An open letter to the modelling industry

I know I look different, this was 2014, and I was 16.

The recent decision by the Kering fashion company (host to some of the industry’s biggest fashion houses) to stop hiring models under the age of 18 made global headlines. It is a step in the right direction in order to minimise the mistreatment of models, and I can definitely see how this will hopefully reduce the excessive sexualisation of young men and women, and potentially prevent young models from being overworked. However, as someone who had a negative involvement in the modelling industry, I simply cannot believe that enough is being done to ensure that models and talent are treated with the respect that they deserve; it is something that I ponder over regularly, and this piece has been a long time coming, if anything just to allow me to voice my own complaints with respect to modelling.

I was 15 when I was scouted by my modelling agency, which was both exciting and terrifying as I had little confidence and even less experience. At 5’11” I towered above my schoolmates, but my height and ‘lanky’ frame was attractive to my agents, who taught me how to pose, walk in heels and dress for castings. Though there were plenty of compliments initially, a lot of feedback was based on my body and looks, which became somewhat damaging. I was told that my shoulders were too wide and, thus, I should give up swimming, that my skin was erratic and I should try antibiotic acne treatment. My boobs were too big for the desired model frame, and I was told to wear sports bras and eventually given a binder to hide my breasts when I went to meet clients – all at a time when puberty was causing my body to change and everything was very, very confusing. Not only was I developing a more ‘womanly’ figure, but I was being told by my agency that this was bad…? At 16, I was asked by strangers at unpaid shoots to take my clothes off, including my underwear, for them to marvel at my body and comment on my height, my skin, my shape, my breasts. I was told I should lose some weight, and tone up – so I started exercising more (despite being a reasonably sporty person already) and obsessing over eating healthily. My agency lied about my measurements, so that when I arrived at jobs, I was told I was bigger than they had expected. When I lost weight, or inches off my waist/hips/bust, I was complimented and told I looked amazing, so I lost more, and was told I looked better. Nobody worried about my physical – or mental – health, provided my physical appearance maintained the standards of the industry.

One poignant memory of my first fashion week, was coming home from a full day of castings and crying in my room. I cried because I hadn’t booked any jobs yet, and I was ashamed and upset that I simply wasn’t good enough for the shows. I cried because I had convinced even myself that I wasn’t good enough to be a model, because I was never the skinniest, or the prettiest, or the most confident. And, more than anything, I cried from exhaustion, having walked around London all day and frequently changed into heels to ‘perform’ my catwalk for the casting directors. Vlada Dzyuba was only 14 when she collapsed backstage at a show and later died in hospital, which led to investigations into the pressures of working as a model and the effects it can have on the body. So Kering’s move is important, as it will hopefully mean that young models, who should still be in school, will be protected from the gruelling hours and intensive pressures of this career. It is also important to prevent the over sexualisation of such young models, women in particular. Yet this only stands for models under the age of 18. In 2016, casting director James Scully blew the whistle on what he called “cruel and sadistic” treatment of models, a move that catalysed activism from groups such as the Model Alliance and the #MeToo campaign, which revealed sexual allegations against multitudes of industry ‘professionals’. Whilst I am lucky enough that I never experienced sexual harassment to the extent of some models, there were definitely times where I was made to feel uncomfortable and, being so young, never quite had the confidence to speak up. My body was reduced to an aesthetic and sexual object, something with which I am sure many models can relate.

As of 2017, Kering also banned the use of ‘super skinny’ models – ruling this by only using models over a French size 32 (UK size 6/US size 0), a promise they haven’t particularly stuck to. Prior to this, in 2015, the French government passed a law stating that any model partaking in fashion week must provide a doctor’s note before taking to the catwalk; with a specific focus on BMI, these were all pitted as attempts to fight the glamorisation of eating disorders within the industry. I experienced this legislation first hand, when I spent some time in Paris for work in 2017, where, upon arrival, I was prodded and questioned by a French doctor, who deemed me healthy to work. Admittedly, by this point I had taken some steps towards overcoming the concoction of anorexia and bulimia that had plagued me for a few years, but by no means was I recovered, nor healthy. Nonetheless, my BMI was not the lowest, and I definitely wasn’t the skinniest, so why would they worry? This shows such a fundamental lack of understanding of eating disorders, which do not discriminate based on size, weight, or shape – disordered eating stems from psychological issues, so it is hard to understand how BMI would highlight this. Equally, BMI varies so greatly due to a mix of genetics and lifestyle, so it is just as viable that someone with a healthy, balanced attitude toward food might have a BMI of lower than 18.5 meaning that they are technically underweight whilst someone who suffers from bulimia may fall within a healthy, or overweight category. A journal entry from 2017/18 reminds me of a time when I was told by a VERY famous brand that I could only walk their show if I lost at least a couple of kilograms. The show was in a week. Needless to say, I promptly declined the offer and began to consider how my involvement in the industry might be triggering for someone with a history of eating disorders and marvel at the ludicrous idea that a complete stranger might believe this an appropriate thing to say to a young woman. I no longer weight myself, but I am pretty sure that my weight fluctuates regularly, without having a significant effect on my appearance.

Even in 2019, modelling is one of very few careers in which someone can still be openly discriminated for their size, shape, or looks. My point is that ultimately the modelling industry needs to catch up with the rest of the world, in that it is not ok to set such extreme beauty standards for models or their audience. The most disgusting thing for me, as someone who likes to at least try to promote body positivity amongst myself and my peers, is that some modelling agencies will have a distince section on their website for curve models, separate from the women’s category, suggesting that ‘plus size’ female models are not the same as other women. What is it that gives the industry the right to not only categorise its models by body shape and size, but to dehumanise models not deemed to have the typically ‘desirable’ body type? Essentially, they should use a wider range of models as a better representative of the population, the target market for the clothes that they design. It should be noted, however, that body positivity is not just for ‘plus size’ models, and that petit models equally do not deserve to be judged or discriminated against due to their appearance: real women come in all shapes and sizes – please stop expecting models not to do the same.

Discernment by size is just the beginning, too. It is only recently that models of different ethnic backgrounds have begun to receive attention from big brands and labels, and even then, it appears that there will often be a token model from a less represented background included in a show, so that the designer/casting director can claim to be inclusive, without truly promoting diversity. This goes beyond race; it is only recently that transgender models such as Andrea Pejić have been able to make their mark in the industry – something preached as ‘revolutionary’ and ‘modern’. But in a society claiming to be accepting of people from all walks of life – whether that be based on gender, sexuality, race, disability or otherwise – why is there still so little representation of minority groups in fashion? Alas, I digress…

Reduced to mere measurements, my name isn’t even on this…

I quit modelling in 2017, as I felt I needed to cut all ties to the brief and uneventful career that had so viciously affected my self-esteem, hence I have not had any recent interaction with the fashion industry and cannot comment on the current state of affairs. Perhaps I am a cynic, yet from observing the models being used in recent fashion shows and campaigns, I can safely say that little progress has been made. I can only compliment the work of those trying to change the industry’s standards. I should probably also add that my experience of modelling was not entirely negative as it enabled me to meet some really interesting and wonderful people, both models and creatives; I do not blame the industry, nor my old agency, for my long-term battle with my mental health. However, I feel a strange sense of responsibility to publicise my anger in order that those involved within the industry might reconsider how they treat models, to whom they have a duty of care. More importantly, this serves as a major FUCK YOU to anyone who told me I wasn’t good enough – that I was too tall, my boobs too big, my waist not small enough, my catwalk not perfect – because I really don’t need your verification to know that I am good enough.

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