05/09/2012 08:41 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

The Issues with Underage and Underweight Models

After a recent research project on the abuse of young models, I've taken a lot of interest in the prevalent issue. Many agencies and brands are under fire for pressuring teenage girls into labor they aren't ready for. Numerous companies enforce rigorous measures to weigh models and test their body mass index (BMI) before they are allowed on the catwalk. Young models are encouraged, and required, to keep the slimmest physique they can to enhance their success in the business. Along with the pressure to be thin, models under the age of 16 work for hours on end and are cheated on their pay. Whether the girls know it or not, their rights and talents are being exploited.

These issues lead to the question: Are girls under the age of 16 ready for the fashion industry? With horror stories of substance abuse, sexual harassment and poor working conditions, I'm starting to think that young girls should steer clear of runways and photo shoots. But since my claim is grossly unrealistic, restrictions must be put in place to ensure young models the protection they deserve while on the job. With the help of the CFDA and Model Alliance pushing for the same guidelines, the issue is on the path to progress.

Young models face many more issues regarding their work than just fittings and hair and makeup appointments. It may seem glamorous when everything is put together, but what's scary is what's behind the scenes. According to the Model Alliance, "Almost 80 percent of models say they've been exposed to drugs on the job, with 50 percent saying they've been exposed to cocaine. Twenty-eight percent of models say they've felt pressured to have sex with someone at work. Twenty-nine percent say they've experienced unwanted sexual harassment." Although the models who responded to these statistics aren't all from one age group, this behavior affects the younger girls the most. Since these problems take place in the working conditions where there are teenage and older girls, the younger models are being exposed to everything. When they see how problems are handled with not much concern at all, they're going to think that the abuse is tolerated. Without restrictions, this behavior will only continue.

"Right now the fashion industry is policing itself. The industry, for whatever reason, is resistant to change," said Sara Ziff, former runway model and spokesperson for Model Alliance, to the New York Times. Even if changes cannot be put in place, agencies and designers should encourage older and more experienced models to set healthy precedents for younger girls. In March 2010 at The MGH Harris Center public forum held at Harvard University, Michael Kors spoke on this very issue. He told the audience that since the abuse of minors in the modeling industry has grown to become a prevalent issue, he was taking steps toward creating a healthier atmosphere for girls that model in his shows. Backstage, Kors said he has plenty of healthy snacks along with sugary treats to keep his models energized. Kors made it very clear that he has no tolerance for misbehaving models who choose to take drugs and drink alcohol backstage. His approach to the issue was very professional, and his stance was clear: He will not hire girls under the age of 16, and he will protect his models' health while they're working for him. If more designers worked like Kors, the issue would be quickly resolved. But because the industry is so resistant to change, actions must be taken in order to initiate change.

But in contrast with Michael Kors's course of action, Marc Jacobs is among the pack of designers who police themselves. Recently, one of Jacobs's underage models blogged about how she was paid with only one outfit from the designer for dozens of hours worked for his NYFW Fall 2012 runway show. Although the garment is worth a significant amount of money, models should be paid fairly, like they would be for any regular job. But for fair pay to come about, working hours must be regulated for young models. In its newly released guidelines, the CFDA included a rule that models under the age of 18 should not work after midnight. But repeat offender Marc Jacobs allegedly kept a 14-year-old working past 4:30 a.m. Not only does Marc Jacobs continue to exploit young models, but he pledged "not to cast girls under the age of 16," according to the New York Times. This serves as an example to prove that age limits and restrictions have been suggested and must be carried out to improve the working conditions for underage models.

But even if the fashion industry hasn't been able to resolve these issues, the CFDA has certainly created awareness. In this year's CFDA Health Initiative, President of the Council Diane von Furstenberg said, "Working in partnership with the fashion industry, medical experts, nutritionists, and fitness trainers, the CFDA formed a committee to propose a series of positive steps designed to promote wellness and a healthier working environment. We recognize that change will take time and are committed to industry-specific educational efforts, awareness programs, support systems and evaluation and treatment options that advance our recommendations." If it weren't for the CFDA's efforts to raise awareness and work towards a healthier lifestyle for all models in the fashion industry, people wouldn't be as educated on this issue and working to stop the abuse.

Along with efforts from the CFDA and Model Alliance, the media making its own strides toward a healthier image and industry. With primarily skinny girls appearing in advertisements, some media outlets are looking to change the type of ads on the pages of popular magazines. Leading the movement is Vogue Italia Editor, Franca Sozzani. As one of the featured speakers at this year's MGH Harris Center "Health is Beauty" event at Harvard last month, Sozzani discussed the risks of becoming a model and the frequency of extremely young girls walking on runways worldwide. As she emphasized, the number-one way to ensure safety backstage at shows and photo shoots is supervision. Once they are in the industry, many young models are all on their own, as if they were adults. But when girls aren't fully developed, physically and mentally, it isn't beneficial to the industry or the girl to be left all alone. Franca Sozzani is working to eliminate ads with very young, super-thin girls from the pages of Vogue Italia. As one of the world's leading fashion magazines, if not the most important one, this action will influence other media outlets to recognize the issue and act on it properly.

The fashion industry must commit to protecting young models, especially because our generation will be setting the precedents and standards for future workers in the industry. Without restrictions and harsh rules put into place, brands and agencies will continue to abuse their power and harm young models.