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FFB: Models, the modelling industry and the potential transformative power of it all

Suicide Rainbow

For today’s Feminist Fashion Blogger‘s post I thought I would talk about my fascination of models.

I love anything to do with models. I will watch any old reality TV show if it has models in it, I used to be majorly addicted to America’s/Britain’s/Germany’s Next Top Model so much! I dislike the manipulative editing that makes it seem as if everyone is constantly bitching or fighting or crying, but I will watch it anyway. What I like best is the bits when they are working, particularly the photoshoots.

Lately, I’ve been watching Channel 4’s The Model Agency. It’s more about the agents than the models, and the majority of it isn’t very interesting, watching office politics in a place run by a boss straight out of the management-techniques-to-avoid textbook. But I like watching it because of the glimpses into the model’s lives.

Unfortunately, the things I have found out about professional modelling are not so encouraging. Here’s just a few things I remember off the top of my head:

  • Clients demand models with 31 inch hips. Which is basically not physically possible. Which is what one of the model booker was explaining, when she made an interesting Freudian slip. After explaining that even her slimmest editorial girls with not an ounce of fat on them have 36 inch hips she said ‘You can’t shave bits off their bones. You wouldn’t even want to ask’. You heard it here first – bone shaving, the next big thing in cosmetic survery!
  • Models don’t get paid for Vogue covers. Editorial models basically work for not that much at all in the hope of getting their face recognised hope so that eventually they will pick up one of the big advertising contracts. But obviously there aren’t that many of them and 60% of them seem to be taken by Kate Moss anyway.
  • ‘Money girls’ eat, ‘showgirls’ don’t. One model explained that she mainly did catalogue work rather than high fashion editorial stuff, so that she ‘could eat’.
  • Boys need to eat, girls don’t. Male model is having a major freakout over his stomach not being rippled enough and explains that he’s not eaten any carbs in ages. Agent goes ‘That’s not healthy. You have to eat, you’re a boy.’
  • Fainting is not an excuse. Model flies over from New York on overnight flight arriving 5am, goes straight into working day with 5 fittings and 4 shows. Has nothing to eat all day. Faints. Model agency boss lady goes ‘I don’t understand why she’s so tired. This is only her first day out of timezone.’ Then the next day everyone makes a massive song and dance about the fact that they are getting her a sandwich. Because that is really pushing the boat out in terms of looking after the people you represent.


What all of this really brought home to me is how profoundly unglamorous the life of a professional model is. It’s basically all indeterminate amounts of waiting, short bursts of frenzied activity, minimal sleep and minimal food. Being alone or shoved in with random strangers. Sexual abuse being common. Agents only looking out for you if it threatens business. And so many of these girls (and boys) are aged 15-16, an age where most people already lack confidence anyway, without being isolated, starved and judged by powerful strangers.

There’s no denying that modelling pays well, and I’m sure there are models out there who are able to get exactly what they want, and are happy with everything about their job, but it seems that overall, the models are pretty low down the fashion industry food chain. It’s a shame that something like Erin O’Connor’s Model Sanctuary is even needed, but it is.

I wish modelling was just treated as a job with pros and cons like any other, but I just find it so weird that it’s this thing that so many young girls aspire to to the extent that they will completely screw their life chances in other areas such as education to pursue it. I can understand why it appears glitzy, since models are the public face of the fashion industry, the most visible jobs there are in it, and the ones that don’t need any formal qualifications, but surely everyone *knows* that it wouldn’t be much fun in practice, that the chances of success are slim (no pun intended!) and that even if you do ‘make it’, it’s only going to last a few years anyway?

On the flipside of that, I’ve written a bit in the past about using ‘real’, non-model models, (I won’t go into that here now) and researching those posts, I was struck by how much of the vitriol that bloggers were dishing out when writing about size zero and diversity in fashion was aimed at the models themselves, who surely are just as much victims of the fashion industry’s twisted standards of beauty as the ‘normal’ women who are made to feel inadequate by them.

It seems models are always talked about as heroes or villains, hardly ever as people.


So why then am I so interested in all things modelling? I’m not even into high fashion that much, and my fascination definitely goes beyond the clothes.

The best I can explain it is that I love is the transformation: in ANTM, on the film camera’s you see a studio or an outside location with millions of people wandering about, clothes strewn everywhere and the model looking nervous and awkward, the photographer spouting incomprehensible directions or bland encouragements. It’s all pretty mundane and not so nice. But then you see the photo coming out at the end, and it’s like magic. A whole aspirational world is created. I *know* that that model is the same awkward and nervous teenager I saw on film, but here she is looking a strong and beautiful woman.

Another thing that struck me about the Model Agency programme was that none of the editorial models actually looked conventionally pretty. They mainly looked fragile and knackered. Many look androgynous and angular. If I had passed any of them in the street, I would never have thought ‘oh, she/he’s stunning’. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed most of them. But when I look at the pictures of them, I get it. They do look stunning.

And somehow I take heart from the fact that gawky teenager with thin short hair can end up as internationally renowned symbol of beauty. Somehow despite the fashion industry and it’s obsession with unattainable thinness, I think it opens the doors for the possibility of a more diverse definition of beauty. It recognises that beauty is a matter of stand point, of expectations, a creation, not a natural status.

It seems I am an optimist at heart after all!

What do you think? Anyone share my obsession with models?

Hhhhhm, this post was meant to be a bit of a lighthearted take on the Model Agency, and then I went off and wrote an essay again. I just can’t do short and fluffy! Plus, this hasn’t turned out that directly feminist either! Tant pis!

Which does bring me to a question I have for everyone: Are there any vaguely fashion/beauty/style related questions you would want me or the FFB lot to cover from a feminist perspective? or even just any topics? Grateful for ANY ideas!

For a roundup of this week’s posts on a range of topics, visit the Feminist Fashion Bloggers blog, where you can also find out more about FFB. Anyone keen to get involved can also join the FFB google group.

Photos via here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sacramento 23 March 2011, 8:08 am

    Frantastic post Franca. I couldn´t agree more with you.

  • Penny Dreadful 23 March 2011, 8:32 am

    What an interesting post Franca, I loved reading this x

  • fuyume 23 March 2011, 9:07 am

    Great post Franca. Two of my sisters were on BNTM. One of them was on the 1st season and actually dropped out due to the way they were treated. She was consistently told to lose weight despite being a size 8. The industry is shocking with drug and sexual abuse fairly common. I personally think that only girls 18+ should enter into that kind of world as the pressure and environment could really damage younger models.

  • northwest is best 23 March 2011, 9:10 am

    Very interesting, Franca! I'm skinny, but my hips are definitely not 31 inches. Scary.

  • poet 23 March 2011, 9:24 am

    Absolutely interesting article with a fascinating glimpse into a disturbing world! I've never understood why people aspired to be models (nor ballet dancers, and I knew a few people with that dream), but I do understand the power of transformation you see when you glimpse behind the stage. Also, great pictures. Wow.

  • oranges_and_apples 23 March 2011, 9:35 am

    That does not surprise me at all! There just needs to be much more emphasis
    in the wellbeing of the girls and boys. The overwhelming feeling I got from
    that programme was that noone cares at all.

  • oranges_and_apples 23 March 2011, 9:38 am

    That's the thing, all the models are already really skinny to start off
    with, it they wouldn't be scouted. And then they take those normally skinny
    people and encourage them halved in size. It's really quite mad.

  • oranges_and_apples 23 March 2011, 9:44 am

    No, me neither, but apparently its so common. I read somewhere that 60% or
    something like that of school girls want to be models or celebrities. What
    sort of ambition is that? We really need to encourage kids to aim a bit

    I know, the pictures are great, aren't they? So glad I found them.

  • oranges_and_apples 23 March 2011, 9:45 am

    Thanks S!

  • oranges_and_apples 23 March 2011, 9:46 am

    Thank you, glad you liked it!

  • Helen 23 March 2011, 10:07 am

    This is a really interesting post. The model world is such a dark and murky one. I dislike the way that the model world likes pre-pubescent body shapes (31 inch hips?! CRAZY!). I think it is important to remember that the majority of them are just normal girls who will never reach the heights of fame such as Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell.

  • Bonita Vear 23 March 2011, 10:40 am

    ~ * ♥ * ~

    A very insightful post Franca ~ I totally disagree with the modeling industry, but like yourself, I am completely fascinated with the process of this fairy tale transformation. I think that element of make~believe makes it so easy to forget that model are people just like us. And because they are people, I believe they deserve far better treatment from the industry. If anyone else had to undergo that sort of judgement at a normal work place how much would we all be up in arms over it? Yet somehow it seems acceptable that the modelling industry is "just that way". It is sad if you ask me…

    bonita of Depict This!
    ~ * ♥ * ~

  • northwest is best 23 March 2011, 10:41 am

    Just remembered all the model scouts walking around the Clothes Show when I worked there last December. They didn't look like people with any qualifications or much experience, just good looking people walking around to reinforce the brand. And it was full of teenage girls hoping they would be the lucky one to get spotted. I overhead a couple of scouts discussing a lass they'd seen as if she was a piece of meat, and it made me feel sick.

  • Pullyoursocksup 23 March 2011, 11:08 am

    After reading this fabulous post, any tiny residual fascination with models has gone – pfffttt!! Just like that. The treatment of models grossly outweighs any romantic illusions anyone may have about their glamourous jobs. Why are models so vilified when it's the agents, bookers, buyers and in many cases, the designers who are responsible for their mistreatment? I'm appalled at the story of the young woman taken to task for her exhaustion and hunger. Gymnasts get treated similarly – seems when young bodies are on display, they need to be emaciated. xo

  • oranges_and_apples 23 March 2011, 11:13 am

    That's what really comes out of this programme. They're just sales people,
    they have no specialist knowledge at all (not sure how you would really).
    And the programme is about one of the leading agencies – I dread to think
    what goes on elsewhere!

  • cervixosaurus 23 March 2011, 11:13 am

    Yeah it's really true that many models are not conventionally 'pretty'. I guess that for runway shows specifically it is their bodies and not their faces that are the point. I love what you said about how inspiring it is that a gawky teenager can become a symbol of beauty. As you're said, the magical transformations and the beautifying aspects really are entrancing. I mean, fashion obviously has something going for it- otherwise who would care about it?!?!! 🙂

  • Citizen Rosebud 23 March 2011, 1:25 pm

    "It seems models are always talked about as heroes or villains, hardly ever as people." They are treated as objects, at best fancy thoroughbreds. While exemplifying beauty, we as a culture, fashion as an industry is doing more than shaving bones sometimes, we shave off the humanity. I had a few friends who went into modeling. One had a chance at the big time. She was told 2 things that she was going to have to lose if she was going to make it big (they were shuttling her off to London, then Paris) her boyfriend, and 30 pounds. She kept the boy, dropped 20 which put her at a skinny 100 pounds for her 6'1" frame. She was shuttled around, moved to LA, and basically realized that she didn't want to become an object for a living. It took her about 3 years to realize this, I think when her mother pointed out that she was more critical than ever of her body (those already thin hips would not get slimmer) when she was supposed to be an ideal of beauty, and verging on the chronically unhappy. Fast forward a decade and she is a lovely wife and mother working as a dental hygienist. And she always graciously smiles when people come up to her and say: You are really beautiful- you should be a model."

  • EBSnare 23 March 2011, 5:06 pm

    Being interested in fashion I think you get exposed to the 'cult' of modelling. I also think it helps to cultivate a healthy relationship towards that cult which is summed up for me in the following: catwalk models are chosen because they are (nearly literally) hangers for the designer's creations to go on. They're skin and bone and not much else. I wish that the fashion industry and celebrity culture that we inhabit didn't make such a big deal out of particular upcoming models, or particular waist sizes, but they seem to be obssessed by such a small (slightly mundane) part of the entire culture: living clotheshorses. Maybe that's why models are treated so horrifically – because no-one yet (like you say) treats them like human beings, but rather like objects.

  • The Waves 23 March 2011, 7:01 pm

    Thanks for this post, Franca! I always enjoy reading other people's perceptions on models and modelling, and I loved that your take on the subject was so level-headed and optimistic!

    Even though I haven't done any professional modeling in, sheesh, almost 8 years, there are still times when it just really, really pisses me off how so many people either see the modeling industry as something glamorous, or think that all models are stupid and superficial. I have written about my days in modeling elsewhere extensively, but I'll say the same thing once more: for me, personally, modeling took me from being an awkward, too-skinny, too-tall teenager to someone who could see and appreciate her own unique beauty. I saw some girls go through a similar transformation, but others broke down under pressure. It really comes down to the individual, to how early you start, to what kind of a support system you have at home. It is not a glamorous job, and yes, it is demanding, but it does pay well, and you get to travel and to meet awesome people. In my experience, models do eat, but back in my day, the allowed hip measurement was 35". How times have changed!

  • La Historiadora de Moda 23 March 2011, 8:25 pm

    I occasionally read fashion magazines (I only subscribe to Vogue – but I'm often several months behind in reading it), but I hardly ever think much about high fashion or modeling. I will occasionally pay attention to collections, but, since it is so far out of my economic reach, it isn't on my radar very much. I do feel concern about size issues (as well as lack of diversity in general) in the fashion industry, but even those concerns seem pretty removed to me. I guess this probably makes me something of an anomaly as a style blogger.

  • Jeanofalltrades 24 March 2011, 6:29 am

    Great post! I'm also fascinated with ANTM. It's interesting that the "after" pictures are stunning and artistic, but the "before" pictures show gangly young girls that I wouldn't notice on the street. What translates well for a photo shoot isn't what people call conventionally "pretty." I'm using a lot of quotation marks because this is all so subjective. It's an interesting industry. I"m concerned about what young women find necessary to make in in the biz – and by what is valued.

  • urbandon 24 March 2011, 10:41 am

    Great post. I actually feel a bit sorry for models- they have to starve themselves and never allowed to smile. Put on an ounce and they don't get jobs. What price fame? But look at the female violence/torture/abuse in fashion advertising (not so much in editorial) and you can see it's a very unhealthy industry.

  • Tracey 24 March 2011, 11:08 am

    Great post! I'm also fascinated by the 'transformative' nature of the modelling world … the photoshoots are the thing I liked the most about watching any of the 'top model' shows … but you're so right, it must be a crazy industry to work in … I know I couldn't do it!

  • MrsBossa 24 March 2011, 1:19 pm

    You're right about models being villified – they are definitely victims of the fashion industry's standards, and as you say, for many the job sounds like a hideous one. They are certainly not to 'blame', and the attitude to them seems to be symbolic of society's general tendency to objectify women (though of course men are affected too). On another note: I know you were considering mentioning Freja, and it reminded me how mad I was that Vogue kept glossing over the fact of her sexuality.

  • Laura Connell 24 March 2011, 4:36 pm

    Terrific post! Yes, models are PEOPLE. They deserve our compassion. I am amazed at the way people villainize models for being thin, etc. Have sympathy for them, many are suffering because of unrealistic demands put upon them by a sexist industry. These images are so poetic, too. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. Let's work together to make conditions better for models and thus for all women.

  • sartoriography 25 March 2011, 4:03 am

    I have about 50 things I could say in response to this, but just briefly:

    1: yes, the life of a model seems glamourous and I'm sure in some ways it is, but MAN, it's got to suck to be deathly afraid of any physical imperfection
    2: the issue of transformation you mentioned is what gets me. I'm fascinated by it. That's what I find intriguing- the idea that there's this person who looks one way one moment and then, with camera angles and lighting and make-up and clothes, she becomes an entirely different face and body. It's nuts.

    This post is awesome. If my head didnt' feel like it were going to fall off my body I'd write more!

  • dear_sweetlings 25 March 2011, 10:23 pm

    Absolutely fascinating post Franca, I really enjoyed the read.

    I wouldn't say I'm obsessed with models but I'm definitely interested in them and enjoy following them, finding my favourites, and sites like Fashion Gone Rogue as well as ANTM (guilty pleasure there!). I find the whole area of modelling interesting because on the one hand there are these gorgeous results and beautiful people, but on the other there is the undeniable atrocities that happen to them too. It's very confusing and can be challenging to think about, but in a way I suppose that's something I like about it because I like to challenge myself when I think about it.

  • Gloria 17 January 2012, 3:21 am

    Spent a good part of the day watching “The Devil Wears Prada” and right now, “Gia” is on its second spin tonight. I think I’ve always hated the way I looked, and since I also do photography, have always wanted to do “Vogue-style” portrait photography, but I have few takers here in my hometown. If I can’t be beautiful, I’d like to take really good photos of beautiful people. I don’t know why I’m fascinated by this world, but I am. It doesn’t help that my niece is a model and is LA right now and has been on the Today show and also an episode of “What Not To Wear.” What REALLY sucks is that she won’t talk to me (long story) so even though I have a “connection” to this world, I really don’t because I’m fat loser Aunt Gloria. Oh well.

  • Me 19 December 2012, 2:16 pm

    I’m a 21 years old woman with 31 inch hips that I hate. I was trying to find some comfort through a Google search in hope of finding out it is a common thing but here I’m told that it is not physically possible and that i have a ‘scary’ pre-pubescent body shape (which I was already aware of, but it’s no help for my self-esteem).

    Nothing new under the sun though. I guess my average face doesn’t make up with my stupid body.

  • natalia 13 January 2013, 12:41 am

    Actually, I do know a girl who probably does only have 30-32″ hips because she can’t even fit a UK size 4-6 (US size 00/0). But the difference is she is only about 4ft9, as opposed to the typical 5ft9 models. She also told me she weighs less than 6 stone (around 80lb)! So this is definitely NOT the norm for the vast majority of women. I suspect the clients requesting 31″ hips may have meant the high-hip (hipbone) circumference, rather than the low-hip circumference, i.e. around the buttocks/thighs — where most agencies would take the hip measurement.

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