Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Models, Eating Disorders, and Labor

Eating Disorder Awareness Week, an annual event from the National Eating Disorders Association, is always a bit of a conundrum for me. I feel passionately about eating disorder awareness, in part because I was a patient myself. But it’s because of my own experience in treatment that I know what I’d pinned my eating disorder on for so long—wanting to be thin—was only a fraction of what landed me there. I don’t write about eating disorders much on The Beheld because I want to keep a narrow focus on appearance, and I worry that by getting into eating disorders, I’m conflating beauty and health. That is, I’m doing exactly what women with eating disorders do to themselves.

Eating disorders are linked to the beauty imperative. But they’re about so much more—control, perfectionism, chaos, suppression, connection, intimacy, yearning, abundance, fear. Not to mention biology, genetics, family environment, and other mental illnesses. But those things often get short shrift in the discussion of eating disorders, in part because while we all share beauty culture (and most women at some point are frustrated by it, to say the least), not all of us share the particular psychological cocktail that makes for an eating disorder. Point is: I’m never quite sure how to handle the question of EDs here.

Luckily, this year NEDA made it easy on me by kicking off the week here in New York last night with a panel discussion about eating disorders and the modeling industry—not the tired skinny-models-cause-eating-disorders line, but the models who suffer from EDs. Cohosted with The Model Alliance, a nonprofit working to improve models’ basic working conditions in what is currently a nearly unregulated industry, panelists included several models (including supermodel Crystal Renn and sociologist Ashley Mears, whose book I reviewed here), a modeling agent, and a doctor specializing in eating disorders. Three things I came away from the evening with:

1) Some conditions of modeling echo conditions that foster eating disorders—well beyond the thin imperative. 

Models are good girls. Not literally, and not always—plenty of “bad girl” vices, specifically upper-type drugs, are everywhere in model-land, and obviously the industry, like any other, can encompass a huge variety of personality types. But modeling requires a good deal of compliance, perhaps the number-one good-girl trait. You’re managed and molded by an agent, selected by a client, styled by a hairstylist and makeup artist, posed by a photographer, tweaked by a computer. You are there to be handled and worked on; models bring skill and charisma, yes, but they’re also often treated as props. Now, patients with EDs aren’t necessarily more compliant than the average person, but there’s often a clash that happens, particularly with teenagers (an age when many patients first experience symptoms): You see the compliance that’s expected of you, but you’re also aware of your own growing agency. One way to make sense of this clash is to internalize it in a way that serves as both rebellion and compliance: an eating disorder.

Crystal Renn struck a particularly poignant note when she talked of how until she was scouted as a teenager in Mississippi, her paragon of beauty was the self-styled goth girls who hung out at the mall. So here we have this seed of rebellion, but instead of channeling it into long black lace gloves and Manic Panic dye, it went into whittling herself down to 95 pounds. In fact, at the panel we saw a clip of the (fantastic) documentary Girl Model in which two Russian teens realize that their contract stipulates that they can be discharged if they gain even a centimeter in their measurements—so they both start gorging themselves on candy to give themselves an out. The more willful of the two wound up exiting the industry entirely thanks to that particular contract clause. But the quieter, dreamier, more passive model gives the industry another whirl.

Perfectionism comes into play here too. One of the first things Renn pointed out about her own history was that she was a perfectionist, a personality trait that’s stamped all over eating disorders. I don’t know enough about the industry to know whether perfectionism is common among models, but in panelist Ashley Mears’s excellent book, Pricing Beauty, she describes how models are pushed by their agencies to not only fit incredibly specific measurements, but to work for “trade” (i.e. clothes or photo prints, not, you know, money) in hopes of landing a big ad campaign that would pay off big-time (for the model and for her agency). What is more perfectionistic than self-sacrifice? And in some cases, the price of not sacrificing oneself is incredibly high: Many models are plucked from nations with developing or unstable economies, meaning that a 14-year-old girl may be supporting her entire family back home with her wages. The price of imperfection can be devastation.

And the price of mere entry into the industry, particularly for girls from unstable economies back home, is anxiety. (Can you imagine the anxiety inherent in knowing that if you fail at your stab at success, your family might not be able to install proper plumbing?) Even for models who don’t have their families’ well-being balanced upon their shoulders, the job itself is anxiety-provoking. As Mears pointed out, the bulk of models’ time is spent going on numerous calls, auditions, and go-sees—the equivalents of a job interview, meaning that models are regularly undergoing eight job interviews a day. And not the kind of job interview I’ve ever gone through: “You never know when you walk in the door if you’re going to be torn apart—or praised,” Mears says. There’s a huge overlap between anxiety and eating disorders, with some estimates at an 80% comorbidity rate. We cannot talk about eating disorders without talking about anxiety. And we can’t talk of models’ realities without talking about the same.

2) Properly framing eating disorders within the modeling industry can help lead to change. 

Remember, this panel was cohosted with NEDA by The Model Alliance—a labor organization. While there was plenty of talk of EDs as a cultural issue, a key point of the evening was that for the workers in question, this is a labor issue. As Sara Ziff, panel moderator and cofounder of The Model Alliance, pointed out, most models begin their careers as children. When we think of child labor, we’re thinking of kids in faraway factories—a tragedy, to be sure, and one that the fashion industry needs to do a better form of addressing. But whether it’s a 12-year-old modeling Justin Bieber T-shirts for a tween catalogue or the same 12-year-old slinking down the runway in heels and exotic makeup—or her 17-year-old colleague—that too is child labor. And given that one of the populations at heightened risk for eating disorders is also a population that gets scouted in suburban malls and the streets of Belarus, we need to consider eating disorders a work hazard.

Affiliated organizations seem to actively work against this particular work hazard sometimes. Take the recent case of the Council of Fashion Designers of America partnering with a juice cleanse company to give models a 50% discount during Fashion Week. Juice cleanses are notorious for providing a nice cover of “health” and “detoxing” for people with eating disorders. Combine that with the faux-Zen glamour of cleanses and the like—a specific type of glamour that the fashion set seems to particularly fall prey to—and you see the problem.

The irony here is that the CFDA undertook the partnership as a part of their health initiative meant to help combat eating disorders within the industry. And taken at face value, I can see why: Fashion Week is incredibly hectic, and being able to sip a nutrient-filled lunch on the go instead of sitting down to eat it sounds like a reasonable solution. And for people without eating disorders, in a pinch it probably is a reasonable solution. But to introduce this as a benefit to a population with a high ED risk is absurd. I can’t help but wonder what would happen in the industry if there were a modeling union that had regulations as strict as the Teamsters—if, say, such partnerships had to be reviewed by a panel of ED experts before coming into play. The U.S. is hardly in its labor-friendliest era, but there’s still an essential respect for what unions signify. And the more the industry is framed as exactly that—an industry, one with workers and labor conditions and hazards and risks and, one day, regulations—instead of as a glamorous world its denizens are lucky to gain entrance to, the better off its laborers will be.

3) Consumers can play a role in change.

Yes, the industry needs to change from within. I particularly liked Renn’s proposal of designers issuing sample sizes in size 8 instead of size 2—it’s easier to take away fabric than it is to add it, so stylists could still use a model who fits a size 2, but there would also be built-in encouragement to use a wider variety of body types. (And if, like me, you share Kjerstin Gruys’s raised eyebrow of the ubiquity of “size 8,” note that Renn specified that size 8 would simply be an industry-friendly entry point into even further diversity.) But there are things we can do as fashion consumers too.

The most straightforward way is “voting with your dollars.” Now, most of us inadvertently boycott couture fashion not because of our politics but because of our pocketbooks—I can't drop $6,000 on a skirt. But Mears talked about what’s known in the business world as “loss leaders,” or the strategy of offering a product that’s not profitable in order to offer a product that is. And loss leaders are huge in the fashion world. You might not be able to afford a Chanel suit, but you can indulge in a wee bottle of Chanel no. 5—and if that’s too rich for your blood, what about Chanel no. 5 soap? It’s not necessarily the fashions that makes these houses their money; it’s the fragrances, the makeup palettes, the keychains, the wallets, the bracelet charms, the sunglasses, the scarves, the smartphone cases. That is, the things people actually buy. And if we stop buying them, they’ll stop being as profitable, and the brands in question will have to look at why. You see a fashion line that is clearly using unhealthy models, or that refuses to open up its notions of beauty, whether in size, race, ethnicity, or age? Boycott. And when you see a line that actively works toward creating a healthier idea of beauty, remember that you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune to support them.

Also, according to panelist Chris Gay, president of Marilyn modeling agency, clients do listen to consumer complaints, particularly catalogues and other commercial outlets. Now, I admit to some skepticism on this: Magazines listen to consumer complaints as well, meaning that a magazine I once worked for decided to “take a stand” and use non-straight-size models at least once an issue. That sometimes translated to a size 8 model being used in a throwaway illustrative shot. But even here, I maintain some optimism, for sometimes that policy translated into stunning editorial shoots with plus-size models where their size wasn’t the entire focus of the story.

The point is, even when it’s frustrating and change is slow—no, especially when change is slow—we need to keep speaking up. And not just for the models’ sake, either, as important as that may be. We can speak up for ourselves as consumers. As Mears pointed out, the role that models play in upholding the beauty imperative has been discussed for some time now, but when it comes to solutions everyone wants to pass the buck. Consumers want media outlets to use a wider range of models. Media outlets say they shoot unhealthily thin models because that’s what comes to them. Agencies say they send unhealthily thin models because that’s what the clients want, and because that’s who fits into sample sizes designers provide. Designers say the provide small sample sizes because larger sizes don’t hang right; designers who may genuinely wish for that to change feel caught in a game of follow-the-leader. And then there are retail outlets that say that displaying larger sizes means items don’t sell as well, so we’re back to consumers, who want media outlets to use a wider range of models. If we want things to change, we’ve got to start somewhere—meaning that the buck needs to stop here.

NEDA is hosting a post-event Twitter chat today, February 26, at 2 p.m. EST, with supermodel and host Emme. Follow #NEDAwareness to join.


  1. Autumn, beautiful and articulate as usual! I love this post. Thank you for speaking up about how we as individuals really can speak up in even the smallest ways. I think it's time Beauty Redefined wrote another post featuring your crazy smart stance on a few issues. I'll email you for approval when that time comes! Thanks again. You're AMAZING.

    1. Wow, how far behind on comments am I?! Thank you--and yes, feel free to e-mail if you have any upcoming posts! Not for approval--you two do such great work that just being a part of what you do in the smallest way is an honor.