Model Behavior: California Seeks To Correct Unhealthy Fashion Industry Labor Standards

By Connie Kwong Models walk the runway at the Yves Saint Laurent fashion show held at the Hollywood Palladium theater in Los Angeles in February 2016. (Harper's Bazaar)

Fashion models are a rare presence at hearings for new legislation, but such was the case last Wednesday when state Assembly Bill 2539 was discussed before the California Assembly Labor and Employment Committee. AB 2539, introduced by Assemblyman Marc Levine in February, seeks to protect models by requiring that all modeling agencies be licensed with the state Labor Commission and regulated under the Talent Agency Act, and that models be specified as employees, not contract workers. If passed, it would also require that the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board develop modeling industry safety and health standards to go into effect by Sept. 1, 2018, such as requiring that doctors or health specialists provide health clearances for models wishing to work in California. The bill passed the Committee by a 5-1-1 vote and is now headed to the assembly’s Appropriations Committee for further discussion.

At the hearing, Sara Ziff, former model and founder of the Model Alliance advocacy group, spoke out about the harmful conditions that countless models face. Ziff, who was discovered by a fashion photographer at the tender age of 14, recalled being forced to strip for a photo shoot. She formed the Model Alliance in order to reform an industry where sexual harassment and abuse are rampantly systemic, child labor law protections are frequently violated, and workers are afraid to unionize for fear of being blacklisted by modeling agencies and fashion designers. While these gross injustices may seem shocking, Ziff somberly pointed out, “For many young models working today, bowing to these pressures can feel less like a choice than a prerequisite for employment.”

To this day, our mainstream perceptions of models and the fashion industry remain shaped by antiquated, controversial, but nevertheless influential statements made by two supermodels. In a 1990 interview with Vogue, Canadian supermodel Linda Evangelista bragged, “We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” This statement, often hailed as the 20th century’s version of “Let them eat cake,” popularized the idea that models live pampered and glamorous lifestyles, and do no work besides prancing and posing in beautiful clothes and makeup. But the reality is that the majority of models are not rich and famous supermodels, and are struggling to make ends meet in an exhausting, grueling and cutthroat industry. Work is work, and workers deserve basic protections and rights.

In her book, Pricing Beauty, model-turned-sociologist Ashley Mears finds that models are often indebted to their modeling agencies. The fashion industry’s global reach is evidenced by the fact that many foreign models exist in a de facto indentured servitude, often owing as much as $10,000 to their agencies for visas, flights, and test shoots, all before they make it to their first casting call. Because they’re classified as independent contractors, they often have no legal protection, making it hard to seek justice in cases of sexual harassment or unsafe labor conditions. And in the modeling world, there’s an inverse relationship between a job’s prestige and the model’s compensation. Instead of stable and fair compensation, models are often instead paid in free clothes or lunch, or a scant $150 for a day-long photo shoot with Vogue, for example. For her research, Mears revisited her modeling days by walking runways, doing photo shoots, modeling in showrooms, and going on countless unpaid casting calls. In her first year of research, she earned a meager $11,000, a painfully insignificant amount relative to Evangelista’s “$10,000 a day.”

Moreover, in a 2009 interview with fashion magazine Women’s Wear Daily, British supermodel Kate Moss shocked the world when she quipped provocatively, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Moss, well known for popularizing the “size zero” and “heroin chic” looks in the 1990s with her waifish frame, has been repeatedly criticized for promoting unhealthy body image ideals. With an estimated net worth of $1.2 trillion, the global fashion industry holds an unquestionable captive audience of young girls and women, making it a key influence on their views of body and beauty.

It’s no secret that tall, thin models are the norm in the fashion industry, giving little room for diversity in body types represented. The prevalence of extreme dieting, unhealthy weight loss, and eating disorders among young women demonstrates that body and beauty are often wrongly conflated as one and the same. A study published in the journal Eating Disorders finds a strong relationship between the media’s publicity of underweight models and young women’s increased likelihood for developing eating disorders.

These harmful body image norms aren’t only limited to the fashion industry’s audience, but also affect industry insiders too.  Most recently, American model and Victoria’s Secret Angel Erin Heatherton made news when she quit the lingerie retailer after being told repeatedly to lose weight. A survey by the Model Alliance found that 31.2 percent of models have suffered from eating disorders. At the same time, AB 2539 reflects how California is joining a global movement to address the fashion industry’s unhealthy norms. For instance, in 2010, French fashion model Isabella Caro died at age 28 from anorexia-based complications. Ironically, she had just posed for a photographic campaign to raise awareness about the illness. This prompted France to ban excessive thinness in models in 2015. In 2013, Israel enacted a similar ban, and Italy and Spain have instituted voluntary labor protection codes for models.

Given that a significant share of the global fashion industry is concentrated in Los Angeles’s garment industry and relies heavily on the city’s base of trendy - and often, thin - actresses and models for marketing and promotion, California plays an important role in shaping the future of the industry. AB 2539 is a vital first step to ensuring that models can pursue their careers under safe and healthy conditions. While a simple Google search of the bill produces results with misleading headlines claiming that the bill is a “ban on thin bodies,” the law’s text states otherwise. There is no mandatory body mass index nor weight requirement in its text, because legislators likely recognize that BMI is an inaccurate indicator of healthy weight and that banning excessively thin models from working will do little to change overall industry labor standards. The fact of the matter is that AB 2539 does not seek to regulate bodies, but protect them. And as it moves forward in the legislative process, legislators ought to realize that the hottest trend is developing a culture of body positivity and ethics in an industry with significant spillover effects on the public.