I’ve been modelling for twelve years now, and I’m getting reflective in my old age (27). I’m starting to break through this concept of modelling as “something I’m so exceptionally fortunate to have done that I can’t possibly question it, as it might jinx a job that so many dream of doing.” But the older I get, the more I see the numerous cracks in the veneer of the industry that I’ve worked in for so long, and parts of it don’t sit so comfortably with me any more. For example, there’s something about how young girls are when they start that lately has begun to make feel a little queasy.
I started modelling just before my sixteenth birthday. I know for a fact I’m not the only model who went from being the thinnest, tallest, gawkiest girl at school to being celebrated by a huge, famous model agency as “Spectacular! Unique! Gorgeous! Look at that body! You’re so special!” (Alas, it turns out that this is declared excitedly to every new face. Hundreds of them). I started attending shoots during school holidays, wearing high heels I couldn’t walk in, lips painted red, styled and transformed by adults in transparent, high-fashion dresses. For my first fashion show I had to wear a leather skirt, red bra and carry a whip (all the while with heavy make-up covering my teenage acne.) The most common conversations amongst us ‘new faces’ centred around how scared we were that we’d have to wear tampons for the first time if we did a swimwear shoot, and how uncomfortable the thongs we now had to wear to shoots are. Luckily for me, my Mum had told me not to do anything topless – “It will come back and haunt you!” – but many had to learn that the hard way. I know ex-models who are now moving into law, or teaching, and have to work hard to hide pictures that felt, at the time, harmless and ‘fashion-y’, but now plague them and their credibility.
Modelling is an adult industry, but many models are children. And modelling is about sex. You give us the product and we sex it up: from make-up to granny clothes to computers – it’s our job. And I don’t think the product stops being about sex when it’s a girl under 16 modelling it. I think that idea is incredibly naive.
Why are girls under the age of 16 used? They’re beautiful and dewy-skinned, of course, and their pre-pubescent bodies are seen as the ultimate clothes-hanger figure for the titchy sample sizes on the catwalks. Once puberty sets in, those pesky breasts and hips and thighs will start making an unwelcome appearance, detracting attention from the clothes. But these girls don’t look like children on the catwalks or campaigns – they look like sexually desirable and desiring women, and that’s downright wrong. Prada’s 2011 campaign with Steven Meisel featured girls as young as 14 stroking their bare legs, sighing and pouting at the camera. If you need any further proof, look at the picture at the head of this article; it’s taken from French Vogue. It was controversial, yes, and many were outraged, but the fact is that it was printed and seen worldwide by millions – this girl is ten.
Modelling projects a sexuality onto the underage model that she often isn’t aware of, or capable of developing yet. It falsely accelerates us on a surface level, without checking to see whether, underneath, we’re ready to catch up (or even want to). The girls in the pictures in magazines that are meant to be the embodiment of sexual desirability are often, actually, underage, barely developed girls who don’t understand themselves or their bodies yet. It’s not just that sexuality is forced onto the girl via the clothes and make-up – she’s often forced into the actual work. In a recent interview for Vanity Fair, Kate Moss – a lady that, it’s fair to say, we all associate with unbridled, uninhibited nudity and debauchery – recently described crying in the toilets as a teenager because she didn’t want to do that now-famous shot by Corinne Day for The Face, in which she appears on a beach, topless and laughing. She felt “bullied” into doing it, she says, receiving threats that she would never be booked again if she didn’t perform. And of those infamous pics with Marky Mark for Calvin Klein? Though not underage at this point (just), Moss describes the discomfort she felt in painful detail: “I felt really bad about straddling this buff guy. I didn’t like it…But it was work, and I had to do it.”
Exactly. It’s “work.” And that’s why we feel pressured to do these naked or inappropriate shots. ‘Sexting’ is a worrying current phenomena in which boys may pressure young girls to text them explicit shots of their bodies. Riding on doing this is pressure and the desire of approval from their peers. Riding on models, however, is the pressure and desire of approval from myriad adults whose careers depend on us acquiescing to their demands. If we don’t do the shots they want, that’s the studio costs, the booker’s and agency’s reputation, the possibility of future work with the photographer, annoying the casting director, the stylist, the make up artist – a whole team who want you to be their vessel for the image they desperately need to create. Young girls in an adult world aren’t always able to articulate the discomfort they feel, especially if they’re foreign and away from home for the first time, which many young models are. There’s always another girl who’ll do it, and maybe that job will be her big break, while we who refuse risk getting dropped by an agency for being “fussy” or “unprofessional”.
So that’s why they so often acquiesce. But really, how is it even allowable that a young girl will feel pressured to model topless, nude, or in a way that is inappropriately adult? It’s fashion, dahling. Porn is different. Porn is for men. Fashion is arty and it’s mainly seen as the preserve of women and gay men. The model is simply another element of the shoot, an array of shadows, angularity, shades and shapes, to be adorned with glorious, untouchable fashion – nipples merely another accessory. This is, of course, bunkum – it’s an underage girl, published in a magazine, with her breasts on display. But fashion can be such a bubble, a world of escapism so disconnected form the real world, that adults often willingly lose touch of the images they are publishing.
Bookers (the agents) are also to blame. Now I have been lucky, on the whole, in my career. I have been looked after by a number of conscientious bookers who will always remember that it’s an impressionable teenage girl, or young woman, that they’re looking after. However, it is undeniable that there are a lot of heartless bookers out there – all models have encountered them – bullies, unfortunately often women, who treat their girls like second-class citizens, objects to be shaped to their own unachievable standards. It’s like the constant stream of new faces creates transience in the industry, which desensitises these people at the top and makes them forget that it’s humans they’re dealing in. That already-infamous trailer for the film ‘Girl Model’ saddened me, but didn’t shock me in the slightest. An agent – a young woman who selects certain models from Russia to take to Tokyo – detachedly observes a line-up of girls, many under 16, stood around a mirrored room in bikinis, holding their name cards up and walking up and down for the ‘talent scouts’. Honestly, I have seen more emotional involvement at a Crufts show. One of the girls selected, Nadya, 13, is then planted from the backstreets of Siberia into the bright lights of Tokyo, where she is told to lie about her age to clients. All in the name of money – the coldest of supply chain logistics.
It’s great to see The Model Alliance starting to make changes in the US, but the fashion industry desperately needs regulation worldwide, and models a union. Of course, some girls will survive unscathed, confident, owning numerous properties and set up for life. But I’ve seen so many girls messed around – unpaid, in debt, with lasting body image problems or issues related to what I’ve written about here, to stand as proof of that need for a union. They need to be made aware of their rights, and given informed voices with which to stand up for themselves, to say no, and to resist the crushing pressure to develop before their time.
I will always remember one particular model who was scouted at the age of 11. I saw her rise to the frenzied heights of Vogue covers and major campaigns, her bookers constantly begging her to miss school for shoots with the toppermost photographers, pictures of her in glamorous, slinky ball gowns adorning her boyish, undeveloped body put up around the office to celebrate their exciting, prized signing – only to be cruelly dropped by the agency over the phone as she was ‘past it’ at the age of 13.
In an industry like this, these girls are in desperate need of protection.