The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

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Date: Wed, 27 Mar 2013 13:27:51
From: Portside moderator <moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG>
Subject: Fashion Models Shatter Stereotypes, Demand Labor Rights




Jenny Brown
March 8, 2013
Labor Notes
Strip off the gloss and you have a workforce of young women classified as
independent contractors, not covered by minimum wage laws, who are often
paid in clothes rather than cash, and are in debt to their modeling
Fashion models are demanding workplace rights and just compensation. Most
are paid badly, if at all. Only a tiny percent make a comfortable living,
while the majority are in debt to their agencies, paid in clothes rather
than cash, or endure wage theft., Jason Hargrove,

When you think of models on runways and in magazines, do you think of an
abused labor force?

Strip off the gloss, says model Sara Ziff, and you have a workforce of young
women classified as independent contractors, not covered by minimum wage
laws, who are often paid in clothes rather than cash, and are in debt to
their modeling agencies. Many in the U.S. are undocumented.

Youth and powerlessness are sought by modeling agencies, who recruit models
as young as 12 and 13. ?The industry relies on a labor force of children,? said
Ziff, who started working as a model at 14.

Ziff and other models formed the Model Alliance last year to establish fair
labor standards in the fashion industry. The effort has implications for
women beyond the industry because mainstream fashion sets the tone for how
women are expected to look.

The extreme youth, whiteness, and thinness promoted by fashion advertising
reflects a workforce that is picked for its powerlessness. Even racial
discrimination can?t be challenged, because, as in Hollywood, bias is excused
as art.

The models have paired up with two unions that represent live performers,
Actors Equity and the American Guild of Musical Artists, and they?ve been
putting pressure on magazines, agencies, and fashion shows, with some

Indignities abound. Model Anja Rubik noted that, when she started, models at
fashion shows had privacy when they were changing, but at a 2010 New York
Fashion Week there was no privacy. ?When we were backstage everyone [including
photographers] could see us naked.?

The Model Alliance fought back and this year models changed in privacy,
stopping the invasive photography that had been driving them up the wall.

They?ve also put pressure on Vogue, wresting an agreement in May from all 19
international editions of the magazine. The company promised not to hire
models under 16, or models who appear to have an eating disorder.


Ziff spent five years filming her co-workers backstage at fashion events,
recording what they want to see change about their working conditions. In
2010 she released the resulting film, ?Picture Me.?

Health and safety were primary concerns. Sexual harassment and assault are
widespread but underreported because models fear retaliation. One model who
recalled a sexual assault at 16 later asked that the account be stricken
from the film because she feared losing work. Others spoke out about sexual
harassment on camera, braving retaliation.

Models compromise their health to keep their jobs. Model Amy Lemons said
that her agent told her to eat only one rice cake a day?and if she still didn?t
lose weight, eat half a rice cake.

?They?re telling me to be anorexic, flat out,? she said. She was 17 at the time.
Some contracts stipulate that more than a 1 centimeter gain in hip size is
grounds for firing, said Ziff.

One model interviewed by Ziff said she became anorexic after she was told by
a photographer that she needed to lose weight. She said her immune system
was compromised and her skin became grey. Anorexia is a serious disease that
can be fatal.

Lemons said she saw young women eat cotton balls soaked in lemon juice to
reduce hunger pangs. They knew it was unhealthy, Lemons said, but they
needed the money, making the calculation: ?Imight get really sick for a short
time from the cotton ball but I?m going to be able to pay for my family to eat.?
Some were immigrants from Eastern Europe.


In the 1930s, actors unions developed standards to protect child performers,
enforcing contracts and eventually winning laws in California and New York
guaranteeing tutors to actors who miss school for work, and creating trust
accounts so that adults don?t pilfer their pay before they reach adulthood.

Models have none of these protections. ?It?s still like the Wild West,? said
Lemons, who started working at 12 and was on the cover of Italian Vogue at

Not coincidentally, many who work in the New York fashion industry are
undocumented and just learning English, as well as being minors. It all adds
up to more power, and a cheaper workforce, for the agencies, labels, and
magazines that employ them.

As more models saw the film, it became an organizing tool, and they
contacted the filmmaker for advice and help.

Ziff said she met models who were in debt to their agencies, some for as
much as $100,000. Agencies claim they are spending money to promote the
models, but they don?t allow models to see the accounts. Financial
transparency is a Model Alliance demand.

Pay has dropped. A few years ago runway shows paid between $1,000 and
$5,000, said model activists, but now many agencies now don?t even tell the
workers what they?re being paid, and many are paid in clothing rather than

?You can?t pay your rent with a tank top,? said Ziff.


The pressure on these workers to look prepubescent and emaciated has an
impact beyond the models themselves, setting impossible beauty standards for
all women, said African-American fashion writer Vanessa Williams. ?If you?re
Black and tubby all you want to be is white and thin?if you?re a guy, all you
want are thin white girls.?

Williams? sentiments echoed the feminists who first picketed the Miss America
Pageant in 1968, denouncing artificial beauty requirements and throwing
bras, girdles, curlers, and fashion magazines into a ?Freedom Trash Can.?
(Counter to legend, no bras were burned, but only because fires were

?Every day in a woman?s life is a walking Miss America Pageant,? said Rosalyn
Baxandall on a TV talk show after she and hundreds of other women picketed
the contest in Atlantic City. A secret delegation unfurled a banner inside
the hall announcing ?Women?s Liberation,? the first time the phrase hit the
mainstream press.

Following feminist organizing in the late 1960s, clothing and beauty
standards for women loosened for a while. Flat shoes and natural hairstyles
became fashionable, while girdles and heavy makeup went ?out.? Women students
won the right to wear pants to class, and women lawyers the right to wear
pants in court. Black liberation established the beauty of natural
hairstyles for black women.

We?ve lost ground, say feminists, as high heels have made a comeback.
Racially, the runway is nearly as segregated as ever. Ziff recalled casting
call notes that read, ?no ethnic girls,? and she noted that in other industries
that would be grounds for a racial discrimination lawsuit.

Alongside whiteness, there?s youth and thinness. Now 30, Ziff asks 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

It?s hard to ignore the fact that fashion employers? economic interest in a
compliant, young, powerless workforce?a workforce that rarely even eats?happens
to match their taste in what is fashionable.

?If women started modeling at 25 the whole industry would be different and
nobody would boss models around!? wrote a commenter on the Model Alliance

Ziff predicted that if models had more power, they themselves would change
the kind of images we see?for starters they?d be older, healthier, and more
racially diverse. And that would decrease the intense appearance pressure on
all women. On International Women?s Day, that would be a reason to celebrate.




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