughters or mothers! Or just human beings!

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Yes models should be protected at work, just like in every other industry. The problems will still be there even with strict rules. Too many people want to work their way up in the industry so will do whatever is asked of them. It happens in simple office jobs so what chance does something as potentially lucrative as modelling have?

    Workplace culture needs changing across the board.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    if you join a superficial industry where looks and body shape count for everything, you can't really complain once you're in it. that's a bit like a soldier complaining he has to shoot at the enemy, or a traffic warden not being keen to hand out tickets, and if somebody abuses you report it, yes you might lose your highly paid job, but is it worth being abused for ? some people's logic astounds me

  • Comment number 106.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Are we supposed to have sympath for models aftr reading this? Are these people forced into a career as a clothes horse or do they choose it themselves? If they dont like it then why dont they just change? Actually, what purpose do they serve in life...they walk up and down in clothes that no one would ever wear in the real world?

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Good on this girl for taking on the more dubious practise's of the modelling industry! But I think she is going to find it nigh on impossible to change the industries sick attitude that clothes only look good on androgynous stick thin bodies. Why would you want to go into an industry with a bunch of bitchy horrid people encouraging you to live on a rice cake a day? You are part of the problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Models or as most people call them expensive prostituties. It does not take any skill at all to be model all you have to do is put your clothes on and you are a top model if you can learn not to eat much and look pretty.
    A non job just a way of fleeing middle aged women and idiots of their money

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Horrified at the number of comments on here suggesting it's the model's own fault for "choosing" this industry, as if they deserve everything they get. Is this a representation of our society, and humanity? I'm ashamed that people think this way - everybody deserves at least basic human rights. And what do you class as a "normal" job? Sitting behind a desk? Equality for ALL, that's my vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    94. Paul Were you there as a Chaperone? If so, did you refuse the photographer? If not, why not? If someone asked my 13 year old daughter to remove her top, I would have beat the **** out of him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    My ex was a model for while in Bournemouth. It was heavily hinted a long established 'reputable' agency that she could make more money by 'glamour' modelling but when she refused, they wanted extra money to get into their 'catalogue' & the work started to dry up. They also delayed payments. When I approached their client directly it emerged they had been sitting on her money for weeks. She left.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.


    I was just quite upset because of some of the comments before mine which claimed that model´s got what they deserve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    A lot of people here seem to think that the fashion industry pays really well, it doesn't. The top models like top footballers get a lot of money but the average models / workers are not well paid. Nobody should be abused at work and most of these models are young and easily bullied, they should be protected

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Oops...typo....a rogue "no" got in there.
    Question should havbe been Do they deserve to be treated with respect?
    Not, Do they deserve to be treated with "no" respect?
    It reads totally differently like that....and not what I thought I had typed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    They are all way too thin, not a feminine shape at all, usually have striking, rather than beautiful, faces, and generally look abnormal, certainly most aren't attractive to me. They know what they're getting into, a totally false, selfish, money making industry. They make more money than they could earn in jobs which require intelligence. Don't like it, get a "normal" job!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The fact that people can make a living by pouting, tells me all I need to know. People make choices in life and should not be surprised or complain about the results. If you make a bad choice, learn from it. Poor models... what next - pop stars complaining about late nights? Life's tough- make the wrong decisions and you find out just how tough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    My 13 year old daughter-in-law was asked to take off her top by the photographer - later I witnessed men going "backstage" and watching the models getting a time when Cyril Smith, Jimmy Saville and others have been proved to be perverts why would anyone think this industry is not a hotbed for those kind of perverts


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