Thursday, September 15, 2011

Think of the models UPDATED

I read the profile of model-turned-professor-who-studies-modeling Ashley Mears in Slate, and now her own op-ed in the Times. From the Slate piece, I was left amused at the notion that academia might be chosen over something by a young person looking for stability and a long career. "Like actors and musicians, models work in a winner-take-all market, in which a few people reap rewards disproportionate to their talent, and everyone else scrapes by." Like actors and musicians and academic sociologists, no? "So many models operate against their short-term interests, hoping that by investing time now they will hit pay dirt later in the form of fame and a high-paying luxury ad campaign." Why does this sound familiar? Swap "tenure at Yale, or worst case scenario not Yale but some utterly charming liberal arts college in a town with a Whole Foods within walking distance and with an ultra-serious student body fascinated by my research" with "Louis Vuitton" and you have some idea.

I'm not sure how the odds really compare in academia and modeling (and would imagine they'd differ according to how you'd measure), but the idea of an academic who hit that jackpot condemning modeling for its... jackpottishness seemed kind of hilarious. Isn't the main criticism of grad school these days that you throw away your youth, acquiring not-so-marketable skills? So I was relieved when Mears herself, in the op-ed, made the connection between models and adjuncts/precarious employment in academia.

Relieved, but still not quite convinced that this should be a major concern. I mean, major enough to be the focus of academic study, which is always going to be narrow (ahem), but Think of the Models is an issue that gets the play it does because it's a photogenic problem. And we're not even honest with ourselves about why we're concerned. We claim to be worried about the poor girls themselves, so thin, so young, when we're actually miffed, as fully-grown-in-all-senses women, that that's the ideal.

But even if it's not the social-justice issue of the century, it's still an issue, right? If we're talking 14-year-olds trafficked, essentially, from the former USSR, or even 19-year-olds in such dire poverty that any job that promises to be in the West and not (necessarily) prostitution has a certain appeal, then sure, we should be concerned. Same, of course, goes for any "modeling" that turns out to be sexual exploitation. But if the issue is middle-class American 17-year-old girls, 19-year-old women, opting for a kind of work based on their looks, I'm not quite sure where outrage should enter into it. Over the years, a number of friends and classmates of mine have been scouted, and to my knowledge only one made a go of it, and this was in middle school. Plenty of women manage to be tall, thin, attractive, and living in a city where the fashion industry is based, and to do something else with their lives.*

What occurs to me about this issue is that we come at it with outrage based not on what models are paid or how they're treated, but rather with a sense that the very enterprise goes against everything we want in terms of how women and girls should be treated in the workplace. Most of the time, of course, any remarks about a woman's looks (or, ick, comments about the looks of a high school girl from the boss at her after-school job) are a problem. You can, like, sue. But even in fields where it's kind of acknowledged looks matter (acting, ballet) we kind of wish they did not, that talent could be everything, and would prefer it if there were at the very least parts for women of all appearances.

With modeling, even if the field were to open up in a meaningful sense to women of all shapes, colors, ages - a massive if, because it won't - the means of choosing one 300-pound, 40-something Puerto Rican model over another would still be that one of the two is better-looking (or has looks more in line with what's being looked for in some case), just as it goes these days when choosing among seemingly identical young-and-lithe Estonians. (Fine, or that one woman/girl will show up on time and follow instructions, while the other will not.) However much one were to reform the industry, the job will always be about looks. It's not sex work, of course, but much like sex work, it's labor, yes, but a kind of labor that involves assessment based on that which could not be judged in any other work setting without this being lawsuit material. It strikes me that however improved the working conditions for models, something about the profession itself will strike us as off.

*Privilege addressed: yes, I'm talking about girls/women with above-average educational opportunities, particularly a friend who got this attention while already well into grad school, not high school juniors in the South Bronx. But these are the thin (virtually always) white girls/women walking around SoHo or whatever who get model-scouted.


Yet another discussion of the age of fashion models - think junior high - that poses the question in terms of Think of the Models (will they ever learn long division? will they?), ignoring that other problem with models being twelve, namely that grown women (and, heck, high school sophomores) find it depressing. Also: why is Tavi hosting an event for the stylish elderly? Is this because part of her thing is being a wrinkle-free "granny"? Isn't the point of "Advanced Style" that even those without youth in their favor can dress quirky without looking insane?


PG said...

Is the system for female modeling/acting different from that for male modeling/acting? The systems for female vs. male sex work (whether stripper or street-walker) seem pretty different just because of the sheer scale: there's astronomically more demand for female sex workers than for male ones.

In contrast, the demand for male models/actors doesn't seem much less than half that for female ones. After all, dudes buy stuff too and generally expect fellow dudes to be advertising it to them. Somehow a woman wolfing down the latest super-spicy 7 layer cheesy monstrosity from Taco Bell is not regarded as the best way to sell that item.

Phoebe said...


There's certainly more clothing being sold to women than to men, more variety in what women wear, so for high- and lower-fashion modeling (as opposed to acting in commercials, or acting generally), I'd think there'd be far more women. I also remember reading (and it's common sense) that female fashion models have the potential to make it big, whereas there aren't male supermodels in quite the same way. And... men in commercials/TV shows/movies are not necessarily hott, whereas the women almost have to be, so what it means to be male and onscreen has a different meaning entirely.

Britta said...

I mean, I guess the concern for Western middle class models is that they'd give up HS/College to pursue modeling and then not make it big. Though considering you probably know if you're going to make it or not by 23, it's not like you can't go to school then and still graduate at a reasonable age, so as long as you're not in great debt, it doesn't seem like a huge risk to take given the potential pay off. Interestingly, sports are similar, but people don't necessarily seem as worried about athletes (or maybe they are and I don't know about it?)

I also agree that there's something repellent about the idea that you could get fired from your job for gaining 5 lbs, but it's not like women don't know what being a model requires before becoming a model. And if they don't want people calling them fat/micromanaging what they eat, they could always not be a model. It's like when celebrities complain about the paparazzi. Yes, I'm sure it's really irritating, but clearly they've made a decision that the payoffs (fame, fortune) are worth the inconvenience of the job.

I do think though, that labor concerns for Eastern Europeans/other women from developing country should be taken more seriously. I have no doubt that many of these women live/work in slightly exploitative situations, and it seems like the potential of abuse (including sexual) for a non-English poor 15 year old in a foreign country with no family around is extremely high.

Phoebe said...


I'm absolutely more sympathetic to "think of the 15-year-old Estonians" than "think of the suburban American 19-year-olds who think they're hott enough to get paid for that." But is this something we-as-a-society are not aware of? I'd think it would fall into the broader category of immigrant exploitation, and that it's assumed this is a category of person who'd be exploited. I mean, maybe people just assume their work is glamorous, and if exploitative not at the level of the sex trade, and thus don't give it it's due? It's possible, but I feel as though this is a topic one reads about a good deal, not something Mears or anyone else in the last year or so suddenly discovered.

Even so, however, this is a case of a great deal of harm being done to (some) Estonian adolescents, and a smaller amount being done to a great many more Western women and girls. Or, put another way, it's crap for the handful of 15-year-olds (Estonian or otherwise) who do this work, but also for all women and girls, from young kids up to the elderly. The labor aspect of the issue of course is only about the workers, but the reason it's a problem that the beauty ideal is 15-year-old-Estonian is in part that a few girls diet to work as models, but also in part that virtually all women in the West if not beyond spend massive amounts of time hating/altering themselves, because they don't look anything like a waifish 10th-grade blonde. When we complain about models being too thin/young, we pretend that our concern is the models themselves, when our far greater concern is the impact having such thin/young models has on the girls/women who stand precisely no chance of representing Prada in the fall campaign.