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Lights flashing, cameras clicking, all eyes on you. That is what most think the daily life of a fashion model is like. Since the modeling industry began in the late 1800s, the concept of beauty has been defined by the fashion models, who walk the runways and star on the cover of magazines. To many, the life of a fashion model is the life of the rich and famous and the beautiful. However, behind the flashing lights and the seemingly luxurious and elitist life, fashion models typically endure more than most would expect. In the United States, the fashion industry has remained fairly unregulated, allowing modeling agencies to dictate the lives of many of these fashion models, from the things they should be eating, to the way they look, to the exact pound they should weigh. The fashion industry – a behemoth of an industry with extensive influence in everyone’s daily life – has dictated what is considered mainstream beauty for hundreds of years, yet its longtime definition of what is considered fashionable and attractive has been restrictive, exclusive, and demeaning. With a heavy emphasis on Eurocentric beauty, from thin noses, to big eyes, to small hips, the fashion industry curtails the meaning of beauty to such a small minority of people, forcing fashion models to fit a specific mold that creates insecurity and criticism of women – and men – whose natural beauty do not fit within such strict guidelines, bringing into serious question the ethics and humanity behind such a large industry.
Heavy, judgmental stigma in the fashion industry exists in every single corner of the fashion world, that in order to be a successful model, you must be what society constitutes as beautiful. But that term, beautiful, embodies an array of expectations, rules, strict regulations, and dehumanizing treatment in the beauty industry. Becoming a fashion model is essentially like joining an elite social club. In order to stay in it, there are a plethora of rules that one must follow, and for models, there’s a variety of rules that forces them to hand over their image and body, giving up a semblance of control over their health and appearance. Due to a lack of regulation, the working conditions that models face are often subpar, and the overwhelmingly nitpicky, judgmental, and strict environment that they exist in creates unethical and unhealthy rules for them. There is a significant amount of pressure on models to be a certain height and weight in order to continue making money in the industry. Models are frequently locked into contracts based off of exact number of inches that their hips and waists are allowed to be (Chandler, 2016). In addition, models are frequently told by their agencies that they could be more successful if they lost more weight, or even that the agency would stop representing them if couldn’t lose a few pounds. According to a 2017 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 62.4% of models were told that they needed to change their body size or shape by someone in the modeling agency (see Appendix A for more data on various pressures). Some agencies have even offered pills/dietary supplements or suggested cosmetic surgery for their models in order to appear skinnier and more beautiful (in their opinion) (Rodgers, Ziff, Lowy, Yu, & Austin, 2017). And while models are in an occupation in which their body is an important tool for showing off clothes and accessories, the pressure to change one’s appearance to satisfy the fashion industry goes beyond a typical boss demanding better work or higher production levels. The encouragement from fashion executives for models to constantly adjust their weight and the severe criticism and pressure that comes from forcing a model to appear in a certain fashion is incredibly unhealthy. The heightened pressure from knowing that a career could be on the line or the next paycheck or modeling contract or the next meal creates a toxic mental ideology in models, forced to reduce their waist sizes in order to get paid and sustain themselves daily. The importance of hip and waist sizes often push models to use unhealthy weight loss behavior in order to see fast results and be the successful model that they grew up dreaming of.
Over the years from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, society has slowly pushed employers and managers to create safer and more tolerable working conditions for their employees. It started in factories, where floor managers were required to provide breaks for employees and working conditions that allowed workers to do their jobs without physically or emotionally harming themselves. This trend of protecting workers has grown so much that in modern times that, in the typical 9-to-5 job, employees often receive benefits like flex time, a fully stocked kitchen, the ability to take mental health absences, and more. However, this upwards trend seems to be lagging in the modeling industry. In addition to high amounts of pressure, in the United States, models are considered independent contractors and not full-time employees. Therefore, models do not receive numerous benefits like healthcare, vacation pay, and overtime pay. Models must deal with low job security as independent contractors, and conditions can be as bleak as employers not even providing food or breaks for models (Johnson, 2012). In other industries, this treatment would be considered unethical and illegal, as state laws have mandated breaks for every few hours, yet in the modeling industry, businesses frequently get away with this behavior because it is the norm of the industry. Without government regulation, these working conditions will continue to affect the health and wellbeing of models.
The unethical working environment in the modeling industry has caused significant detrimental effects to the average fashion model. The lack of job security combined with high pressures to constantly lose weight cause models to turn towards unhealthy weight control behaviors. While it is hopeful that 81.2% of models exercise and 70.5% of models diet, there are also a large amount of models who are losing weight in unhealthy ways. In seeking to attain that ideal, skinny body so desired by the fashion industry, 56.5% of models skip meals, 16.6% use stimulants, 8.2% make themselves throw up; all of which are considered unhealthy weight control behaviors (see Appendix B for more data on unhealthy weight control behaviors). These methods may help models keep their weight down efficiently, but they are also detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing (Rodgers et al., 2017). Regardless of the method used, losing weight, unless for medical reasons, is considered extremely unhealthy. A lot of weight loss methods cause long-term irreversible effects including emotional distress, muscle weakness, and an impaired immune system. Unhealthy weigh control behaviors over long periods of time frequently become eating disorders. 54.5% of models are found to have a body mass index (BMI) lower than 18 (Preti, Usai, Miotto, Petretto, & Masala, 2008). The body mass index is a measure of the weight-to-height ratio to indicate whether one may be obese or underweight. Having a BMI below 18.5 is typically considered underweight, yet more than half of models are below that standard. In addition, 5% are clinically diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, a potentially life-threatening eating disorder indicating that one is obsessed with his or her weight and has trouble maintaining an appropriate BMI (National Eating Disorders Association). The prevalence of underweight, unhealthy models is astonishing. The fact that agencies are still pushing these models to lose weight even though they are already unhealthy shows how unethical these modeling businesses are. Many abuse their models and ignore the health effects of the pressuring environment and the terrible working conditions. They focus more on the profit from the models than the models themselves, and at the same time, perpetuate a dangerous social idea that only the incredibly skinny are standard beauties in society. As an employer, modeling businesses should focus on the health of their own employees first. Only some form of regulation can change this unethical pervasive behavior that has taken over the modeling industry.
The issue of eating disorders in the modeling industry is not just prevalent amongst models, but also in society as well, nonconincidentally. Through the propaganda laid out in fashion spreads, beauty ads, billboards, and especially social media, society is surrounded by an industry that still prides itself on portraying beauty as something so limited. In modern times, young girls look to social media frequently for social validation, and they collectively represent hundreds of millions of followers on apps, such as Instagram, that look at the profiles of high-profile models. Gigi Hadid has, for example, 39 million followers on Instagram, and Kendall Jenner is one of the most followed models. Young girls look to the fashion models as role models and strive to be as “beautiful” as them because society portrays them as the standard of fashion and beauty, and often, a key aspect of these models is their skinniness. What young women don’t see from beautifully airbrushed and edited photos of seemingly skinny and perfect women is that these portraits of skinny women depict a nearly unattainable standard of beauty to strive towards, subconsciously leading them towards the same unhealthy behaviors that models use. According to Johnson (2012), “models today are found thinner than 98% of women [and]…the flood of all-but-unattainable images has led to a culture of self-loathing, which in turn has bred a pandemic of anorexia and bulimia” (p. 834). In 2014, a study was done to delineate the process that young girls go through to seek validation from social media (see Appendix C for the transactional diagram developed in the study). When young girls realize that they can almost never be as skinny and “beautiful” as they want to be, this causes many to suffer emotional problems, like depression and low self-esteem. Due to the desire to be validated on social media, yet not being able to reach their goals of looking like a typical Instagram model, many slowly turn towards eating disorders (Derenne & Beresin, 2006). The average age of diagnosed eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia has been consistently decreasing due to impact of media on society. The increasing prevalence of media in children’s everyday lives is associated with an increase in body dissatisfaction and a desire to be thin (Perloff, 2014). The root of this societal problem that thin waists and tiny hips define beauty stems from the pressure placed on models pressured to constantly look thinner.
The United States government has a responsibility to not only create safer working conditions for models, but also help solve the public health issue of an increase in eating disorders in society due to this increasingly strict definition of beauty largely supported by the modeling industry. There have been a variety of suggested policies that could be implemented that would play a fundamental role in changing this notion and the modeling industry. France is one of the few countries that have taken action to address this issue. In France, all models need a medical certificate to show that they are not underweight and need to get their BMI checked as well. If businesses are working with models without the certificate they are monetarily penalized and may serve time in jail as well. While this may not solve the entire issue, France has taken the step forward to raise awareness on this ignored problem. By creating penalties, France can better enforce these BMI and health standards that they wish to implement (Friedman, 2017). Marc Levine, a California lawmaker, also tried to push through a similar bill in 2016. He wanted the U.S. government to pass a bill to consider models as employees and mandate three physical exams a year (Chandler, 2016). However the bill was never passed. The French policy and California policy are only two of many possible policies that the U.S. government could consider creating to regulate the industry.
The study done in 2017 tested the perceived impact and feasibility of a few suggested policies with professional female fashion models. The policy that is thought to have the highest impact is one where models should be considered as employees rather than independent contractors to have higher job security and also healthcare benefits (see Appendix D for more information on other policies). With higher job security, models would not be as pressured to change their body size just to keep their jobs. Healthcare benefits would encourage models to seek help if they are using unhealthy weight control behaviors and it would also encourage models to ask for healthier ways to diet. Another suggested policy to create better working conditions is mandating food and a 30-minute break whenever models work longer than six hours (Rodgers et al., 2017). In the typical 9-5 job, these regulations already exist. While the number and length of mandatory breaks differ per state, employers are required to allow a lunch break and rest breaks every few hours (Wage and Hour Division, 2018). This could be easily implemented on a national basis by the U.S. government and would encourage better working conditions that also offer models the opportunity to eat rather than pressure them to lose weight. With these policies, the government would be making such a huge impact on not only the industry but also society as a whole. The government has the responsibility to protect the people of the country. With such a large public health issue on its hands, the government should take action to regulate unethical behavior in the modeling industry that influences far more than just the health of models.
Even though there is a significant amount of evidence pushing the government towards a more regulated industry, there are critics who believe that regulating the industry would negatively impact the businesses and also models. One of the most common arguments is that regulating the fashion industry would be an encroachment on the freedom of expression, in terms of how creative directors want their ad campaigns and runways to look and be represented by models. However, should the freedom of expression protect a policy that is hurting the health of millions of models and young girls? Just like the freedom of speech stops when someone falsely screams the word “fire” in a public place, the freedom of expression should not apply to unethical behaviors that are actively damaging health. Designers and models can continue to design the same outfits and continue their creativity, as long as they provide better working conditions for models and reduce the intense pressure of appearing a certain weight or looking in a particular fashion. These policies do not limit creativity or expression; they just ensure the safety of the models and change the detrimental impact that the industry is making on society. Another argument is that these policies may actually be more detrimental to models because doctor visits are expensive and tedious (Chandler, 2016). By requiring a medical certificate or a certain number of physical exams, models would have to spend more money to see a doctor. In addition, this policy hurts models who are healthy and will have to pay money to see a doctor when they do not necessarily need to. However, eating disorders are often easily ignored, and in an industry where eating disorders are so prevalent, many models may not be able to realize this themselves. Only doctors can accurately diagnose these disorders and provide the best treatment possible to keep individuals healthy. In addition, it can be extremely detrimental if eating disorders go untreated, as they can sometimes be life threatening. While the select few models may not necessarily need to go to the doctor, it is still important to remain in strong physical health, which can be confirmed by a doctor. By mandating these exams and certificates, the government can prevent so many medical cases from going untreated and help an industry that is currently essentially exploiting its workers. There have also been arguments that the fashion industry was made to be exclusive. To some, only the prettiest and skinniest should be allowed to represent the modeling businesses. However, fashion does not need to be exclusive in that way. By having models that match the typical U.S. women body size, consumers are more likely to see themselves in the outfits, potentially increasing sales. The modeling business is difficult to get into regardless and does require talent as well, ensuring the health of their models does not make the industry any less exclusive. It would be just as difficult to become a model and stay successful. The last argument is that regulation will be ineffective and there should instead be more education for the modeling industry. Many models do not realize that they are starving themselves. Since everyone around them is acting in similar ways, models may find that it is normal to be skipping meals or taking pills to drop weight. A health education certificate ensuring that all models have taken a short informational training course could be an important policy that the U.S. government can add as well. However, education should not replace regulation. Modeling businesses should be held accountable for how they are treating their models. In addition, many models do understand what they are doing and continue to do so in order to continue their success in the industry. Educating models does not necessarily stop models from practicing unhealthy weight control behaviors, especially if the amount of pressure to be a certain body size does not change. While there may be some strong arguments against the regulation of the modeling industry, they do not justify businesses that unfairly take advantage of models, and affect the society on such a large scale. The government needs to take action to regulate the industry to put a stop to this unethical behavior in order to help fight for the health of models.
The seemingly luxurious elitist modeling industry has gone largely unregulated by the U.S. government since its rise to popularity in the 1800s. However, a large part of the actions taken by modeling agencies including pressuring models to lose weight, considering models to be independent contractors, and low job security, has created an industry of girls who dangerously starve themselves to become successful. Not only are these working conditions unethical, but the impact of these increasingly skinnier women on society, especially young girls, through media has also caused an even larger problem of public health. The prevalence of eating disorders in the modeling industry and in society is growing at an alarming rate and the government should consider following the France’s footsteps in taking action to create policies that can better the health of many.
- Chandler, J. (2016, March 8). Should we regulate too-skinny models? Fashion industry, medical experts are split. The Orange County Register. Retrieved from https://www.ocregister.com/2016/03/08/should-we-regulate-too-skinny-models-fashion-industry-medical-experts-are-split/
- Derenne, J.L., & Beresin, E. (2006). Body Image, Media, and Eating Disorders. Academic Psychiatry, 30, 257-261. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1176%2Fappi.ap.30.3.257.pdf
- Friedman, V. (2017, May 8). A New Age in French – Modeling. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/fashion/france-laws-thin-models.html
- Johnson, K. (2012). Importing the Flawless Girl. Nevada Law Journal, 12, 831-867. Retrieved from http://scholars.law.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1522&context=nlj
- National Eating Disorders Association. (2018, February 28). Anorexia Nervosa. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/anorexia
- Perloff, R.M. (2014). Social Media Effects on Young Women’s Body Image Concerns: Theoretical Perspectives and an Agenda for Research. Sex Roles, 71, 363-377. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-014-0384-6
- Preti, A., Usai, A., Miotto, P., Petretto, D.R., & Masala C. (2008). Eating disorders among professional fashion models. Psychiatry Research, 159, 86-94. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2005.07.040
- Rodgers, R.F., Ziff, S., Lowy, A.S., Yu, K., & Austin, S.B. (2017). Results of a strategic science study to inform policies targeting extreme thinness standards in the fashion industry. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 50, 284-292. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.22682
- Wage and Hour Division. (2018, Janurary 1). Minimum Length of Meal Period Required under State Law for Adult Employees in Private Sector. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/whd/state/meal.htm
Prevalence of Different Types of Pressures to Change Appearance Perceived from Modeling Agencies in a Sample of Female Professional Fashion Models (N = 76)
Prevalence of Unhealthy Weight Control Behaviors in a Sample of Female Professional Fashion Models (N = 85)
Transactional Model of Social Media and Body Image Concerns
Perceived Impact and Feasibility of Seven Potential Policy Proposals in a Sample of Female Professional Fashion Models (N = 85)
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