For several years now (and maybe it was about time) there have been huge debates about the appropriate age for runway models. Over the years, fashion shows have featured models as young as 14, while fashion photographers have used models as young as 12. There is no doubt that our culture–and our fashion industry–has an obsession with youth. But there is a whole lot more to why the fashion industry likes to use underage models, and today, The New York Times’ Room for Debate section features five noteworthy essays on the subject penned by a psychologist, a former model now author, the founder of the Model Alliance, and a professor of pop culture and gender sociology.
These essays are all fine and dandy–actually some are more than just fine, and get at some of the troubling roots of why the insistence on underage models. Let’s face it, if you’ve ever worked with teenagers, you’d know how they don’t usually know their workplace rights, are unaware of OSHA regulations, and even if they grumble about working conditions, are quickly put in their place by either bullying or emotionally manipulative older people. It’s far easier to get a star-struck teen-ager to accept a cheap piece of swag for payment than it might be a 20-year-old who seeks a paycheck to help pay for college.
Yet the runway isn’t the only place where young people face exploitation. Take the local mall for instance and some of its stores that are so popular with teens that they are clamoring for jobs. As I understand it, one mall retail giant, know for its semi-pornographic pictures of beautiful young men, has what are called “floor model” positions. These are usually held by very young people (between 16 and 18) who are there to walk around in the brand’s clothing and tidy up. They are paid base minimum wage, and are expected to be wearing the brand’s overpriced clothing. A week’s salary might cover the cost of one pair of jeans.
Is this fair? Hardly. Yet most don’t protest the working conditions or the low rate of pay. They are the hopefuls who hang around and believe at a low-paying, below entry-level job will lead to a sales position. Or at least be a resume credential with some cachet. If they quit, there are so many others to take their place.
And the same may be said of modeling. There is always another young girl out there who wants to be part of the Big Show, who’s willing to overlook any kind of exploitation and labor violations for that opportunity.
What, then, about the parents? Yes, good parents will be great advocates for their children, but what if the parents are just as start-struck as the children? or are more than willing to overlook exploitation if it means their child will get ahead of others? Remember: not all parents are as caring about their child’s welfare as they should be.
Overall, the Fashion world is one that relies on young women to sell their designs to other young women–and not necessarily to older women (by older, I mean over 30. Forget about anyone over 40.) Older women are seen as a fashion lost cause, unwilling to go the distance and jump the hurdles of anorexia and Botox to meet some arbitrary beauty ideal that’ s been concocted out of some fashion designer’s imagination. It’s not just that though: it’s also that many of us simply do not have the time nor the flexibility to put on the costumes that are trotted out every season. Women of the 21st century are no longer idle little things with husbands or paramours that want us to look perfect for their glorification (although there are certainly still many “Bergdorf Blondes” out there.) Many of us not only work, but have our identities clearly figured out by the time we’re in our late 30′s or into our 40′s. Sure, we like to not look like fashion victims from another time period, but we also don’t want to look like starving waifs in what might feel like an inappropriate costume for a new production of Peter Pan…..
And while I don’t anticipate any major changes in attitudes towards women by the fashion industry in the near future, I am glad that there are some strong voices out there who are raising red flags and are looking out for the welfare of young women who walk the runways every fashion season. We can only hope that, eventually, the tide will turn.
- Do You Think Young Models Might Have Competition? (bellasugar.com)
- Jennifer Sky: Fashion Week and Exploitation (guernicamag.com)
- More Gorgeous With Age: 81 Year Old Model Rocks Runway (And Hangs With Ryan Lochte!) (styleblazer.com)
- Are Super Skinny Models Really the Best Hangers For Clothes? (fabsugar.com)