New Labor Law Targeting Underage Models Could Change Our Body-Image Issues

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Martin Roe / Corbis

Coco Rocha pictured at the Project Runway Season 8 premiere party at the Empire Hotel in New York City on July 28, 2010

Beautiful, tall, skinny girls provoke a lot of emotion in people, none of which is ever sympathy. But a bill that just passed the New York legislature is aimed at protecting this rare species of human. Known in legal-speak as A7787-2013, the legislation would extend the labor laws that currently apply to child performers to young models as well.

Among other things, this means models under age 18 would be allowed to work only eight hours a day during school hours, for no more than two days in a row, and then only with school permission. The girls would also need on-site tutors since they are obliged to get at least three hours of instruction for every day they miss school. If they’re under 16, there has to be a chaperone. They’d have to be home before midnight, and they’d need to get 12 hours of rest between workdays.

(MORE: Girls on Film: How Innocent Pictures Feed the Internet-Porn Machine)

The bill, crafted in part by the Model Alliance, a workforce group started by model Sara Ziff after she studied labor relations at Columbia University, had sponsors in New York’s assembly (Steve Otis) and senate (Diane Savino and Jeff Klein) and the support of the labor committee. So it passed almost unanimously. After all, it’s a bill about protecting attractive and vulnerable young girls. Pretty hard to vote down, we’re guessing. That would be like not signing a bill to spare Bambi.

Why should we feel sympathy for models, who already won the Powerball genetic lottery? Because to hear some of them tell it, being a young girl on whose bony protruding shoulders rests the economic fortune of some big businesses isn’t actually that much fun. According to the Model Alliance (whose prominent supporters include current darling Coco Rocha, onetime supermodel Shalom Harlow and model turned professional vanquisher-of-Resident-Evils Milla Jovovich), the current regulations protecting child models aren’t enforced, because they’re from the Department of Education, which already has plenty on its hands.

(MORE: 5 Questions for Supermodel Coco Rocha)

“I will never forget being 15 years old, alone on a set as a photographer tried to harass, heckle and even threaten me into taking a seminude photo,” said Rocha in an event to introduce the new bill at New York City’s Lincoln Center (where, ahem, the fashion shows are held). “I recall with sickening clarity the first time I was told (in no uncertain terms) to lose weight that I definitely couldn’t afford to lose because, as this person said, ‘the look this year is anorexia.’”

That models have to be skinny is no surprise. But recently, fashion has favored an even more androgynous look, and the ideal has become a tall skinny teenager who has yet to flower into full womanhood — no curves whatsoever. The more a model’s body can simulate a coat hanger or that cardboard that shirts are packed in, the better. Younger girls, who tend to be less independent, are also less likely to push back when asked to do something they don’t want to do.

Ms. Ziff, the Alliance founder, says that Broadway and Hollywood survived with these labor laws and so will fashion. Indeed, New York is late to adopt such guidelines; they are already in place in many other states. But she acknowledged that they will make hiring younger models a much bigger hassle, especially for hectic runway shows, where a mandated break sometimes simply isn’t possible and providing a separate room and a tutor is too expensive. Agencies might be less eager to take on the younger girls, especially from foreign countries. “It’s not easy being responsible for a 15-year-old girl from Lithuania,” says Ziff, who started modeling at 14.

If the industry is nudged toward using older models, who have developed hips and breasts, it may move the needle on the impossible body ideal that has reigned on the runway and in the magazines these long years. (Vogue has already announced it won’t use models younger than 16.) Since much of the fashion industry — including many designers and most of the major fashion books and the most important shows — is centered in New York City, new regulations there may have a ripple effect on the rest of the country.

(MORE: British Vogue Agrees to Model Code of Conduct to Improve Working Conditions)

But even if this doesn’t bring the change to our body ideals that everybody acknowledges the culture needs but nobody seems to be able to effect, it will help the most vulnerable link in the fashion chain. “People have a hard time seeing modeling as a job,” says Ziff. “It may not be the most important job in the world, but these people have rights too.”

20 comments
RemyChevalier
RemyChevalier

The smarter a young model is, the more likely she will be to question what she is lending her image to. We'd like to see the day when models are not blacklisted by agencies and bookers for refusing jobs because the products they are asked to sell don't jive with their sense of ethics or their world view. A model should be able to pick what commercial venture they'd like to endorse, just like any investor would. The Model Alliance is doing fine work, but we would also like to see the creation of a "green" models coalition, one that would ultimately lead to green model divisions at top agencies where bookers make ethical choices as too which jobs they accept, develop long term careers instead of quick return on investment.  

casp214
casp214

Nadine,  I feel the fashion magazines would do better if they start showing people at all ages and how people really look.  Makeup could still sell to real people.  Let us take Drew Barrymore who if you really look at her she really isn't beautiful or young and cute like she was in the Wedding Singer.  She is older and still nice looking, but she is not tall, and her nose is not perfect.  She has a more mature figure these days.  she looks normal and real these days.

Or how about someone like me who is 58, and has three small acne scars on my face.  I would love to know how to cover them up to look better.  There has to be other people out there with the same problem as me.  I have recently lost my job because of the stress of taking care of an adult son with a fatal and progressive form of mitochondrial disease. 

Where is my photo shoot?  I could use the money.

casp214
casp214

I feel sorry for them.  Here they are 14 or 15 and told to starve half to death which can cause numerous health problems.  Then when they develop breasts and hips they are no longer needed.  They are being asked to pose half nude to where the world can see them.  When the industry throws them out, they missed out on an education as well.

ToddGilbert
ToddGilbert

Sorry I don't feel sorry for models. Here is another email for coco to answer since she reply's to them all.

NadineGenet
NadineGenet

@ToddGilbert Nobody asked you to feel sorry for models. But - luckily - there are people out there who care for children's rights. I wouldn't want my 16 yr old daughter work from early in the morning until late at nights. For consecutive days. Without appropriate time to recover or enough breaks. No matter if she would work as a waitress, a model or in a bookshop. The point is not what these kids are doing but under which circumstances they are doing it.

ToddGilbert
ToddGilbert

@NadineGenet @ToddGilbert Then Nadine why don't you watch over your underage kid instead of expecting the government to baby sit her. Gee what a novel idea parenting.

NadineGenet
NadineGenet like.author.displayName 1 Like

@ToddGilbert @NadineGenet It doesn't always work that way. My underage daughter is living abroad where she goes to a boarding school. Of course I have to be able to rely on the teachers and staff there but also on the laws and regulations of that particulary state. Or what else would you suggest? Quit jobs and move the whole family to another country? And who are we to judge if it might be right to let one's underaged kid go abroad because of education but wrong to let one's daughter or son go abroad to become a model? Both are opportunities in the lives of our children.

Japaniia
Japaniia like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I'm sorry but hasn't the beauty industry had an elitist environment anyways. How can they protect children when 'young' is in and they almost never portray bigger or older people? There's something really wrong with this industry because they think that young and skinny sells. In addition there's this sort of... I suppose fashion imperialism going on because only western ideals of beauty appear on the runway and fashion magazines. When would a Muslim woman appear on the cover of vogue and even if they have, they rarely make it tot the top. I know this is not part of the article but is something good to note. I really doubt that the law protecting younger models will be enforced because this whole industry depends on them. Scouts are going out to Russia and Lituania to pick out fairly young models and on top of that put them in a lot of debt that forces them to go outside their confort zone and agree to be photographed half naked in order to make some extra money. For those of you who want to be models remember that it's not all pink roses hut rather it is an industry where you are a mannequin for the elitist fashion designers telling women around the globe to buy expensive rags to be beautiful. Not only that but that being fat, old, or ugly is considered imperfect. Sorry for the rant but somebody needs to say it how it is.

CocoRocha1
CocoRocha1 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Japaniiathis article wasn't about the fashion industry protecting children. As we havve seen, industry self-regulation has had poor results in the past. This article was about the government giving child models the same protection as it already does for child actors, singers and dancers.  And they have, it is a huge step forward. Take it from me.

not1robot
not1robot like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

so proud of people like Coco Rocha ..not only a super model...a role model---

CocoRocha1
CocoRocha1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@not1robot thank you for that. The Model Alliance are the real champions here.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26 like.author.displayName 1 Like

But recently, fashion has favored an even more androgynous look, and the ideal has become a tall skinny teenager who has yet to flower into full womanhood—no curves whatsoever.

Dress boys up in models clothes . Simples .

CocoRocha1
CocoRocha1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@bojimbo26 You missed the point of the article. Its not an argument for one body type or another, its about new protection for underage models.

By the way, boys do dress up in "model clothes" and they are protected under the new legislation too. 

wandmdave
wandmdave

Obviously I don't get fashion.  I always look at the clothes and models in these fashion shows and don't really find them attractive.  How is an "androgynous" teenager wearing some ridiculous outfit sexy to someone that is sexually attracted to women or something to aspire to among women?  Who are they targeting?

CamiloErazo
CamiloErazo

@wandmdave an small niche. the fact is fashion in a higher level targets high profile customers, like movie stars, 

CocoRocha1
CocoRocha1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@wandmdave why do we care if you find an underage model "sexually attractive" or not? This article was about protecting children.