A preamble: After finishing a stretch of full-time work, I’ve stepped back into the modelling industry to both financially sustain myself and just plain while away some hours in my week driving to castings of jobs I know full well I’ll never actually be selected for.
While I appreciate the rare privilege of being able to swing back into this line of work when my other pursuits stagnate (what brand of stupid juice was I slamming to choose journalism as a career path in 2017?), working in fashion again has reminded me of a painful sort of anger I started to nurse towards the industry the last time I was fully immersed in it.
I wanted to write this open letter because I tend to think a lot about ethics and I believe that, at the end of the day, integrity is really all we have. It’s remarkably easy for people to skate through life, credited for paying some intangible lip service to the idea of ethical behaviour without ever having to attend to it. This is true for all brands of social and societal crises (I’m currently reflecting on the idea that I talk in an endless panic about climate change and I’ve still totally failed to become vegan so far this year).
I wanted to write about this itch with modelling because I believe the larger proportion of the fashion industry have failed to self-reflect on the fact that every day they are either witnessing or participating in acts of aggression towards healthy bodies. And that is, when we get down to brass tacks, morally inexcusable.
Here it is.
In mid-2017 I moved to London on my first overseas modelling contract and, between flailing about in the city as a struggling freelance writer and a barely feasible model, I became close to an Australian model who I’d admired from afar for a while and who turned out to be an incredibly lovely friend to have around.
She’s a remarkably beautiful person with a naturally waifish frame and legs approximately the length of my entire body plus some. My friend told me this story one day about her agency back in Australia (which I won’t name because I have this cute quirk where I like not being sued), about how her agents had applauded her for losing a significant amount of weight before coming to London. When I say applauded, I mean literally clapped. Her agents had stood her on scales in the middle of the office and when they saw she’d lost weight, they communally clapped for her. This story made me lose my fucking mind.
My friend was a few years younger than me and I considered the sheer emotional fragility I experienced about my own body image at that time in my own life. The starvation and self-flagellation and manic crying and constantly, constantly, observing my own breadth from the side in every fucking mirror and it made me livid that a group of adults could incite that sort of self-hatred in a young woman. A group of adults, it should be noted, who had signed on to be responsible for this person as they navigated the early years of what is unquestionably a strange and scary career. I wondered what they thought of their own behaviour – if they ever even thought at all.
I wondered if they reflected for a moment that what they were participating in was an act of abject aggression towards a young female body and that by telling it to waste away a little more, they were really cheering on its self-destruction. I thought about the horror that I would experience if I had a child and knew that their self-worth was placed in the hands of a group of people so completely devoid of basic empathy. My friend had developed disordered eating habits, I noticed it in restaurants when she staunchly segregated her foods and refused oils and I wondered if her agents had any inkling of the suffering they’d caused.
I know that it’s nothing new to discuss the pressures on bodies in the fashion industry. I know that the discrepancy between ‘beautiful’ and ‘healthy’ has been baffling people for years and the body dysmorphia associated with this line of work has been discussed routinely in tides of media focus that are just now appearing to nudge fashion in the right direction. But I think that with this sort of systemic oppression of bodies in a global industry, there’s a spread of accountability that we aren’t really addressing.
I think the dialogue about the maltreatment of models’ bodies has been relegated to the catwalks, to the designers and media-facing identities of fashion, when in fact these hateful little acts actually permeate every corner of the industry. Agents, designers, models, photographers, producers, assistants, anybody with a voice or eyes to roll is accountable.
Because the behaviours that drive mental illness and starvation in fashion aren’t just the explicit stories that involve agents telling models to lose weight or designers booting girls out of shows for failing to adhere to insane size restrictions. And the narrative doesn’t end at single Yves Saint Laurent campaigns being banned for using dangerously underweight models. The implicit acceptance that starved bodies are desirable is goddamn everywhere. The picture of violence against bodies in the fashion industry isn’t a collage of singular aberrations, it’s a fucking Seurat of small acts of violence that make women hate themselves.
It’s there when models criticise one another’s bodies behind their backs, it’s there when makeup artists make off-handed “Don’t feed the models!” jokes at lunchtime, it’s there when photographers Photoshop thighs thinner, when agents use the completely euphemistic phrase “tone up” or – God help me – when somebody adopts the phrase “skinny minny!” with glee when they see a model trying on clothes. It’s there when an exercise company serving the fashion industry call themselves the Skinny Bitch Collective, when stylists make eyes at each other about a model’s belly, when designers provide pairs of size 23 jeans at castings, and emails are sent back and forth about whether a model is “willowy” enough for a campaign.
The image-makers themselves are also responsible. There is a high-profile, social media famous sort of photographer who fixedly takes photographs of emaciated (exclusively white but that is another story) bodies and is absolutely revered by Australian brands. I went onto this photographer’s page the other day and noticed they had posted a simple image of a woman’s back on a beach, with the majority of their vertebrae visible through tanned skin as they leant forward. There was nothing remarkable about the photo bar the fact the model was excruciatingly slim but I assume that to the photographer that was the salient point: an underweight body was something to capture, marvel at, and distribute to thousands of impressionable minds scrolling through the internet. I wonder if they thought for even a moment about the consequences of their actions before posting it – or maybe as they were taking it.
As a person who also happens to have occupied spaces in the publication world of fashion, I’ve also overheard the hideous comments that fashion editors, stylists, and photographers make about bodies behind people’s backs. I once overheard a fashion editor complaining that a woman (a model I happened to know) was too “pillowy” because her body creased at its side when she propped herself up to look at the camera. Because she had a physical line where her muscle, bones and tissue were bending.
Everybody who makes comments like this, who sneers and criticises and cheerfully perpetuates these messages is complicit in a grotesque system that causes people pain.
And I want to make this really clear – the logical culmination of these events isn’t always an eating disorder and that is not the only time that conscious, grown-ass adults should sit up and give a shit. A culture that consistently lauds small, frail bodies manifests so many different forms of quiet unhappiness that should be taken seriously (and I can’t believe I have to say this) even in the absence of chronic mental illness.
Discomfort, frustration, or outright hatred of the body you occupy bleeds into every aspect of a life and if you work in the fashion industry and you’re comfortable with the notion that what you do or say contributes to this sort of deep-seated distress then you are morally bankrupt and don’t deserve to be paid for whatever job you happen to do.
My intention isn’t to castigate everybody in the fashion industry for wrongdoing, or to out them as ‘bad’ people by any means. The things I’m discussing are things that I have, at one point or another, participated in as well – whether that’s by discussing my own means of emaciating my body or plucking critically at the tabs of fat I can find on my size 6 body in front of other people.
What I’m saying is that everybody in fashion has a shared responsibility for the mental wellbeing of others and it should be undertaken seriously. Whether you are a model or a stylist or a photographer or an agent (actually, especially if you are an agent), you have the power to engage in or dispel behaviour that actively dismantles a person’s sense of self-worth in some of the most vulnerable years of their life and that should never, ever be forgotten.