Many people believe that the modeling industry has diversified. That it has moved on from the highly problematic “chic heroineand The secret of VictoryThe annual fashion show of the year, exploiting young girls and catwalks full of malnourished and overworked women. But after five years spent inside, I can tell you no.
Because I wouldn’t expect you to take my word for it, I also interviewed five women, all former or current models, to find out what really it goes behind campaigns and catwalks. Spoiler alert: Nothing has changed. In fact, it has gotten much worse.
“The excitement of this race caught me. As a teenager, I traveled the world, made friends and wore all these amazing clothes. My agency told me I could be the next big thing if I did what they told me to do.”
All five of my interviewees were scouted at a young age. Each told me how they were first discovered: “I was shopping in Primark with my mum”, “I was discovered on Instagram when I was 17”, “It was by a hairdresser when I was 14”, “In my early teens, outside my local Topshop” and “At a music festival when I was 15”. It happened to me while I was working in a coffee shop when I was only 14 years old.
Model agencies want you to be young and fresh-faced because that kind of aspirational beauty sells products. It also helps that as a barely pubescent teenager, you tend to have the petite model body that remains an industry staple to this day. keep this way, however, can be difficult.
Modeling is a completely body-obsessed business, duh, and young models are still forced to conform to the so-called “golden ratio” of measurements: a 34-inch bust, a 24-inch waist, and a 34-inch hip. It’s true that some more liberal agencies now allow models to stretch beyond these strict restrictions, but if you’re considered a “straight-size model” (so not “curvy” or “plus size”), luxury clients still expect that precise level of body perfection.
“You can access these crazy checks — tens of thousands for a day’s work. It was full of potential.”
These are tight margins and, toxic as it may seem, it’s up to the model’s agency to be on the lookout for any deviations. One former model told me: “We were measured almost every week and each time he would give us a new target. Every time I got the last measurements right, the sticks would move. I remember the agents arguing about how much exercise I was doing while I was standing there dead dead.”
Behind the doors of the agencies, the cruelty is perpetuated. Another girl recalled: “The models were asked to raise their arms and if they had ‘bingo wings’ they were laughed at and told to work harder.” Such a scrupulous approach to size can have life changing ramifications for ano one. “In 2020, I went in to be measured by a potential new agency and they told me I liked it, but I had to lose four inches from my hips and get back to it in six weeks. I ended up with an eating disorder,” she continued.
The worst thing about these stories is that they are not the exception to the rule, they are the rule. Another girl elaborated on the ways in which food plagued her life: “During fashion week, we were sent home with post-it notes of foods we could eat, which basically consisted of eggs, grapefruit, and spinach. I would go to lunch or meetings with other models and the girls would say “Oh no, I can’t eat this, I’ve gained weight”.
What you eat can feel so closely tied to your success. For some of the girls I spoke to, they found eating to be a daily struggle. One person described how it felt like “every meal, every bite of food is being monetized. If I don’t eat that chocolate bar, if I don’t join that family barbecue, maybe I’ll get smaller and get higher-paying modeling jobs as a result. each The decision to eat affected my career. I found it completely exhausting.”
Although somewhat adequate safeguarding attempts have been made, corruption still exists. So much so that one of the former models I interviewed shared that she knew of agencies that had “special” relationships with doctors in Paris who were able to circumvent the changes made in 2015 when the law changed and models had to get a health certificate for fashion week shows, and specific confirmation that they didn’t have an eating disorder. “I’m not sure what they were bribing them with, but these doctors would approve underweight girls. They were taking measures about rain jackets,” he said.
As a model, you are increasingly aware of the fact that it would be difficult to come out of this race unscathed. I saw many women climb higher and higher, only to end up falling because they had starved themselves for too long. You’d hear phrases like “he needs a little break, he hasn’t been very good” and “he’s taken it a bit too far” circulating backstage.
Modeling can also mean exploitation. From “shooting in the freezing cold with next to nothing” to “making me change my clothes on the street; people watched me undress,” these abuses are starting to seep into the boundaries of the workplace. Models are meant to be protected by their contracts, but these terms are too often ignored.
“In one shot, the photographer had the models stand on a laser photocopier and keep their eyes open while he scanned our faces. I was young and fought to defend myself. My eyes burned for days afterwards.”
The power dynamic between young female models and older male photographers is a delicate landscape to negotiate. Describing a particularly awkward moment, one of the girls recalled: “I was sent to a photographer’s address for a portfolio shoot, which was routine. He gave me his own clothes to wear. We shot in his hallway, in his bedroom, on the floor and on his bed. The poses became sexier. It made me uneasy. He asked me to stay and insisted on eating with him, I was much younger than him, and it all felt strange.”
Inappropriate behavior may appear to be part of the package. Another interviewee explained: “After a shoot abroad, the client came into the dressing room and said ‘You looked like you were screwing the camera’ and came up to me as if to kiss me. I awkwardly pushed him away and he kissed my cheek. I pulled it off, but I actually felt extremely vulnerable.”
When I look back at the experiences that me I’ve had while modeling as a teenager, I’m amazed at my own sanity. I did things I wouldn’t dream of doing now. I trusted the agency that represented me at the time too much.
The truth is, this career involves long hours, last-minute schedules, and side jobs to supplement unpredictable paychecks. “My life is not what people expect. I model part time and work full time, 9:30 to 5:30. I do castings on my lunch break.” An Instagram full of glamorous model photos hides, for some, a much more “regular” reality.
Many women leave this industry in search of a more stable life. “I felt anxious many times, and that’s why I finally decided to stop,” one of my interviewees told me. You can charge thousands for one modeling gig and be left waiting months for another. Despite the image of diversity the industry wants to feed you, the darkest corners of this dazzling world remain: young women suffering from hunger, control and abuse of power. These stories are just a snapshot of the reality of being a model.