This article is meant to share my concern with the position of models in the fashion industry. Models, strictly speaking, have no legal position. Modeling is a freelance job. Independent of the industry there is nothing specifically arranged for models. Labor-organizations and collectives for models are virtually absent. Moreover, large-scale scientific and academic research in this working branch had not been conducted yet. This means that we know nothing about this type of business and working-conditions. I want to argue that the absence of regulation and supervision by a specific working organization, or movement ranged under the umbrella of a particular labor union, brings the often very young models in a vulnerable situation.
In between large force-fields
A short analysis of their position shows that models are situated in between two large force-fields: the fashion industry and the media discourse. This means that models have to mediate between the norms of the fashion industry, being able to fit in the extreme small sample-sizes while enduring the harsh critique on their appearance by the media of being called anorexic or extremely unhealthy.
Navigating through these contradictory values of body appearance often results in distorted body-images and disturbed relations with food and exercise. Undoubtedly, fashion representations and the display of extremely thin bodies affect body-images of fashion’s consumers. I claim that banning either the display of skinny models or the extremely digital manipulated faces of movie stars in cosmetic campaigns, is not the answer. Instead there is a need for improving and empowering the material labor-position of models since many existing initiatives either lack the enforcing potential or simply end up facing the industry’s closed gate.
Initiatives for improvement
Let me first highlight an initiative that, in my opinion, will certainly not be capable of improving the poor status of models in the industry. In March 2012 the government of Israel decided to ban on the use of underweight models in commercial ads and campaigns. The outcome of this law is that models have to actually prove a healthy medical condition by not superseding the indicated minimum body mass index of 18.5. The ones who fail the test are banned from doing their work.
First of all, measuring health in standard of BMI is problematic, but the practical implementation of the law in the professional field is even more problematic since the job of a model is to simply fit the sizes of clothes the industry wants them to fit. Why burden the models with all the trouble? They are an easy target. Why not begin with the deployment of structural regulations of the fashion industry, such as banning the use of extreme small sample-sizes? I wonder if the Israeli initiative is really focused on improving working conditions. In my opinion the government reacts to the cry of the media articulating the public’s discomfort with the display of skinny bodies rather than acting against the structural unequal situation of the industry’s labor-force.
Situated Labor Initiatives
An initiative that, in contrast to Israel’s law, is loaded with lots of enforcing potential is ‘The Model Alliance’; a non-profit organization that strives for improving the working conditions of models launched in February this year in the USA by former model Sara Ziff. The following quote from an interview with Ziff supports my former arguments: “For a long time, there's been this very tired conversation about what images of skinny models are doing to the public, to the consumer. If you really want to do something about it you have to look at it from a labor standpoint and from a public health standpoint, and start with the worker - the model herself”.
In the Huffington Post (March 26, 2012) the organization announced to have passed a protective law for models and other freelancers working in New York, allowing them to file complaints against the clients that refuse to pay. I am confident that such initiatives, emerging from the standpoint of models to improve and empower their own position in the industry, are in the long run capable of producing real change.
Eline van Uden is a RMA student Gender & Ethnicity at University of Utrecht. Associated with the “Dutch Research Center Genderstudies” (NOG).