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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”