Consent and Safety in the Modeling Industry
Photographed by Devin Ricks of Ryan Backus
By Ryan Backus
Being an industry where the average starting age is from sixteen to twenty-one, modeling can be a dangerous and exploitative place for individuals to be in as they are coming into adulthood. When working with powerful people in the business, it can feel nearly impossible to say no to things that make you uncomfortable without losing your job. There are also the countless other dangers such as sexual misconduct, eating disorders, and even the mistreatment of models of color and trans/nonbinary models. So how can an industry that prides itself on creating beauty not change its ugliness behind the scenes?
One of the first, and most dangerous, experiences a young model can face are scam model calls. These can come from an array of different sources, but in the modern age, most of them now happen online. Model Alliance, an organization concerned with safety and rights in the modeling industry, shares that a website called Model Mayhem is notorious for letting anyone pose as an agent or photographer, putting those that fall for these calls in imminent danger. There are many other websites like this as well that must be avoided at all costs as some models have been reported missing or have been sexually assaulted when pursuing these listings. Another source of scams affecting young models is through Facebook and Instagram. These frauds come from random messages that say they are offering a casting call or booking that they think you would be perfect for. It's probably a fraud if someone asks you to send them provocative pictures of yourself, demands payment in any amount, or makes a generous offer. The message you receive should also have no grammatical problems and should not guarantee you a meeting or a position with a well-known photographer or designer. These are other red flags that suggest a potential fraud.
As stated before, sexual misconduct and assault is unfortunately common not only at these casting calls, but in the entire modeling industry itself. When a past stylist was accused by multiple models of misconduct while being dressed backstage for aggressively pulling down their pants and underwear, Designer Karl Lagerfeld was quoted saying, “It’s unbelievable. If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model! Join a nunnery, there’ll always be a place for you in the convent. They’re recruiting even!” This disgusting mindset is what leads models to believe that if someone is making them uncomfortable, they do not have a right to stand up for themselves. In many different industries, such as theatre and film, people are moving towards a consent-based model for intimate things such as dressing and fittings. If a dresser or stylist is not asking for consent or is touching inappropriately, the model should have the right to stand up and tell them to stop without having to lose their job. Unfortunately, this consent-based thinking has not caught up with the antiquated modeling industry, but if models and others in the business continue to stand up, hopefully in the next few years the industry will begin to step up.
Consent is not only needed backstage on the runway, but also on editorial shoots. It is quite common for young models to be pressured into being topless or even fully nude for a shoot when it was not previously stated in their contract or by their manager. If a manager or agent is not present, it can be extremely hard to deny these things, and most models will be pressured into doing so even when they are not comfortable. Therefore, having a good agent who truly has the model’s best interest at heart is necessary for every model in the industry. Having an agent be “the bad guy” and say no to an uncomfortable shoot can not only help save a model’s job but also protect their wellbeing and mental health.
Having your face and body as a source of income can also add a lot of pressure and stress on young models as well. Constantly being critiqued on weight and being told they are not the correct height or size can lead models into dangerous eating patterns. According to studies, 40% of models have eating disorders, but specialists think the actual percentage is far higher. These harmful patterns are caused by body shaming coming from agents, photographers, and sometimes even other models. 62% of models surveyed by The Model Alliance said their agency or someone else in the business has requested they lose weight or change their shape or size.
One of the saddest examples of eating disorder culture in modeling is the Victoria Secret Angel diet. Model Adriana Lima opened up about the extreme diets the girls were forced to take on before the iconic fashion show. She claimed she would work out twice a day and would only drink liquids for the nine days leading up to the show, then would cut out liquids twelve hours before the show. This dangerous diet is one of many that models are pressured or even forced into doing to have the “perfect body” prior to a shoot or runway show. The truth is your body is not perfect if you do not feel good in it. Beauty should not be pain and properly fueling your body, while still staying healthy and getting all nutrients, is the only way to get your own personal “perfect body.”
These diets make it glaringly obvious that plus-size models are ostracized throughout the industry. In the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, Robin Manning, was branded as the only “plus sized” contestant of the group. It is later shown that Robin is only size ten, which would be on the lower end of a size large today. This cycle repeats with girls being branded as plus sized if over a size six. Although this thinking has improved slightly since the show aired in 2003, plus sized models are often only used in runway to show the brands “diversity.”
This horrendous treatment is also quite common for models of other races and genders. Cosmopolitan conducted an interview of a few anonymous models concerning the horror stories that they have experienced in the industry. One anonymous model stated, "I got a semi-exclusive for an A-list show with an opening guarantee during my first season in Paris. When [the designer] found out I was transgender, something no one knows about to this day, they canceled my booking; they somehow considered it a risk — that it would draw too much attention, something they thought would affect the brand negatively: A very doubtful decision, especially considering that I was [then] an unknown, new face." (Torgerson, 2017.) Naomi [Campbell] mentioned in 2012 that the industry is only moving backwards. “Change needs to happen, and models should be treated fairly, as human beings." (Torgerson, 2017.)
With all this information in mind, anyone considering modeling as a career must understand these situations and how to avoid them. Safety should be your number one priority -- even if it can cost you a job. One of the biggest things needed when booking a job is to research and voice any concerns you have. “If a modeling agency, photographer, or other industry individual reaches out to you, do a Google search to see if their personal or company name appears in any searches and whether there have been positive or negative reviews posted. In addition, check to see if they have a website and have credible information and updated content such as a blog posted to their site” (McKenzie, 2021.) It is also important to try to never go to casting or shoots alone. Bring along an agent or friend if possible. If not, share your location with a few of your friends and try to scout out the location beforehand when possible. Knowing your surroundings and who you are working with is the key to safety. Finally, make yourself comfortable with setting boundaries as it is the most important trait to have in this industry. Remember that as a model, you have the right to say no to things that make you uncomfortable. One of the best ways to avoid this in general is to make sure you fully read and negotiate any contracts or model releases you need to sign beforehand to secure your safety and comfort.
While modeling seems like a scary and dangerous industry, with the help of current and new model voices, a huge change can be made for the better. Pressing higher ups about consent and keeping models safe is one of the best ways to make the industry adapt. Giving models this information should be a priority for all agents as this can help us assure a safer and friendlier modeling industry.