In recent years, there have been major improvements in terms of age regulations within the modeling industry. However, the discussion of age in fashion has almost completely gone silent, even though there are still several girls entering this chaotic lifestyle at a very young age.
At 14, Jane* was told that she could be a star. An enthusiastic talent agent scouted her in a crowded New York City Starbucks on a warm summer afternoon, and she signed with the Ford Modeling Agency less than a month later.
“I felt like I was Cinderella,” Jane says about her initial experience as a fashion model. “Complete with the beautiful slippers.”
However, Jane soon realized that her new career came with an abundance of pressure, and she began to witness the harsh reality of the fashion industry. “I saw a lot of the girls around me change themselves to please clients,” she says. “Most of the girls I worked with were just teenagers, and they were definitely taken advantage of and manipulated to fit in.”
Jane managed to avoid most of the struggles faced by her peers. But she watched several young girls develop eating disorders or drug problems before she ultimately decided to quit modeling to pursue her education.
“While the career can be fun and lucrative, a lot can go wrong when a girl travels the world with minimal life experience, educational resources and supervision,” she says.
More than 75% of working models today are under the age of 18. However, this has not always been the case, according to Boston University sociology professor and former model, Ashley Mears. She explains, “it seemed like less of an issue to me when I started in the model market at the age of 16.”
But Mears noticed a drastic increase in this trend in recent years, saying, “It was in issue when I was in New York researching the market for my dissertation, and that was almost 10 years ago.” The age of models in high fashion has become younger and younger, which Mears attributes to “the rise of scouting, the flood of international models to the market, the proliferation of new agencies and the shortening ‘shelf-lives’ of most models, all with globalization and digital communication since the 1990s.”
Although many casting directors and agents are well aware of the possible issues that can accompany these young women on their journeys around the world for high-fashion jobs, the quest to find the best new face never seems to end. Anne**, a casting director at a major New York City casting agency says, “we always want to find something new, fresh and exciting, which is usually achieved through scouting.” Scouting is when a girl is found by a person working in the fashion industry and is invited to join their company as a model. Several fashion entities have turned to this approach as opposed to the traditional method of reviewing photos submitted by hopeful models, and it has started the careers of many models, including Jane.
“You feel extremely special that someone finds you in a crowd and thinks you have potential to be something great,” Jane says. “But unfortunately, they want to find something new to mold into their ideal model, and if it doesn’t go their way, the clients won’t hesitate to move onto the next girl.”
Anne agrees that the process of scouting can be misleading. “I prefer to review the photos submitted by a girl who truly wants the career path and usually knows what she’s getting herself into,” she says. “However, clients find a diamond in the rough more inspiring, and they want these young girls from obscure places.” There has been a recent explosion in fashion models from remote locations around the world, and many are 16-years-old or younger. In several cases, these girls work to support their families and often succumb to the pressures that the modeling industry imposes.
“I can’t deny there is a lot of pressure to fit the sample size or have that perfect look; the taller and skinnier the girl is, the more likely she is to book the most lucrative jobs,” Anne says. “Just like any other business, fashion is driven by capitol. Clients want the girl who will make the most money, and if a girl doesn’t fit the requirements, there is always another who will.”
Hundreds of models come and go each season as the fashion industry strives to find its perfect girl. As preteens essentially grow up in this uncertain environment, they can become conditioned to the pressures of their careers. In many instances, the stereotypes about eating disorders and drug use among fashion models become reality.
“When I was about 14 or 15, we were all pressured to look a certain way,” Jane says. “Some younger girls wanted to look like the famous older models and resorted to extreme diets or even drug use, cocaine in particular, to fit the sample sizes.”
Agents and casting directors tend to politely offer incentives in their requests for the models to change their appearances. “My agent always suggested fixing my nose because it was ‘too flat,’ and she told me I would book many more jobs if I got it fixed,” Jane says. “They would always frame these comments with compliments, but they still had an impact on a lot of girls.”
Jane mentions that she noticed several of her fellow models engaging in questionable behavior and began to lose a substantial amount of weight. “If you tell a 14 or 15-year-old girl that she would look better or be more successful if she would lose weight, she would probably listen. It’s a very vulnerable age where all a girl wants is to be accepted,” she says. Ashley Mears concurs, saying, “I learned in interviews with models that they were prone to extreme diets, self-monitoring and even abusing Adderall.”
As young girls’ mindsets are easily manipulated, it’s not surprising that they can be taken advantage of in a variety of other ways. In her documentary, Picture Me, former model Sara Ziff documents several daily struggles young models face through her own experiences. Ziff comments on relentless photographers snapping pictures of nude girls changing into outfits backstage at fashion shows. Meanwhile, when a prominent photographer or casting director offers to trade fame for sexual favors, these girls often comply. Several models openly accused the famous photographer Terry Richardson of sexually harassing girls on the sets of his typically scandalous photo shoots. Though speculation is still uncertain, and the Richardson’s behavior has caused several major clients to cut ties, there are still several instances of similar situations. Danish model Rie Rasmussen commented on the alleged abuse, saying, “they [models] are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves.”
“At go-sees & auditions, I would often feel uncomfortable having to change in front of the entire camera crew,” Jane says. “The parents would be in a lobby or waiting room during the shoot if they were present, and the photographers would often say provocative things. Younger girls are often afraid to speak up because they don’t want to be fired or be replaced with another model.”
Although many negative events can occur when a young girl is modeling, there are always people in the industry who try to keep them happy and healthy. “We do our best to protect the girls we work with,” Anne says. Ashley Mears also noticed substantial positivity in the industry, and she says, “there was a great deal of camaraderie among models, and older models would sometimes hold runway classes for younger ones.”
In regards to casting directors and agents’ acknowledgements of the issues young models face, Mears says, “They generally took care to protect and look after young models, for instance many agents will send young models to castings with a chaperone, and house them in shared model apartments under these supervision of an adult, who functions like an ‘RA’ in a dorm.” Still, there are certain things that cannot be prevented, as there are so many models with unique situations. “I don’t think we can look after everyone, and there is definitely a degree of independence that these girls should have,” Anne says.
The problems associated with girls modeling under the age of 18 are persistent, but several people are doing what they can to prevent or control them. The Council of Fashion Designers of America implemented specific rules regarding work hours, personal health, supervision, and education standards for models under age 18. The CFDA intends to educate the industry to identify eating disorders, while people with eating disorders should be encouraged to seek professional help. Without professional approval, girls cannot continue modeling with eating disorders. Also, models under the age of 16 may not be hired for runway shows, while models under the age of 18 cannot work past midnight. ID’s will be checked on the set of fashion jobs to enforce age restrictions, and state labor laws are going to be acknowledged. The CFDA plans to educate young models of proper health and nutrition, as well. In partnership with the CFDA, Sarah Ziff has developed the Model Alliance. Serving as an outlet for models to openly discuss their issues and attempt to form a worker’s union, the Model Alliance seeks a safe and healthy work environment for fashion models.
“It’s a somewhat corrupt industry that pressured girls to look a certain way, which would be achieved by means that aren’t appropriate for a 14-year-old,” Jane says about the modeling industry in general. “If I could go back into it, I would love to, but it’s not the right lifestyle for everyone.” The modeling industry is often fast-paced and chaotic, and several negative aspects come in addition to the high-end lifestyle. While several efforts are being made to protect young girls, it is also best to acknowledge the present issues and increase awareness of this potentially dangerous environment.
* Jane requested to change her name to maintain some sense of anonymity.
**Anne requested to change her name to maintain some sense of anonymity.