New York Times reveals hidden truth: modelling industry makes women feel bad, treats them like objects

Screenshot: The New York Times/Models Talk: Racism, Abuse, Feeling Old at 25

The New York Times published a revelatory exposé of the modelling industry today, revealing that young models are are valued solely for their appearance and treated like (often sexualized) objects that exist to be looked at and sell products.

It took three journalists to uncover the Shocking Truth about an industry that fuels and profits from women’s insecurities and has successfully convinced us that it is acceptable to charge thousands of dollars for an ugly af handbag.

I just returned from Tokyo/Japan, where Louis Vuitton held a beautiful cruise show in Kyoto, I just never made it to Kyoto cause I was canceled for the show due to being ‘too big’. (I’m a size 34-36) Ashley Brokaw’s caster Alexia had said that there had been some problems during the fitting. According to her I had “a very bloated stomach”, “bloated face”, and urged me to starve myself with this statement “Ulrikke needs to drink only water for the next 24 hours”. I was shocked when I heard it. I woke up at 2am and was extremely hungry. The breakfast started at 6:30am – I had the absolute minimum. I was afraid to meet Alexia so my luck she didn’t arrive until 8am, when my plate was taken off the table. She said good morning to me and the other girls and looked at me, then down on my non-existent plate and up at me again. She was checking if I had been eating food. At 7pm my mother agent from Denmark called my to tell the sad news that Louis Vuitton had chosen to cancel me from the show without the refitting and that I was going to be sent back home. Not only did I have a belly, my face was puffy now also my back was a problem. I am glad I’m 20 years old with an elite sports background and not a 15 year old girl, who are new to this and unsure about herself, because I have no doubt that I would then have ended up very sick and scarred long into my adult life. TO READ THE FULL STORY CLICK IN MY BIO!!!!!!! #LVCruise2018 #mistreatmentofmodels #AshleyBrokaw #thefutureisfemale #sowhyeatingdisorders #youknowitstrue #shareifyoucare #jamespscully

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Silent no more! explain that, thanks to social media, the young women who are working in an industry that could not exist to the magnitude it does (if at all) in a society that was not patriarchal and capitalist are speaking out about the fact that “the modeling industry remains overrun with problems that include labour exploitation, sexual harassment, and body shaming.”

While I agree all of this is terrible, I am also wondering what planet these models, journalists, and shocked liberals are living on? Have they ever seen a model? Opened up a women’s magazine? Heard of the fashion industry? It’s not exactly news that this multi TRILLION dollar industry (yes, trillion) is and has always been disgustingly, unapologetically sexist, favoring very young, very thin women who look child-like in their appearance. The fashion industry aims to profit, at the end of the day, and will do whatever it takes to accomplish that. Modelling, of course, is entirely and only focused on women’s appearances — how could it be anything but harmful and objectifying?

The journalists spoke to a number of women who have worked (or still work) in the modelling industry, who detailed the racism and sexism they experienced.

Precious Lee, 28, says:

“People aren’t seeing different types of beauty because the publications, the designers, the people that are actually in the power to make it happen, aren’t making it happen. Fashion was always supposed to be the next new thing, the next trend. What’s more out of the box and progressive then having a size 14 or a size 16 woman on a cover of a magazine when there’s been a million straight-size women that have been on it?”

Hmm… I can think of a few things that are more “out of the box and progressive” than naively believing that objectifying a wider variety of women will resolve the issue of treating women like objects… For one, we could get rid of fashion magazines entirely, which are completely and utterly useless, unless you believe that teaching women to hate themselves and that they must consume endlessly to resolve that self-hatred is purposeful… At what point does a publication that exists solely to sell products that women don’t need, to fix invented flaws, and to perpetuate the notion that women are valuable only if they are beautiful (and wealthy) stop being inherently harmful?

Ebonee Lee, 24, told the reporters that, despite modelling agencies discouraging her from wearing her hair natural, she booked a huge campaign with Calvin Klein, which I’m sure convinced thousands of girls and young women around the world to go on a diet, then drop hundreds on bras.

“Silence is violence,” she says.

“Models who decide not to speak up are participating in that same system of oppression that’s harming other people, and just because it doesn’t affect you directly, or you benefit from the privileges of it, doesn’t mean that you get a pass and that you should remain silent on those issues.”

While I agree that representation is important and that it is valuable for black women to see themselves in the media with natural hair styles (because, yes, black women’s hair is political), there are a number of other systems of oppression that are also violent, that are fully wrapped up in the fashion and beauty industries. It’s not difficult to turn Lee’s argument right back around on her, and say: Just because you benefit personally (i.e. financially) from these industries doesn’t mean that you get a pass or that you should remain silent about that. Capitalism is incredibly harmful and is responsible for the oppression of women around the world. And I’m afraid that better representation won’t resolve that.

Twenty-year-old Stella Duval complains that she was called “pudgy” at 14-years-old and pressured her to go on a 700 calorie per day diet. (For context, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion says the average adult needs somewhere between 1,600 to 3,000 calories per day. Even a sedentary two-year-old needs a minimum of 1,000 calories per day to meet their nutritional needs.) Duval quit, returning to the industry as a young adult. She says:

“I think 13 is way too young and 14 is way too young and 15 is way too young. You’re just not developed and you’re not ready. I see models who are 13, 14, 15. I’ve had someone tell me that she hadn’t eaten for two days because she didn’t know where to go to eat. I saw girls doing lingerie at 14.”

I mean, yeah. Teenage girls should not be modelling lingerie and dieting. Obviously. But should 19-year-old girls be doing it? We’re skirting around the fact that the industry itself is a problem, and that the problem won’t be resolved by objectifying slightly older girls.

Kelly Mittendorf, 23, was scouted at 11-years-old and was working full time as a model by the time she was 16. One job she did at 16 was “S-and-M-inspired.” Mittendorf showed up to find a “table of whips and cuffs and various balls for various activities.” She explained:

“They put me in these shoes that were your typical dominatrix-inspired pointy-toed stilettos. They were so tall, and I didn’t have enough experience in heels and I couldn’t stand in them. I would get in the shoes and then get dressed by the wardrobe, and then I would have to, like, cinch my elbows on my side and this hairdresser would pick me up in my outfit by my elbows and then put me where my mark was.”

Mittendorf ended up going into a lot of debt with her agencies as an independent contractor in the industry. She retired from modelling two years ago (so, at 21 — ancient). “You get sick of people touching you,” Mittendorf said. “I wanted to be able to not feel spread thin and anxious and like I was constantly waiting on something else.” It is truly ridiculous that a person would end up in debt because of their work, and it is terrible to have an unstable income. But it is also ridiculous that women are expected to wear shoes they can’t stand or walk in, wear clothing that immobilizes them, and that all this is considered attractive and sexy. At this point, neither the journalists nor the models speaking out against exploitation, sexism, and racism have mentioned that misogyny is ingrained in women’s fashion or criticized the fact that sexualized abuse is used to sell products to women (and men, for that matter).

Renee Peters, 28, developed anorexia and bulimia (this is not uncommon in the industry, of course). She explains that the pressure to lose weight is “inherent to the industry because sample sizes are so small, and because the thinner you are, the more celebrated you are.” More interesting, though, is that Peters manages to acknowledge the most basic point we should be discussing, when criticizing the modelling industry:

“Every day that you’re working as a model, you’re objectified somehow. You know, if it’s just a simple term of you being a ‘mannequin’ or a ‘model,’ like you’re not actually a person and you’re just a vehicle for the clothing or the makeup or the hair.”

In other words, women and girls are treated like objects because their entire purpose, as models, is to be objects.

The stories go on and on, as various young women detail racism, pressure to be thin, and generally being treated like bodies, rather than human beings. No matter who you are and what you look like, the industry teaches women, both the models and those on the other side of those images, reading the magazines or watching the fashion shows, to hate their bodies.

Julia Geier, 32, explains:

“Playing on women’s insecurities has become so extremely pervasive in our society and it’s so damaging and so unhealthy for the models, of course, but also for the women — especially for the women that see the images of the models because they don’t know how much time we spend trying to look good.”

She points out that the final product, after all the work that goes into makeup, skincare, dieting, hair, plus the editing and photoshopping, is not even close to realistic. “Women are seeing these images that literally are not real,” Geier says.

A 25-year-old “plus size” model named Paloma Elsesser, says:

“There’s the worst things every single day. It’s these tiny microaggressions — ‘Oh, you’re a real girl.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I’m also a model.’ Sometimes it’s just people blaming, saying, ‘Nothing fits.’ As if I just don’t exist. Some days everything fits and I love what I’m wearing, and I feel that I’m on an even playing field with a straight-size model.”

The expectation that modelling should somehow make you feel good about yourself reveals something so important. Despite the complete opposite being true, women are convinced that being looked at and viewed or validated as attractive will bring confidence. This is why we are told by liberals and third wavers that self-objectification is harmless, because it is chosen. And not only that it is not harmless, but is a means to feel “empowered.” We are not even permitted to criticize sexualized imagery if the woman in the image claims she feels good about the sexualization, as this constitutes “judgement” and “shaming.”

What this report reveals is nothing at all. How many months and how many interviews does it take to know that objectifying women hurts women? And that an industry that profits from women’s pain and insecurities (whether by selling women shoes they can’t walk in and that wreck their bodies or by simply creating clothing that can only be worn by women with the body type of a 13-year-old boy) does not care about women’s pain and insecurities. I mean, anything that puts profit first is going to be harmful. This is why capitalism is such an abusive, exploitative, violent system — because it doesn’t care about people, animals, or the earth. It cares only about the bottom line.

Covering the Times report, Jezebel writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd concludes that the problem is “exclusion,” and the solution, therefore, is inclusion. The fashion industry needs to simply “include” and cast models “who don’t fit the stereotype.” But what was made clear to me, based on this investigation, was that “inclusion” has resolved nothing, and will never solve the problems that objectification and capitalism create — because objectification and capitalism are the problem.

The arguments made by the Times report and the liberal feminists up in arms about the lack of diversity and body positive messaging in the modeling industry are, as far as I’m concerned, making the same argument as those who claim the sex industry will somehow become less abusive and harmful if the industry is better regulated and if diverse ethnicities and body-types are featured in porn.

While of course I do believe that models should be treated and paid fairly, that we should reject the notion that only white, thin, young women are beautiful, and that’s it’s acceptable for underage girls to work in the industry, I also think we’re missing the point.

Poking at the surface and strategically avoiding the root is a great way to ensure nothing really changes, but that those who benefit from harmful systems can sleep at night.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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