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How far has the modelling industry come?

How far has the modelling industry come?

How Far Has The Modelling Industry Come Article Cover Image

Haider Ackermann backstage at Paris Fashion Week Fall Winter Collection 2015.

The treatment of models in the fashion industry has come under intense scrutiny in recent years.

News stories, such as the revelations from last year’s Paris Fashion Week – one major fashion house left 150 women in an unlit and closed-off stairwell for three hours waiting for their castings, and another agency allegedly refused to see black models during casting sessions – have shone a spotlight on the risks and pressures faced by models trying to do their jobs. And these are risks posed from the model agencies or managers, the very people who are supposed to look after their models.

The unregulated industry means models are exposed to the potential for exploitation more than in many other sectors. The anonymous Instagram account Shit Model Management mocks the callousness of the industry with memes captioned with off-the cuff one-liners like ‘When the casting call says “ugly models” and you know you’ve got this in the bag’ and ‘You’re not a model unless you’ve cried in the back seat of a cab’. It’s a light-hearted way of drawing attention to the pressures faced by models, but if anything, scrolling through the Instagram feed makes it all the more concerning about how normalised it seems.

In a recent interview with i-D magazine, the mystery model behind the account said she started it as a way to vent her frustrations about essentially being at the beck and call of her agency. She wanted to do it in a funny, accessible way, but acknowledges the reality can be a lot more harmful. Even the account’s tagline reads ‘We all want to quit’.

Shit Model is run by a ‘ Model exposing the truth’ – credit: Shit Model Management Instagram

On the subject of Instagram, the rise of the app has surely contributed to the social acceptability of the harsh judgement of people based solely on looks, with no thought given to the person behind the photo.

Of course, Instagram is not the only modern medium that has contributed to trolling and obsession with image, but its simple layout and accessibility makes it an unparalleled bombardment of imagery. Think about it: in the space of just five minutes on the app, your brain could be absorbing the visual messages from over a hundred Instagram posts.

I’ve heard younger relatives of friends, about twelve or thirteen years old, talk about the latest Instagram post from some or other Kardashian or Hadid, no doubt airbrushed to the hilt, and portraying a wholly unrealistic idea of ‘physical beauty’. I’ve heard them talk about their thighs, for God’s sake, or how important it is to have a new Mac concealer. It’s nothing less than tragic to hear these conversations between girls of such a formative age, and think about the massive impact of the modelling industry on their values and self-worth.

One of the most influential players in the fashion industry is Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie Leviathan lusted after by girls and women worldwide. So what does it take to model for them? Victoria’s Secret ‘Angel’ Adriana Lima disclosed that, in the nine days before the annual underwear extravaganza that is the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, she cuts out solid foods entirely, sustaining herself on a liquid diet while simultaneously working out twice a day. Then twelve hours beforehand, everything goes, including water, to avoid any hint of, for want of a better word when describing VS models, a bloat. It’s enough to make me want to order an extra large Domino’s.

One former VS model left the fashion industry entirely, and later said she couldn’t handle the pressure to be “incredibly thin”, describing how her agency told her she wouldn’t secure any bookings if she didn’t lose weight from her thighs and hips.

Of course, in response to this exposure of degrading, harmful treatment within the fashion industry, a new wave of ‘body positive’ rhetoric has emerged. Bloggers and journalists such as Grace Victory , Ruby Tandoh and Hadley Freeman have led the way in calling the industry out for not only fat-shaming the vast majority of females who don’t fit into the high-fashion ‘ideal’, but also for the treatment of their own employees. Hadley Freeman writes that it’s something of an easy option to “see models as mean girls, deliberately making us sadface with their skinniness, as opposed to thinking about what goes into making these images”. When horror stories about the industry do come out, she considers that the public are just as much to blame as the industry itself for “failing to see models for what they are: vulnerable young women”.

Philosophy fashion show backstage
Hairstylists, makeup artists, and models backstage at the Philosophy fashion show, Fall 2008 New York Fashion Week.

But it would be naïve to say it was only females affected by the pressures of the modelling industry. Male models have an increasing role in the fashion industry which has typically been centred around women.

I talked to one nineteen-year old male student with previous modelling experience said that when he was approached at the age of sixteen it was “quite a buzz” to come into London for fancy photoshoots and “get told about how you’ll get paid to go abroad to places like New York and Japan”. However, he made the reluctant decision to step away from modelling, as the commitments were having too great an impact on his school work. He’d been offered a job in a high-profile designer campaign in America, but the shoot was due to take place during the run-up to his A-Level exams so he turned it down. This meant he was effectively out of the industry, he tells me, as he was dropped by the agency shortly after. He then decided to accept a place at university which he also knew would not give him the time to pursue modelling on the side.

He added;

“It’s difficult to earn any money during the first few months of building a portfolio, and unless you are willing to pay to go to all the castings and photoshoots, or your agency pays for you, it’s almost impossible to progress.”

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Nevertheless, he said he would go back to modelling if he felt able to balance it alongside his studies and is grateful for the opportunities the agency was offering him. Although “the treatment can at times be a little cold and factory-like”, he considers this an inevitable consequence of the industry. “Their job is selling you, as their product, for your looks”.


This matter-of-fact approach, to me, sums it up well. Modelling is based on a degree of superficiality, and with that may come callousness and discrimination. While people are acknowledging the exploitation of the fashion industry, its influence simultaneously seems only to be growing. Modelling has a long way to go to shed its nasty reputation and I’m not sure it will ever get there.

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