Soapbox

Fashion models have rights, too

Models walk the runway during Paris fashion week last month.
Models walk the runway during Paris fashion week last month. The Associated Press

When I was an 18-year-old college student in San Diego, a woman told me I had the chance to be someone special, but I had to lose weight.

I was 5-foot-9, and 135 pounds, an awkward teenager bullied in high school. My mother was in a hospital with a terminal illness, and my father was there with her. Losing weight was probably the only thing I could control. If I had the potential to be a model, why shouldn’t I at least try?

And so I only ate protein and vegetables and ran 3, 6, 10 miles a day. In eight weeks, I had lost 20 pounds, and I returned to the agent’s office. I modeled in California and New York from 2006 until 2010, when I quit to graduate from college. Most of that time, I was starving, though I denied that fact to my father, my friends, my co-workers. My period stopped. I was cold all the time. I stayed up late nights obsessively chronicling how many calories I’d eaten.

I never made a lot of money. But most models do not. How could they, with unpaid jobs, even for the world’s biggest designers, unregulated agencies managing their finances and no legal rights as employees?

Assembly Bill 2539, which is scheduled to be heard before the Assembly Labor and Employment committee on Wednesday, is important and necessary because it has the power to change the lives of thousands of young girls who suffer like I once did. The bill would give models the workplace protections they deserve, protections that actors in California have enjoyed for the past 100 years.

Modeling agencies are opposing the bill, mainly because it would require them to be regulated and licensed as talent agencies. But are frustrations over regulations worth sacrificing a young girl’s sanity and potentially her life? Anorexia nervosa kills more women than any other mental illness, and 40 percent of models report having an eating disorder.

Many will argue that models know what they’re getting themselves into, but most also assume that modeling is glamorous and well-paid.

In truth, the fact that this multi-billion-dollar industry is unregulated only serves to make these problems worse, because keeping silent is encouraged. Models work under exclusive contracts with agencies, limiting how they can manage their finances. Many models are in debt to their agencies, and since they are misclassified as independent contractors, they have no legal protection.

It took me many years and quitting the industry to learn this. At 29, I still think about my weight occasionally, even after years of therapy and recovery from an eating disorder. I am still friends with models, and it turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt abused. Some were told to lose extreme amounts of weight or were sexually harassed by clients. Many never got paid what they were owed. And almost all of them have left the industry.

My experience led me to volunteer with the Model Alliance, an advocacy group for labor rights within the industry. I get to work with young women and men and help them define themselves as visible workers in an industry that runs on invisible labor.

But I’m just one person. AB 2539 is an unprecedented bill that could change how the industry works. Modeling is a job, like any other. And models deserve to be happy, healthy and safe.

Meredith Hattam is a digital strategist at the Model Alliance, based in New York. She can be contacted at meredith@modelalliance.org.

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