From the point of view of those outside the modelling industry, it all looks so glamorous and enviable, but for the models themselves, it’s more of a nightmare than a dream. Although these women are presented as the very ideal of how a woman should aspire to be, most of the time they’re forced to crash diet although they’re already thin, they’re asked to do a lot of unpaid work and if they refuse they get blacklisted for future opportunities and they have to deal with workplace sexual harassment and not so subtle discrimination.
These industry secrets are just starting to get the attention they should because for decades, modelling was a silent profession where the girls were expected to be seen and not heard.
With the rise of social media, more and more models have the platform and the courage to give voice to their complaints regarding the abuse that plagues the glitzy world of fashion.
Not every model has an eating disorder, but concerns about how the fashion industry promotes extreme thinness and the impact that has on women are nothing new. A study published in 2017 by the International Journal of Eating Disorders confirmed the prevalence of these unhealthy behaviors in this sector. From the 85 models that were interviewed, 62% said that in the last year they were asked to lose weight or alter the shape of their body by casting agents, designers or their modelling agency.
Considering the young age at which most of them begin their career, they’re at high risk of developing body image issues like body dysmorphic disorder or eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. According to psychotherapist David Goodlad, symptoms of anorexia nervosa mostly occur between the ages of 14 and 26. This disorder is characterized by severe weight loss, extreme fear of becoming obese, distorted self-image and a persistent and life-threatening unwillingness to eat.
Polish model Zuzanna Buchwald (worked with brands like Prada and Versace) broke the silence during an interview saying that she developed both anorexia and bulimia because her agents obsessively monitored her weight and encouraged her to stop exercising so she could lose muscle mass as well. All in an effort to get her to reach the sought-after size 0. She explained that she had stopped having a menstrual cycle for over three years, developed problems with her teeth and skin and started to lose her hair. Although she remembers being admired for her size, she felt weak, unhealthy and unhappy.
With the constant pressures and reprimands regarding their weight, it comes as no surprise that many models resort to drugs to cope with stress and suppress their appetite. They can be expected to work as much as 12-14 hours and they try to maintain their energy level with the help of illegal or prescription stimulants.
What’s remarkable is that although drug abuse is extremely common in the fashion world, when a model does get caught on camera snorting cocaine, like it happened to Kate Moss, they lose their contracts and are blacklisted by the industry. They’re not really concerned with preventing health damaging addiction, just with protecting their image and sales.
This sort of hypocrisy also makes it less likely that models will go to a rehab center in order to recover because they’re constantly followed by fans and cameras that record their every move and they risk hurting their career if word gets out. They also fear the very real possibility that their attempt at getting help would go viral and result in public humiliation.
Let’s say they do manage to go to rehab and quit drugs. Normally, patients recovering from drug addiction are advised to stay away from environments that are highly triggering and that would mean they have to quit their job as well. Drugs are so easily accessible in the fashion world that it would be impossible to stay away from them.
Models seem wealthy because we see them wearing the most beautiful clothes money can buy both on and off the catwalk, but that’s because they often receive those clothes as payment instead of actual money.
Their agencies also engage in dubious practices like overcharging them for transportation and accommodation without informing them, which results in high levels of debt. Another example is misclassifying them as freelancers so they can avoid paying benefits like health insurance.
If models complain about this sort of abuse, they get punished by not receiving any more gigs.
It’s not like models work in a corporation with strict rules regarding sexual harassment. That, coupled with the fact that they start at such a young and vulnerable age, makes them easy targets for predators in the fashion industry. Coco Rosha reported that she was forced to strip nude in front of an audience at 15.
According to an online anonymous survey done by The Model Alliance pressuring models to have sex with someone they’re working with is quite common. These behaviors are often swept under the rug. Gerald Marie and Xavier Moreau, senior executives at Elite were caught on camera trying to give money to underage models in return for sex and making racist remarks. Many victims of sexual assault are not older than 15 years.
Discrimination based on skin color is also rampant in this sector. In the fall of 2013, the models that walked the runways during the New York Fashion Week were as follows:
Because of the limited earning potential, models of color are also less likely to be signed by an agency in the first place. Most of the time, casting agents reserve only one or two spots for “ethnic models”, mainly because they don’t want to be seen as racist by critics.
Not all models have experienced these problems and, for some, the fashion world really is glamorous. But, thanks to social media and more brave women speaking out, people are beginning to understand that modeling is in no way a utopic career choice and that, like any other field, it has shortcomings on which we need to raise awareness.