BY ANNA GREENE
Most people think of models as having glamorous lives. They live in designer clothes, eat their salads in Parisian bistros or Milanese trattorias, and get well paid for being so pretty. Take Kendall Jenner, for instance, who flies around the world, staying in five-star hotels, booking campaigns for Balenciaga, Chanel, Versace, you name it. What teenage girl doesn’t envy her? Who wouldn’t want to run through fields of flowers, and be both praised and paid for it? But there is, and always has been, an underside to modeling. The young labor force means that models are especially susceptible to the criticisms of much older agents, photographers, and clients. Though models are supposedly the stars, they are often the weakest people at any meeting, their views irrelevant, their presence only as important as the clothes themselves. It’s hardly surprising that drug abuse, sexual abuse, issues around weight which are sometimes fatal, and even suicide, are all endemic to this industry.
Female models look nothing like the average female. The average American woman is 5’4” and a size 16. The average female model is 5’10” and a size 0. The average woman’s size has actually increased over the last fifty years. The size of fashion models has dropped in that time from an 8 to a 0. Even allowing for the fact that designers manipulated sizes for women’s vanity, and that a 0 would at one time have been a 4, models have become much slimmer (Peeke et al.). Madison Whittaker, now a twenty-five-year-old model and founder of the clothing company Nononsense says, “They want you to be a 34 hip which literally is the tiniest thing in the world.” Young girls coming from impoverished countries, with not a lot of sustenance during their childhood, have set the standards for girls coming into the modeling industry (Nussbaum 48). According to Suzy Menkes, an English fashion writer:
You know, many of these girls were brought up in the post-Communist years on an extremely bad diet. From childhood, they've not been properly nourished. That may make them very appealing to designers, but they don't start off with a healthy body. And nothing is simple. I think it must be incredibly difficult to come from a vegetable stall in the Ukraine and find yourself in Paris amongst Ladurée macaroons. People have to accept that it's a much bigger picture than terrible fashion folk starving to get into frocks! (Nussbaum 50)
The reason that some of these Eastern European models are so slender is because they were malnourished when they were younger. Designers were quick to take advantage of their unusual measurements, and make them the new normal for all models.
Male models are a slightly exaggerated version of the average male—the difference is not quite as startling as it is with female models. The average American man is 5’9”. Male models are generally a little taller, between 5’11” and 6’3”, and a little slimmer and fitter than the average man. A male model, Andrew Tyler, “says he hasn't struggled with body image issues but he has faced the frustration of not fitting into clothing on the racks and not being able to express his love of fashion without customized outfits” (Ahearn 1). While Tyler does not have to maintain exceptional slenderness as most females do, he demonstrates that men, too, have to fit the sample sizes. The photographer Anthony Manieri explains that female models are more commonly criticized about their bodies than male models. He says, “When body positivity is discussed, it's usually always around women, and I believe rightfully so because they get the brunt of it” (Ahearn 1). Designers believe that their clothes look better on female models who are very slim. After the arrival of the extremely thin Russian models in this century, designers discovered that they could just assume all models would have to fit into a zero (Nussbaum 48). There was no need, anymore, for the designers to fit the clothes to each model’s slightly different shape.
Like so many models, I have struggled with the size 0 standard for models, though, I confess, my first issues around food began before I had even heard of the modeling industry. I was a healthy, active child with a strong appetite, and a good palate as I had been introduced to every kind of food (fennel, squid, bresaola, for starters). I struggled with food for the first time in eighth grade when I got accepted onto the Varsity swim team. Though I ate better balanced meals than Taylor Swift, I relate to her perspective, which she wrote about for the site Buzzfeed:
In college, I’d spend 45 minutes on the elliptical machine, then spend an hour at an exercise class. I’d eat Raisin Bran for lunch, then rice with peas, maybe with a little cheese on top, for dinner. If I only ate a bag of microwave popcorn for lunch — a “meal,” I’d later learn, that was a universal signifier of disordered eating — my friends would give me the side-eye, until one day, they sat me down and told me, “You’re not getting enough calories.” (Peterson)
I over exercised and I refused to eat enough for how much I practiced. On the very first day of swim practice, one very skinny upperclassman turned to me and praised me for being even skinnier than she was. I felt as if I had something that no other girl had, even if I was one of the slowest swimmers on the team. I continued to eat regularly, but I continued to not eat enough.
When I began to have the idea that I could possibly model, I visited a small agency in New York. The head agent told me he would take me on if I lost two inches from my waist. I was excited about committing to this and believed I could do this healthily. In the beginning, I just dropped ice cream and ran every day. Slowly I became obsessed with a size 34 hip and size 24 waist. I still feel this way. Apart from that agent, no other agent has told me I need to lose weight. No one else needs to. The idea is fixed in my head. Emily Nussbaum, a writer for The Guardian, explains that this mindset towards validation by thinness is common amongst models. She writes, “If Fashion Week is about reinforcing hierarchies, skinniness has always been a way to compete. Being thin means control and, symbolically, that you are rich, that you are young, that you are beautiful, that you are powerful” (52). Every time my agent tells me that my hips have remained a size 33.5, I feel a little jolt of happiness.
Almost all models over the age of sixteen have to be disciplined in order to stay thin. The rewards for being extremely thin incite the model to continue down the dangerous path of losing weight. Angela Dwyer, a doctoral student in education, writes about how discipline leads to pleasure. Dwyer says, “In the rush to treat the dangerous yet desirable fashion model body, the disciplined precision that the fashion model practices with her body may too easily go unnoticed particularly in the literature of disorder…. So too… pleasures derived from carefully applying makeup, plaiting hair, dressing up and so on are produced out of a very precise disciplinary labor conducted with the body” (414). The model who succeeds in maintaining an extremely low body weight will be praised by her agents, the photographers, and even other models. Of course, she will also book more work. The rewards are so great that the model is likely to not worry about how she is now flirting with an eating disorder.
Young girls are often scouted when they naturally have the required physical dimensions. For instance, Madison began to model when she was just fifteen years old. Reflecting on the kind of work she got with her prepubescent figure, Madison told me, “Before I knew it, an agent from New York had flown to Michigan to meet me. I was presented with a contract. I was like I can get out of high school and travel, OK cool.” After Madison went through puberty, her modeling agency began to comment on her weight. Madison said:
Me and all of my friends, we would go into the agency, probably like twice a month and the anxiety that would come with that because you knew they were going to ask you to lose weight. One time I was told to only eat fish and vegetables for a month, and hopefully that would bring my measurements down. Once I hit puberty my body changed to be a 36 hip. This is the problem with starting in the industry so young, girls are praised for their prepubescent body. Once you hit puberty, your body changes which is very natural, but then they aren’t accepting of that change.
Madison began to really struggle with what was expected of her. An agent that she followed to this agency from her previous modeling agency, spoke to her about her weight:
One time after he told me to lose weight, I had a full breakdown in front of him. I started crying, and was like, “you know that eating disorders are very real in this industry and you’re asking me to do all of these things. I met with a nutritionist and trainer who said this is not healthy for me.” He just looked at me and said, “I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think models are doing that. I think this is completely healthy for you.” He shot me down.
At that point in her life, Madison considered her relationship with her agent as a close one, and it was heartbreaking for her to recognize that she could not confide in him.
It may not be healthy, but the conundrum is that, at least for high fashion, agents cannot allow their young models to be anything other than disciplined. Stefen Pompee, owner of PMP Model Management in New York, explains that high fashion maintains extreme standards for female models. In his opinion, “You have to stick to your identity. If you come to me with a waist size 24 and hip size 34, I am going to market you for high fashion, so you’re expected to stick to a waist size 24. To some agents, the industry is their main source of income. In that case, they will either be honest and say you won’t get work if you go above a 24, or they will be rude and tell you to lose weight if you do go above a 24.” While he accepts that the overall industry will change, he doesn’t “think high fashion will change because then it wouldn’t be high fashion.” In other words, young women who enter the industry as teenagers and are positioned for high fashion will still remain under pressure to retain their extraordinary dimensions. The writer Stephanie Sadre-Orafai interviewed the modeling agency, DCM, about its relationship with their models. She spoke with an agent, Peter, who guides the development of their young models. Peter explained his strategy for making the young women adhere to the requirements, “You have to beat it into them. Tell them every day. Sometimes it's not any one thing. The light just goes off. Sometimes it never does and those are the ones who never make it as models. It's an unrealistic industry. It's hard for them to cope. Some never get it” (Sadre-Orafai 130). I never got it until my previous agents began trying to control my life via Instagram. These people began to leech into all areas of my consciousness in a really disturbing way.
Many young women have suffered in the modeling industry and some have sadly died. For instance, Isabelle Caro, a French model and actress died of anorexia when she was just twenty-eight years old. “As a result of her self-imposed diet, she would often lapse into comas and awake delirious, not knowing who she was. At one time, she survived on one square of chocolate a day with a cup of tea that she consumed a teaspoon at a time, to make it last” (Grimes 1). Caro was a symbol for the battle against anorexia. She spoke about her experience and advertised herself because she wanted to shock other female models and girls. Her hope was to warn girls about the dangers of diets and against succumbing to the ideals of modeling agents. Although she may have helped others, sadly Caro was unable to save herself.
Generally, young women who have good support, some resources and are able to gain an education can best withstand the dangers of this industry. Madison is proof that young women can survive, and even gain ground intellectually. Madison credits the strong support of her family in Michigan, her friends, and her therapists who helped her retain her balance and perspective, and also encouraged her to continue pursuing her studies (Madison is a senior at Baruch College, and majors in Marketing and Advertising Communications). Another platform that Madison claims has helped her (and I also second this, for myself) is called Models that Eat. It was created by Phoebe Pojo, who began to model when she was just thirteen years old. Pojo writes, “It came to my attention that everybody around me had complicated journeys with food, whether they were models, people working in fashion, or people admiring my peers in this world” (Pojo). She believes that it is unfair how topics like body image issues and diet “are conveniently being neglected in the fashion industry, to perpetuate this veil of glamorization over our careers” (Pojo). After a long period of time, her food account grew into a safe space on the internet for models to come together and comfortably discuss their complicated relationship with food, and how to find change in a positive way.
Fortunately, there are signs of a sea change in modeling. In this current climate, where more attention has been given to underserved communities such as sexually abused women and people of color, the requirements for female models are becoming more inclusive. The fashion industry is now expanding, and there is suddenly work for a whole variety of people, not just super skinny white models. Because of the changing times, Madison has returned to modeling once again. She talks highly of her new agency:
I didn’t think I would enter this industry again, and this agency just happened to work out. I came across this agency and they represent every type of model. They represent the model for the model, no matter what size or color. They represent you for you, and don’t want you to change at all. When I saw that it was very appealing to me, and I didn’t really believe it. But I ended up having a call with them and my agent, who I met with. She’s just incredible. She was like you have all the say in your career now and whatever you want to do you tell us, and we won’t force anything on you.
In general, more agencies have started to be kinder to their models and are taking on women of different sizes. Stefen says, “I don’t have any thoughts about how girls should look. I sign people based on who they are and how they are. Now, there are so many different brands that any girl is marketable.” Female models can now find work, no matter what size they are. The modeling industry is slowly changing, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Truthfully, the modeling industry is harsh, particularly because it relies on very young girls who don’t necessarily have the wherewithal to withstand what is required of them. These girls should be as happy working as models as they appear to be when they are running into the sea beaming for a catalogue. However, there is hope in this changing industry. While there will always be a market for slim, tall, and pretty girls, there are now more opportunities for those who are not the industry standard. For the first time, women who have more curves, who come from different ethnicities, and who are even transgender, are finding that they are successfully booking jobs with ease.
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