California’s new ban on “too skinny” models follows on the footsteps of France and Israel—but will it work?
State Assemblyman Marc Levine has introduced a bill, AB 2539, which he hopes will create health standards for models.
Speaking to the press, Levine said of his proposed legislation:
“Society has these outrageous expectations for what women are supposed to look like, and for most women, it’s impossible to look that way.
“With my bill, we can protect the health and safety of fashion models, but we can have a societal impact to make sure that women and girls have a healthy body image.”
Levine’s bill would require modeling agencies in California to be licensed by the California Labor Commission.
The bill would require the commission to maintain a database of all models’ health certificates. This bill wouldn’t force models to maintain a certain body mass index; rather it would require state regulators to develop appropriate standards to protect the health of girls and women, many of them under the age of 18.
One of the most interesting aspects of this bill is the licensing of modeling agencies, which would prevent fraud and theft. As someone working as an international model, I can tell you it’s incredible how treacherous these waters are to navigate.
I’ve worked with agencies at the bottom of the hierarchical totem pole and at the top. Some of my experiences have been great, others a disaster. It takes a couple of years and a lot of good working experience to learn what is normal agency procedure and what is not.
Much varies from country to country. I’ve seen agents threaten and intimidate young girls, and I’ve heard of bookers who encourage their models to escort as a way to pay their expenses.
Monitoring health and unfair body demands is crucial to the modeling industry—but it’s only a start. There needs to be a shift in thinking about acceptable and professional standards for employing models in general.
Many agents I’ve come across behave as if being “beautiful” is payment in itself and try to trick models into working 10- to 12-hour days, without any extra pay or for pay well below the minimum wage.
These same agents further the illusion that modeling is so glamorous that a model has no right to complain and protest. And many justify creepy behavior by insisting that “it’s just part of the job.”
Indeed, most of the injustice in the fashion industry happens behind closed doors, with models too nervous about losing work to say anything or complain.
There are many girls who will put up with a lot—too much in fact—because they have a family to support, or they want to leave their native country of origin and seek better opportunities abroad.
Many girls are still teenagers—and unaware how exploitative and nasty people can be.
To enforce a licensing of modeling agencies should mean that modeling agencies must be held to the same standards of other employers.
Currently, most models are employed by agencies as “freelancers” under contract rather than as employees. A bad agency would use this strategy to avoid paying benefits and taxes—sometimes even as an excuse to ignore local labor laws.
A bad agency will try to rope a model into a contract that is nearly impossible for him or her to break, and with absolutely no clauses of protection. When I attempted to leave such an agency I’d previously worked with in the Middle East, the agent I dealt with insisted that I had no right to break the contract—even though they’d scheduled no work for me for months and owed me money.
The agent told me that I was forcibly bound to work with them until 2018. Fortunately, because the agency admitted in writing that they owed me money they’d not yet paid me, I was able to insist in return that our contract was void.
To be honest, I had to have a parent and a couple of lawyers look over the contract to confirm I was in the right.
My heart broke thinking of all the young women without such back-up resources—whose interests and ambitions would be squished by a greedy bully with zero investment or interest in their working future.
One model I worked with in Istanbul was encouraged by her agency to “have dinner with soccer players” (who “always paid for breakfast”) after she complained about how little she was earning.
Another friend—this time a male model (who have their own unique and yet similar problems)—wasn’t paid for eight months by an agency abroad. He was aggressive in his attempts to get the money due him, and was only taken seriously after he threatened legal action.
This same agency attempted to contact me to work with them. When I expressed my concern on his behalf, they viciously maligned my friend, telling me he was a “difficult exception.”
A good agency, in contrast, is always transparent. The ones I’ve dealt with do so in a way that suggests they are keenly self-aware of what is happening elsewhere in the industry.
You meet the accountant and numbers are discussed upfront. The contract is clear, with protective clauses on both sides—and no verbal threats about what will happen should it be broken.
In New York, nine former models have brought a class-action lawsuit against their former agencies, claiming that they were kept in the dark about finances and were unable to leave due to a dependency on delayed payments from the agency.
“The lack of financial transparency has always been viewed as the ghost in the room and it knowingly and sometimes unknowingly affects every model in the industry,” wrote model Alex Shanklin in a 2014 open letter during a court case, suing his former agency, regarding this lack of transparency.
“Since this issue has never been properly addressed, the core of the problem has created a sense of fear, enabling the agencies to operate in an environment of learned helplessness towards the models.”
Many models are healthy girls. I often tell my friends that no, it’s not the 1980s anymore and models are expected to look a certain way which really can only be achieved by intensive physical training and water consumption.
Hangovers, bad skin, and bad teeth affect the potential to have a job. What is really dangerous is when a job flow slows down. One season a girl may book everything, and then the next she won’t. Agents are the model’s managers. A good agent will offer good advice (I have agents who ask me to eat more), and a bad agent will gently recommend shedding some “inches” from your figure.
When I was a teenager, puberty was terrible to me. One year I would be waif, the next I would have breasts. It was a rollercoaster of physical uncertainty.
I had been approached by an agency in my hometown of Toronto when I was in high school. I went in for a meeting, and the scout I met with brought out a measuring tape (some years I would fear the measuring tape, others I wouldn’t).
This scout meticulously measured my hips, my waist, my chest, everything. After carefully jotting down the exact numbers in his notebook, he told me that because I had ‘larger’ hips (38 inches at the time), I would need to “shed some inches” to become a runway-desired 33-34 inches. To be fair, this was before any legislation had been introduced—in general—to protect models and fight eating disorders.
At that age, I knew how to lose weight. But inches? How did one shed inches instead of pounds? He suggested running and a careful diet, lots of green tea. My grandfather suggested I try a different agency.
Of all the many thousands of models around the world, only a few will make it à la Gigi Hadid. There are many unknown models whose faces you’ve seen on billboards and in stores, but whose names you do not know.
The societal opinion of “Well, she’s pretty and the job is fun and glamorous so that is payment enough,” is a thought that needs to be eliminated from global consciousness.
Models aren’t doing this job merely for kicks, we too have bills to pay. A landlord will not accept “glamorous life experience” for rent payment.
Models need what any other workers have guaranteed to them: a respect for their human rights, and to be treated like real, employed people. To take advantage of women because they are beautiful is sexist and inappropriate.
Those involved in the fashion industry must stop shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Well, it’s part of the business, what can we do?”
I applaud the introduction of the California bill, and hope that the other states will take note. Agencies must be held to a higher standard, and to enforce licensing is a start to eliminating other unprofessional practices in the business.