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.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Sexual abuse should be stopped and those responsible castrated...
    Adult clothes should be modeled by adults,
    Models should be paid, not just given clothes, IT contractors would not accept a bit of software or some hardware as payment, so why should models.. They should just say no...
    Agents are at fault for not getting decent contracts & vetting clients...

  • Comment number 132.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    I am the Director a leading London model agency.Models can have a good lifestyle and be relatively well paid it is true but pay in the fashion sector is shameful. Other sectors are better and fairer. In addition, models should be protected by their agents but often aren't. There is lots wrong with models work conditions and their rights. It is hard to know where to start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Anyone remember Bhs coming under fire a few years ago for carrying a line of sexy clothes for little girls? Let's not forget the big buyers who encourage the sexualisation of children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Wow, there are some incredibly ignorant comments on here. Did you read the artile, did you understand the point? If you think a 13 year old deserves that treatment or a woman of any age actually then shame on you! The fashion industry will still exists, as will models. They are taking a stand & trying to establish codes of conduct that prevent abuse, that has to be applauded in any industry...

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Wow. There are people out there who genuinely believe these young women "deserve" to be physically abused at work! And why? For working in an industry that they personally find pointless.

    I find football pointless. Doesn't mean I believe footballers should be physically abused, doesn't mean I believe they should just accept it because they might one day make a lot of money at the top!

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    shallow people - taking advantage of their bodily structure from birth now complaining that they are taken advantage of by fashion industry of the era.

    crazy could say no

    Or do you really just want your cake to eat it???

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    @122 You are either a WUM or an idiot.

    So an idiot in both cases.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    No-one should be badly treated, no argument there.
    They are paid vast sums of money for what they do, which is connected to how they look, which is purely God-given. And they can say "No, I'm not going to do that" if they are asked to do something they don't want to do, just like everyone else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Age is a very important factor.
    Children need special consideration and protection - in all jobs, be they personnel at a fast food restaurant, shelf-fillers at the supermarket or models,

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Some professions have a short life-span. Most sportsmen/women only last about 10 years at the top (if they're lucky with injuries). Pull the cash in whilst you can and always have a plan B.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    If they are stupid enough to do this rubbish Job, then they deserve all they get.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    The main problem with modelling, is the wrong image that is pushed forward. It creates a whole industry relying on the insecurities of people who feel they do not measure up to the fashion industries projected 'norm'.
    What we need is real people modelling for real people; and a ban on Air brushed, photoshopped images.
    Once reality is projected, the models may find life easier being themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Nice article. In fact it is like any other field with its sugary traps and mind blowing riches for those who make it to the top of the pyramid.Honestly many who enter this profession will be unfortunatly exploted as that is what they are letting themselves into.Sheer gloss for a huge market !

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    114. Zombellic
    The Idea when negotiating working terms and conditions is to improve things, not drag everybody down to the same level. That is one of the reasons we now have a big problem with low pay and short working weeks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    I believe the models right plan is an extremely fair set of requests and those who do not feel the need to follow them should be named and shamed.

    I also feel society as a whole could benefit from models having a BMI between 18-25 as it would show a more achievable weight as 'ideal'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    It'd also be interesting to look into what the men have to go through, it would seem easier for them, just workout and have a healthy life style, you see a lot of men with an athletic phsyique, why isn't this the case for women? It's like the ideal body image, at least to fashion, is to have very, very thin women, and athetlically toned and built men. Why's that not the case for women?

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    @105 So you're saying that because they can walk away from their career, that means there should be no employment protection in place? Given that anyone can walk away from their careers if they want too, does that mean that there should be no employee protection for anyone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    everyone know's their rights, but ain't so good on their responsibilities

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Models have the employment rights like anyone else no better no worst so most of the 10 point plan are givens but why should they have a right to the other 3:
    Maximum 10-hour working day
    Suitable meals laid on
    Expenses for journeys of 10 miles or more travel

    I work more than 10hrs arrange my own travel and lunch and that is pretty normal for most people who live in the real world.


Page 16 of 22



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.