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The Skin Trade

WHAT DOES IT take to succeed in an intensely competitive, cutting-edge industry? You need to show ambition, clearly, while never exuding unbecoming eagerness. For the right kind of exposure, you may have to work for free—even go into debt. You need to be calculating with your acquaintances, but avoid close connections with possible competitors. Above all, you need to stay beholden to the unlikely dream of success and the rare moments of magic, building calluses and erecting blinders to the unpleasant and grueling realities.

Such self-steeling is required for a career in any number of creative fields: journalism, novel-writing, acting, design, singing, dancing. But the world in which such demands come into perhaps the sharpest relief is that of the fashion model. The modeling world, with increased intensity in recent decades, has become one of freakish and outsized expectations—professionally and physically. Look no further than the apex of the industry, the high-end catwalk model, for the starkest example: she is often a size 00, with a waist that compares to a seven-year-old girl’s. For all the beauty it regularly displays, there is something deeply twisted about this industry. In her new book, the former-model and current professor of sociology Ashley Mears untangles just how crazy the fashion industry can be.

The physical requirements for the high-end model, while upsetting and grotesque, are not exactly unfamiliar. As an agent half-joked to Mears at the outset of her teenage modeling career: “Anorexia is in this season.” The quotation is from a decade ago, but it is safe to say that skinniness is still the thing. Everyone from Naomi Wolf to Naomi Campbell has debated the meaning and implications of size-zero, primarily white beauty. In 2006, Spain banned ultra-thin models from participating in catwalk shows. When theNew York Public Library held a panel discussion titled “Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color” in 2007, it sold out.

But what is surprising, and what Mears does an excellent job underlining, are the truly baffling elements of the industry. For one, modeling, for the vast majority, is not a lucrative career; it is barely a sustainable one. This is in part because of the explosion of the industry over the past two decades—an increase in supply without a real increase in demand. The internet has allowed scouts to multiply and coordinate their efforts internationally; there are now more models than ever scouted abroad and brought to the United States and Europe. To accommodate the number of non-American models, a House bill proposed a special visa, so that models would not have to compete with other specialty workers like engineers. Fashion-oriented reality television has advertised the industry, promoting an anyone-can-enter and anyone-can-win ethos. (As long as you’re as fierce as Tyra Banks tells you to be.)

The greater supply of models has prompted a contraction in rates—even for high-end work—to shockingly low levels. The average magazine shoot, for example, pays about $100 a day. For appearing on the cover of Vogue a model gets an additional $300. “Many magazines,” writes Mears, “pay nothing at all, though lunch and snacks are often provided.” (I’m guessing that most models don’t gain real compensation through snacking.) Payment for walking in a Fashion Week show in London (where rates, admittedly, are lower than in other cities) is $500. The median income across America in 2009 for a model was $27,330—income that includes no benefits.

Owing to this dynamic, in which desired work is poorly paid, “successful” models are often the most impoverished. Models can actually go into debt through working if their agency fronts the cost of start-up expenses, like photos and transportation. In the less prestigious world of catalog or showroom work, models actually make a living—and keep their agencies afloat. At the New York agency that represented Mears, “the highest consecutive earner, year after year,” she writes, “is a showroom model who has the precise size 8 body needed to fit clothing for a major American retailer.” The model charged $500 per hour; she was, at the time of Mears’s research, 52 years old. Though such “money girls” supply the bulk of an agency’s income, they are considered a drag—workhorses who don’t do much to burnish an agency’s prestige. The golden ring for both models and agencies is a high-end campaign—for a fragrance (which pays, on average, about $100,000) or some other luxury good. This type of job makes money and preserves stature.

Such are the twisted hierarchies that rule the economics of the modeling industry: good work is poorly paid, well-paid work is ignoble. Additional contradictions abound. Bookers want their models to have a good personality, but a cookie-cutter cheeriness is frowned upon. Models should be young, to avoid seeming like the-next-best-thing-that-never-was, but experience is an undeniable asset. Eighteen of the twenty women interviewed for the book—in addition to the author herself—consistently lied about their ages to potential clients. Non-white models face many more obstacles than white models in obtaining representation and booking jobs, due to an entrenched racism that permeates the industry. “Black girls have a harder-edge kind of look,” says one magazine editor, explaining her aversion to what Mears calls “urban roughness.” A booker claims to Mears that “a lot of very beautiful black girls are moved out by their noses.” If they are too wide, the booker, explains, they do not photograph well. And yet a hint of color can be a priceless asset, the ambiguous “ethnic” look one of the most coveted. To her credit, Mears doesn’t let this repulsiveness go. “What matters is not the truth or falsehood of physical differences between white and non-white women but, rather, bookers’ presumption that such differences are unattractive and problematic.” Hear hear, but shouldn’t such a sentiment be front and center rather than indirect and buried?

Perhaps the most central question underlying the book—the question of success, of what makes a good model—is prone to the greatest illogic and shrouded by the most impermeable mystery. A distinct “editorial” look is one that, in Mears’s words sits “on the border between beautiful and ugly.” As an agency accountant puts it: “An editorial girl—you’ll see her, she’ll look awful, like my God, what’s that?” Sufficient height and a decent nose are the two qualities that scouts look for first, but there are innumerable other factors—an abundance of rules, but no clear path to success. “There is no authority … to organize the competition or declare the winner,” writes Mears. And yet Mears contends that “in fact, you can explain it.” In this respect, her book satisfies. Mears catalogues the perversities and picks apart the underlying drivers of the industry: marketing, timing, networks.

But what Mears doesn’t do—at least to a degree that appeased me—is indict, accuse, and generally shout about the grotesqueries of the industry. It’s not just that the ideal form of the industry is unattainable. Paradigmatic figures in many creative or athletic industries embody physical states far beyond the commonplace, and there is much to celebrate in the physical investment that, for example, ballerinas or sumo wrestlers make. Modeling, however, is not an art or a sport. It is an industry—inspired by artistic ideals, but driven by commerce—where pay is low, prestige is elusive, super-skinny is always in, and the workers are young and inexperienced. It is an industry that valorizes women who starve themselves, excusing it by citing designers who desire a “hanger look”—flat canvases for their clothes—and tolerates casual racism that sidelines models with any color to their skin.

It is not Mears’s mission to pick a feminist fight or to argue strenuously against “laissez-faire racism.” In ably laying out the evidence, she provides a valuable service, while, I assume, preserving the greatest degree of academic credibility. (This is a book published by a young professor and a university press.) But whenever her prose gains a little heat, the subject is her own experience. Her own foibles are well-related, but it is the in the industry’s foibles—the darker ones, such as its unhealthy obsessions and its racial prejudices—that the true perversions lie.

Chloë Schama is Deputy Editor of The New Republic.