Bill to Protect the Rights and Health of Models Dead for the Year: Education and More Support Necessary to Move Forward

06/09/2016 12:01 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2017

On Friday, May 27th, 2016, California Assembly Bill 2539 was held in the suspense file and killed for the rest of the year. The bill would have awarded models workplace protections and health standards, granting them employee status, similar to actors who are employees of the brands they represent. As well, California modeling agencies would have been licensed as talent agencies. Although we fought hard to see this bill through, the Association of Talent Agents (ATA) and specific modeling agencies lobbied violently against it, which ultimately led to the bill's death. As an executive board member of Peaceful Hearts Foundation and Project HEAL SoCal Chapter, two organizations dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse and eating disorders, I am passionate about pushing forth legislation which will protect vulnerable workers from being exploited in the fashion industry. Furthermore, as a survivor of a more than seventeen-year battle with eating disorders, trauma, other mental health issues, and as someone who experienced the darker side of the modeling industry, I want to clarify the arguments that have continuously come up over the past few months concerning the legislation. 

Argument #1: Males and females should avoid getting into the business if they don't want to be exploited. Wrong. The issue here is that it is never okay for any worker in any industry to be exploited. Take, for example, the action that was brought against the exploitation of nail salon workers in New York City. It was definitely not acceptable to exploit a largely immigrant female work force, and it is certainly not acceptable to exploit a mostly young, vulnerable population in the modeling industry. How many stories do we have to hear about truly, criminal activity happening before any action is taken? Does the latest article about Bill Cosby ring a bell? Or what about BBC News - they recently reported on a modeling website's avoidance to notify users about rapists posting on the site. Telling the models to "go work somewhere else" or "grow a brain," just enables the perpetrators and further belittles largely adolescent models, who are already being exposed to a ton of abuse, both sexually and financially. So when the government and the public fails to stand up for the rights of those working in the modeling industry, they are essentially complicit in this abusive behavior.

Argument #2: A bill like this would waste taxpayer's money. Think again.
First of all, the bill would help to create more positive images for society by implementing healthy standards for models - it's a win-win. The multi-billion-dollar advertising industry and the modeling agencies currently control how models are supposed to appear, which in turn, creates the beauty ideal for society. But since most agencies are only interested in exploiting models don't you think it's time we create a positive change in the system? In other words, the cost of the bill is trivial when the gain will be healthier images that our youth will see every day in advertisements. The latest statistics show just how large of an effect magazines have on American elementary school girls - 69% reported that the photos influenced their notion of the classic body shape, and 47% expressed that the images made them want to lose weight. Second, the approximate $532,000 cost of the bill is nothing when compared to the long-term costs of eating disorder treatment, let alone the effects and financial consequences of PTSD from sexual abuse and rape.  Per person, eating disorder treatment ranges anywhere from $500 a day to $30,000 a month; on average, individuals need at least three to six months of treatment, yet most insurance companies will not cover these fees. Models are not afforded health insurance currently because they are not treated as employees, merely independent contractors. Wouldn't it be better if, as Californians, we came together and supported a legislation that would protect those who are mentally suffering, and saved billions of hard-earned taxpayer dollars in the process? I want to clarify that not only would models be protected, but also the young people who aspire to look like models who, as we know, cannot naturally attain these weights and appearances in the first place. A report from the California Health Care Foundation shows that in 2012 -2013, public spending on mental health services totaled over $7.76 billion. 

Argument #3: We shouldn't try to rescue everyone and control human behavior. We were never trying to control anyone. We were merely trying to regulate a severely unregulated industry; a multi-billion-dollar business that gets rich off of exploiting young talent. Models deserve to work in a safe and health environment where their rights are being exercised. It's not too much to ask for models to be paid on time, for agents to stop withholding pay for weight gain, or for agents to stop asking models to lose weight when models are already at a healthy weight or underweight. Also, by ensuring models are treated fairly and not abused, the images that our youth see would be healthier because models would not be required to starve themselves. Eating disorders are grave mental illnesses that have complex origins and require a diverse, dedicated support team to treat them. We were never trying to supervise anyone's lifestyle; let's get educated here - eating disorders are not lifestyle choices. I will state again that eating disorders are life-threatening, often fatal illnesses. Because the industry is an aggressive, highly uncontrolled business, we want to provide standards, support and protection for the vulnerable workers (who are often far away from home, and some, who are suffering from a serious psychological condition), which will in turn impact the images our youth are exposed to, and therefore, impact our youth.