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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  • Comment number 153.

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

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    Comment number 152.

    If you support the abuse of children and are happy for this then carry on buying the products. I used to laugh and the dieting adverts which said do not eat fat, then it would be followed by a face cream advert saying put lipids all over your body. Showed the public of the fools they really are

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    This industry relys on someone agreeing to do what ever they are asked to do- if you don't do it the industry has to take a different approach. Parents should be escorting their children everywhere and agents should be registered on a appropriate register of agencies. It seems that the abuse only happens if it is allowed to? Really the subject is boring eat well, be good and use your head!

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    “we would be stronger collectively than as individuals”, “not-for-profit labour group”, or to put it another way, “a UNION”

    Unions are a much maligned part of our existence these days. This article just goes to show how employers can, will, and do take advantage of their employees when there is no body to stop them.

    We give up our unions at our peril.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Its not a surprise that an unregulated industry involving men and young women is open to all kinds of abuses. I remember reading an article where an italian man in the industry was on record boasting about one of the "perks" being they could have sex with the 15 year olds being recruited into the industry.

    not everyone should be tarred with the same brush, but regulation is clearly needed

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    How about trying to get a proper job instead of standing around, looking decorative and whining

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    @rom9 Thank you for reinforcing my point with that bitter rant.

    This article isn't about looks, it just so happens models tend not to be touched by the ugly stick. It's about the exploitation of young girls. Something that shouldn't be acceptable under any circumstances.

  • Comment number 146.

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

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    Comment number 145.

    This is nothing new, some years ago I remember seeing a documentary on abuse of young English models in Italy, this is the first time I have seen the subject raised since.

    It seems sexual exploitation of children is so unconscionable that collectively we close our eyes and ears and hope it isn't really happening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Interesting, this story highlights the hypocrocy of the media and buisness and where they lead society generally follows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    There probably does need to be better protection for models although I'm sure many of them get in over their heads and then continue as they don't know how to extracate themselves and some uscrupulous agencies will turn a blind eye. Everyone knows basic right from wrong however, it doesn't mean models can be exploited.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.


    Exactly, which is the point of this article and a change needed for the modelling industry. That posters comment was directed at abusive comments effectively saying models deserve it, which assumes that a vulnerable teenager should be able to protect themselves which is beyond ignorant. Parents are also to blame but that shouldn't be the only line of defence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Not born with the right looks and the figure of a model ??? U mean Photoshopped looks and the figure of a bamboo stick right !
    Shame on u for judging people by their looks !

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    shamefull industry populated by sick and shallow people who are kept in their so called jobs by shallow, unintelligent and vain customers.
    Not only is the shame on the industry but it is on the vacuous people who support and buy this industries products.
    The fact that some people feel this is a career and not just aN expensive clothes horse says alot about the parents of these young CHILDREN

  • Comment number 139.

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    Comment number 138.

    There appears to be some bitternes here from those not born with the right looks or figure to be a model.
    Yes, these people are lucky enough to be paid for their appearance. It's a lot easier then getting up every day to work in an office (as I do). That doesn't mean they can be treated so poorly though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    It is interesting to read that a childlike figure is required of these adolescent models at a time when we are vilifying several powerful public figures for their paedophilia. Also frightening to hear that 16/17 year old girls are considered adults who don't need a chaperone - would many teenagers be able to say no to a powerful man who can 'fix it' for them to grace the cover of a magazine?

  • Comment number 136.

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    Comment number 135.

    The skinny youth ideal in fashion seems to me to be based on pedophilia. It would be a welcomed change if the industry would use women models rather than children. The same is true if the industry would recognize the healthy range of weight. Mark my words: unless they do this, the industry will be hit by a scandal that will make the recent press scandals look trivial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    @132 - Go away and start an E-petition or something


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