An Image is Worth a Thousand Words…or a Thousand Aches?

by Rachel Blais for RQASF. Click here for the blog post in French.

I was in New York during last fashion week from September 6th to 13th. From what I’ve seen, the diversity of ages and body shapes of models was very similar to what we’ve seen in the previous seasons, and by that I mean a quasi-total absence diversity. In the few cases designers made the choice to promote even the slightest diversity, it was mentioned so much that it could make anyone wonder if it is a good marketing scheme to make some people believe the industry has changed, when in reality it is far from being the case.

I was in New York to attend some events, but especially for the theatrical opening of Girl Model at the IFC Center. The date had been planned to concord with the start of New York Fashion Week, which is also the beginning of the world fashion weeks capitals circuit: New York, London (or Madrid), Milan and Paris.

These intense fashion weeks are difficult to go through physically and emotionally for anyone involve in a way or another in the fashion industry. So imagine for teenagers… The work of models on a daily basis at those times of the year consists of doing up to twenty castings a day: which involve getting to different addresses criss-crossing the city and always arriving promptly. Following are the “call backs” (2nd castings sometimes needed), then the fittings and the shows for the ones who get work. Hundreds of fashion shows happen during the bi-annual month-long fashion circuit, but very few girls trying end up being chosen: the great majority of them will leave with debts or at least without a penny, after having done days or weeks of castings without ever getting any money.

In fact, it is those models who have to pay or pay back advances of all living and travel expenses and often abusive charges for business cards, on-line videos, website updating, print copies, etc. The lucky ones that are getting more work for their part see their sleep hours diminish to nil; accumulating easily up to 18 hours of work a day.

And even for the minority of adolescents who manage to make a good living during these weeks, how can we not question the fact they are working instead of being at school, even finishing school?

Another side of these fashion weeks, more worrying than the ones mentioned above: how come are we sending children, alone, to castings happening at strangers places, strangers that often agents have never even met. And what about the castings happening with fashion celebrities who are renowned within the industry to have had inappropriate behaviours or even criminal ones? Some of them are still being glorified by too many in the industry.

The first major change that needs to happen, the one that would make all changes needed be easier thereafter, is to stop recruiting young girls under 18 years old to represent adults in advertisements and all media. For some people, 16 years old is a totally reasonable age to have a career as adults in this business. In fact, Vogue magazine has congratulated itself, last May, on its decision to only hire girls over 16 for their fashion shoots. The downside to this: about three-quarters of their publications are advertisements, and Vogue doesn’t require their clients to join into their new practice. So, no real changes on the horizon… Young girls continue to be exploited…

The Girl Model theatrical opening got a lot of attention from the media around the extreme youth of models. The New York Times even produced a short, Scouted, by the directors of Girl Model and published a debate on models’ age. Carré Otis (model and author) and Sara Ziff (model and director of The Model Alliance, a non-profit protecting models’ rights) are supporting the main cause I’m defending: models shouldn’t work as adults in the fashion and advertisement businesses before they are 18 years old (legal adults). I am profoundly convinced that this is very important, not only because adolescents shouldn’t represent women but also because too many of these young people are in a position where they can’t require basic human rights to be respected while working as a model.

Considering the risks involved in speaking out from within the industry (contracts and visas cancelled, work becoming rarer…), how can we expect models to stand up for the cause? I write this in full knowledge of the situation, but without any regrets. For me, saying the truth on the important subject of the physical and psychological health of children, in this case of young models, is more important than an international modelling career. The fight is also one for consumers, women and men, for them to have models that resemble them more, and for the images that are over saturating our youth’s visual environment to be more appropriate and positive.

An image is worth a thousand words. But certainly not worth a thousand aches…

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