The Boston Globe capped off New York Fashion Week Fall 2018 with the publication of their piece on sexual exploitation and abuse in the fashion industry. It is alleged that some high profile designers, photographers, stylists, agents and other industry professionals have engaged in sexual harassing behavior. This account comes on the heels of the New York Times article on male models and sexual exploitation where famed photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber are named as alleged sexual predators.
Both pieces dovetail with the #metoo movement. Both male and female fashion models leveled allegations against many prominent people in the fashion industry. In the Globe story, Patrick Demarchelier, who was Princess Diana’s personal photographer; David Bellemere, whose photos have appeared on the covers of Elle and Marie Claire Italy; and Greg Kadel, who has shot for mega brands like Victoria’s Secret and Vogue are alleged to be sexual predators. All who have been named have denied the allegations.
For a fashion model, success is the ability to incite desire. The job requirements often include nudity and feigning seduction; provocation is a lever for sales. In the industry, boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable treatment of models have been etched in shades of gray. The fashion industry by its very nature fosters an environment of beauty, luxury, fun and sexiness.
However, beyond the glitz and glamour, there is a seedier side beneath the veneer of divine sublimity carefully crafted and upheld by glossy magazines and tabloids. One where sexual exploitation, drug abuse, bullying and eating disorders can plague models. Models who are young and eager-to-please, are often easy targets for exploitation and abuse. There are models who are able to reach a level of celebrity and success and bypass the abuses described in this piece. However, for many models, they are part of a ecosystem that can chew them up and spit them out. While these alleged abuses happen to a small number of models, it should not be happening at all.
Why would someone willingly want to be a part of this seemingly toxic environment? For the potential opportunities and prospects that modeling can lead to: wealth, celebrity and access. For many models this is their best chance for a shot at a better life. Therefore, they are willing to subject themselves to a potentially harmful work environment. This is the same rationale we've heard used by young Hollywood actresses and actors anxious for their big break. For many models, they've understood that this was the price of entry into this industry. However, it's actually an abuse of power and sexual harassment.
Oftentimes, female models are predominantly alleged victims but male models have been harassed and assaulted too. In fashion, young men are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Male models are “the least respected and most disposable,” said former model Trish Goff during an interview for the The New York Times article. Male models have described a system of unnecessary nudity and intimidating sexual behavior.
One account given in the Globe article from male model RJ King. King describes an encounter when he was 18 yrs old and, "was sent by his former agency to a photographer’s Manhattan apartment to be considered for an upcoming job. There, with no one else present, the photographer casually offered him beer and drugs and then sexually assaulted him while he was changing his clothes. When he finished,” King said, “it was the lowest I probably have ever felt. ”The incident, King said, left him wondering: “Is this what the industry is like? Is this what I’m going to continue to have to face?” The Boston Globe and New York Times stories detail many more accounts of alleged abuse with corroborating details from victims.
Model RJ King
For many models, even though they believed a line had been crossed, the choice is clear - comply and secure your career or disagree and possibly end your career. Because models are independent contractors, they are not covered by workplace protections that cover most employees. Furthermore, there are no national or international regulations that protect young models.
After learning of the alleged abuses of these models, you may be left wondering what can be done to prevent future abuses from happening? New York state passed a law in 2014 classifying models under 18 years old as "child performers" setting a limit on how much they can work and under what circumstances. Enforcing this law has been difficult though. Real change will need to begin with a culture shift within the industry, meaningful sexual abuse education, proper complaint processes, and independent enforcement. In addition, a system that encourages another model to step in and replace a model who doesn't comply needs to overhauled. It creates an environment where models will do anything to succeed thus perpetuating the abuse. A society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Those of us who are a part of the fashion industry have a obligation to ensure this abuse doesn't continue.
Were you shocked to learn about the alleged sexual abuse of fashion models? What would you suggest as a solution(s) to end the abuse?
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