When we think of the fight for labor rights we often think of images of blue-collar workers being taken advantage of by "the man." Cesar Chavez's farm workers, or even the fictional "Norma Rae" come to mind. Rarely do we think of those working in glamorous professions in which the highest earners can make tens of thousands of dollars a day. Yet on the heels of New York Fashion Week it was announced that British Trade Union Equity has developed guidelines to ensure "safe and healthy working conditions" for models participating in London Fashion Week, which just wrapped up. The move is a watershed moment for the fashion industry that for years has gone unregulated, at times with disastrous results for its workers worldwide, many of them underage girls.
The new documentary film Picture Me chronicles the lives of several young models who have worked with top tier designers. Some of the stories are disturbing, to say the least. In a recent interview about the film one model recounted being burned by a photographer's bulb that rendered her unable to work for months yet she had no health insurance and received no worker's comp and was advised not to cause problems by litigating. There are also tales of models being sexually harassed and even raped by prominent men within the industry and being advised not to expose such behavior because it will harm their careers. (It is widely acknowledged that supermodel Stephanie Seymour had a long-term sexual relationship with John Casablancas, the former head of Elite, one of the largest modeling agencies in the world, that began when she was 16 and he was 41.)
The casualties from the industry are too numerous to name. For every Linda Evangelista there are countless girls the industry has chewed up and spit out. Some of the high profile ones include former model Beverly Peele who was on a major magazine cover by 14, burnt out by her twenties and has faced legal problems since. Even supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, who began modeling in their early teens and are two of the biggest modeling success stories of the last two decades have faced their own share of substance abuse and personal problems.
But also disturbing are stories like those of Gerren Taylor who is featured in the documentary America the Beautiful. After being discovered walking down the street Taylor walked in her first fashion show at the age of 12 and was strutting for high profile designers like Tommy Hilfiger by age 13. Her career, however, was short lived and by the age 14, she was being told she had become "too obese" for runways. Taylor's measurements at the time? Six feet tall and a size 4. Now back in school she has since struggled with her self-esteem and body image. (To hear Taylor discuss the impact of the industry on her self-image click here.)
Taylor's harrowing tale hits upon one of the fashion industry's dirtiest and worst kept secrets, namely that the industry not only overlooks unhealthy behaviors among its models, but actively encourages them. (The film Picture Me also includes a young model discussing her agent advising her to eat a rice cake or a half of a rice cake a day to stay thin.) It's not surprising that so many models would have body image issues when so many start modeling women's clothing when they are girls. Then when their bodies begin to change -- the way they are supposed to when they become women -- they are told there is something wrong with them, not that there is something wrong with the industry that is exploiting them. An employer can't legally tell you to do something that will knowingly cost you your life, like stand in oncoming traffic, so why should we allow an industry that tells girls they can't work unless they are actively starving themselves to death? The answer is we shouldn't.
Bowing to pressure from advocacy groups dedicated to eradicating eating disorders, and the media spotlight cast by the deaths of models who had battled anorexia, Madrid put guidelines in place to ban dangerously thin models from its runways. The new health checkups required for models before they were allowed to walk the runways resulted in 30 percent of models who had walked in previous shows being turned away.
At the time critics said that Madrid would suffer from the move and other countries would never follow suit. But now London is stepping up to the plate and putting its own labor guidelines in place for the industry. Among them, no models under the age of 16 allowed to participate in London Fashion Week and models must be warned in advance if any nudity will be required for the job, which should hopefully curtail any compromising surprises at the hands of powerful men within the industry. But most importantly employers must agree to take responsibility for the health and safety of any model they employ. This is significant, because while there is no weight specification mentioned in the guidelines it seems that if an employer asks a model to starve herself to unhealthy proportions to get a job, he or she will be in violation of the new guidelines.
This is certainly a good start but as one of the global leaders of the fashion industry and of the labor rights movement, it is a shame that America has not taken a lead on this issue. As I mentioned on MSNBC's The Dylan Ratigan Show, maybe it will take a high profile, homegrown supermodel to take the lead, and become the Norma Rae of American fashion. After all, the same week that it was announced that models participating in London Fashion Week would receive labor protections, it was announced that California marijuana growers had joined the Teamsters.
They could teach the fashion industry a few things.
This post originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political blogger.