Kick-Ass Model Takes Fashion’s Beauty Standards to Task

New York Fashion Week’s fiercest critic is not a fashion editor, but a model-turned-activist. In a recent editorial in The Guardian, Sara Ziff draws attention away from the clothes, and instead points to the struggles and mistreatment facing young models. Rattling off a list of offenses, Ziff spoke about the abuse young models are regularly subjected to, such as having their wages withheld, becoming trapped in detrimental one-sided contracts, and working for agencies that effectively demand that these young women develop eating disorders in order to keep their jobs.

Ziff is the founder and director of Model Alliance, a non-profit labor group for models within the American fashion industry. At age 14, Ziff began her own modeling career, walking the runways for big-name designers like Prada, Marc Jacobs, and Calvin Klein; and doing commercial work for Stella McCartney, Kenneth Cole, and Tommy Hilfiger, among others. During her time in the industry, she began to notice the culture of abuse many models—especially those younger and foreign—regularly had to deal with.

“In New York, models under 18 are legally required to have work permits signed by their employers confirming that they have abided by strict limitations on the hours children can work, including provisions for rest and meal breaks,” Ziff wrote in a 2012 op-ed for The New York Times. “Yet, in my 15 years working as a model, I have never seen a child model carrying a work permit, nor has a single agent I’ve asked.”

Last year, Ziff and Model Alliance lobbied hard to get New York state to pass the Child Model Bill. The bill–which closed a number of loopholes in child labor laws regularly exploited by the fashion industry—was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in October 2013, and enacted the following month. As a result, the largely unregulated child modeling industry has finally been forced to abide by the same labor rules that protect other state’s child performers.

Passing the bill brought out overt stories of abuse in the industry, Ziff explains in The Guardian:

“At the urging of a friend, one young, foreign model, who had remained silent throughout much of the discussion, spoke up,” Ziff writes. “Her modeling agency was withholding her earnings, she said, until she lost inches from her hips. She just wanted to get paid the money that she was owed and move to another, better agency, but she’d signed an exclusive, multi-year contract to the agency and they were sponsoring her work visa. It was either diet, or go broke.”

“The model Amy Lemons was the first to admit to me that she’d struggled to fit the clothes,” Ziff says of one of her early industry wake-up calls. “Lemons reached instant-supermodel status when she appeared on the cover of Italian Vogue at 14 years old. A few years later, as she developed a more womanly physique, she told me that her then-agency demanded that she eat only one rice cake a day—and, if that didn’t work to minimize her curves, only eat half a rice cake. Lemons got the hint: ‘They were telling me to be anorexic—flat out.’”

The fashion industry has gone to great lengths to shake off its reputation as a body-negative, fat-shaming industrial sect, but according to this latest op-ed, these efforts have been nothing more than a public relations campaign designed to deflect negative press while continuing to exploit young women with dreams of becoming supermodels.

Ziff concludes her entreaty with a few hard truths about modeling life behind the glamorous illusion.

“The individuals who are most visible during Fashion Week, it turns out, are the ones with the least power. Whatever one may think of the fashion industry and the modeling world, models are doing a job—and they deserve basic protections like anyone else who works for a living.”

Eating disorders and negative body image are real issues for young women worldwide, and activists like Ziff are trying to push back.

“We live in a culture that constantly reinforces the message that thinness and ‘perfection’ are the keys to happiness,” Claire Mysko, the director of programs at the National Eating Disorders Association recently said. “But something powerful happens when we’re given the tools to look critically at those messages and to talk back and advocate for change. I’ve seen again and again how activism can be an effective strategy in both early intervention and eating disorder recovery.”

An estimated one in five women is currently struggling with an eating disorder, and a recent study found that 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. It’s truly a shame that some portions of the fashion industry still work so hard to reinforce the body-shaming messages that are certain to influence both their own models and those of us who feel dejected knowing that we will never fit society’s standard of beauty.

We have seen that people of all shapes and sizes can be beautiful, and here’s hoping that Ziff’s advocacy can help change the unreasonable and damaging expectations of beauty, both within the fashion industry, and in the world at large.

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