Exploitation on the runway

6 Mins read

Money. Travelling for work. A ‘good’ body. These are all qualities often associated with the lifestyles of models. Not forgetting having an internationally recognisable face, being a household name, or wearing some of fashion’s most expensive clothes for your job.

While their livelihood is envied by many, any job comes with negatives. Where the occupation of modelling is concerned, this negative is exploitation.

Alyssa Daugherty was scouted for modelling after winning a competition at the age of 17. One of her first jobs was a trip to Athens to build her portfolio. Speaking to Artefact from her New York City residence, she said that the photographer not only suggested taking pictures at the beach while it was getting dark, but also that Alyssa should pose topless. She agreed to the photographer’s request but now describes the instance as ‘foolish’.

model on runway

Model’s are often exploited by others in the industry [Pixabay:Ahmad Ardity]

Daugherty has still never seen these photos of herself. After returning to the US from Athens, she repeatedly contacted the photographer for them but had no response. That was until two years after the trip, where herself and a friend bumped into the photographer at a model networking event in New York.

When confronted about the missing photos, the photographer told Daugherty his studio had flooded and insisted the photographs were water damaged. “You question whether to speak up or not, we’re people pleasers by nature, our job is to not complain, that’s how you’re successful,” she said.

The reality of being a model is more difficult than the glamour social media suggests it has. “Many think that a model’s job is just about sitting in hair and make-up and posing for the camera,” says fashion model Kaye Li Taylor, who has featured in Porter magazine. “Physical appearance is what determines whether or not we book a job and that takes a toll on your self-esteem, your ideas, your perceptions.”

Agencies are also known to use social media for scouting and linger around spaces that young people typically visit. Gisele Bundchen, one of the world’s highest paid models, walked her first runway at 17 years-old after being discovered while shopping in Sao Paulo. Chelsea based agency Storm Models scouted for fresh faces at this year’s Reading and Leeds Festival, as well as Boardmasters festival in Cornwall.

[pullquote align=”right”]“It starts to be ingrained in your own mind of how your clothes should fit – and when they don’t, you’re not at your best.”[/pullquote]The fashion industry has always had an arguably peculiar taste for youth. It has been cultivated both as a runway and editorial norm. Actress and model Brooke Shields, had one of her first “Pinch Me” moments modelling for the February cover of Vogue in 1980.

Dressed as an adult, the cover was controversial as Shields was just three months short of her 15th birthday. Designers manufacture their clothes based from slender-figured fashion illustrations, and who fits into these tiny samples? Children, as well as a supply of fatigued and malnourished models.

Alyssa Daugherty told Artefact her own experience of weight loss pressure. She was given specific hip measurements by her agency to adhere to, equivalent to that of a 12 year-old girl. She adds that when agencies order models to lose weight, they are not provided with any nutritional advice on how to do it safely. Although unrealistic, the goal weight is expected as other models are at that size whether they achieved it healthily or not.

As body measurements decrease, wages do too. Daugherty recalls featuring in a London-based make-up campaign but not receiving any money for the usage of the images. She repeatedly contacted her agency asking when she would earn the money, but her request was ignored. When Alyssa finally heard from the agency, it was to say that her feature in the campaign was taken down due to her complaints. “There’s no transparency with payments, they (the agencies) give it to the model when it suits them,” she said.

With more young people being exploited in the industry, Artefact asked both models if modelling should be an 18+ profession, both in editorial and on the runway. Kaye Li Taylor said yes, telling us that modelling will “devour” anyone immature and naive. With her first job being at the age of 16, Taylor said it took her two years to become more aware of her mind, body and voice. Daugherty agreed, describing modelling as a ‘people pleasing industry’.

The “people pleasing industry” has not been excluded from #MeToo. The movement has shifted from the sexual aggression of Hollywood to behind the scenes of editorial shoots and catwalks. Feeling unsafe on photoshoots came up in conversation with Alyssa Daugherty. She said that being on set “disregards” your identity as a human: “They will give you clothes and no place to change, they speak of your body, not you as a person.” Models are sexualised, objectified and empathy is rare.

photoshoot set

Photoshoots are just one of many places models are exploited. [Pixabay:Pexels]

#MeToo has provided a support system for the models affected and reassures that they should not silence their experiences. Although there is more work to be done, Kaye Li Taylor tells Artefact that “change is coming and is in the works.” Taylor is a part of several groups encouraging change. Model Mafia – Model Activist has played a vital role in bringing stories of abuse and exploitation to the forefront by grabbing the attention of industry executives, magazine publications and more. Another group is the Model Alliance, a research, advocacy and policy group for the global fashion industry. Earlier this year, the Model Alliance introduced the “Respect Program” #Time4Respect; an open letter to the fashion industry encouraging systemic change and reaffirming respect for victims of sexual harassment.

In October, the Model Alliance promoted a Californian law, the Talent Protections Act. Coming into effect in January 2019, the law states that agencies must provide resources relating to nutrition and eating disorders to models and entertainers. The group hopes that New York City will be next on their list to enforce the Act.

A similar law was also passed in France, which requires models to present a medical certificate confirming that their body mass index is not classed as ‘underweight’. Owners of some of the country’s top haute couture brands have banned models under 16 years-old from taking part in fashion shows, as well as demanding that 16-18 year-olds do not work overnight into the early hours of a morning.

Alyssa Daugherty said she is ‘hopeful’ and looks to technology for change. She informs Artefact of an app, Swipecast, which is like Tinder but for modelling. On there, models are booked more ethically as professionals swipe through the profiles of models instead of going through an agency. “Models need to wake up to that opportunity (technology), the easiest way to get it is by uniting in a genuine way,” Daugherty adds.

[pullquote align=”right”]“There should be more of a purpose than personal gain.”[/pullquote]However, using a hashtag only goes so far. In order to prevent exploitation further, agencies have introduced strict codes of conduct. Wilhelmina, a modelling and talent agency headquartered in New York City, has nine sub-sections regarding model care and safety in their Terms and Conditions.

It includes information such as scantily-clad or nude photography requiring written approval, ensuring that models take regular refreshment and rest breaks, that adequate insurance levels are met too, and that models are provided with appropriate changing and dressing areas to maintain privacy.

Artefact spoke to a model signed with Wilhelmina, who only wanted to be known as ‘T’. Before she was signed, ‘T’ went to a shoot for a Manchester-based womenswear brand, “It was in a horrible warehouse where they packaged the clothing, full of men that were staring as I was having the photos taken.” As she was keen to help the company, ‘T’ completed the shoot quickly and was authorised to leave early, only to find out the day after that the brand paid her less due to her early exit.

Apart from that instance, ‘T’ says her experience has been up to scratch, “In modelling I thought I’d have to lose weight, they (Wilhelmina) didn’t push me to be bigger or smaller, they don’t try and change you so that you’re good for the job, they find jobs good for you.”

The future for modelling depends on moving forward and uniting against problems caused in the current climate. To any person, of any age, thinking of making modelling their occupation, Alyssa Daugherty gives you some advice – “Modelling should never be your end goal, a much healthier approach is that it’s a resource.”

Although it can get you into the good books of famous companies and decision makers, there should be more of a purpose than personal gain. Learning the business of fashion, being kind and knowing, “your worth and your power to break barriers”, is what Kaye Li Taylor advises, and adds that it is something she is telling herself.




You can follow Alyssa Daugherty on Instagram: @lysdaugherty, Kaye Li Taylor on Instagram: @kayelitaylor, or visit her website:

Featured image by Pexels via Pixabay CC 

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