“Underage” and “model:” these words have practically become synonymous. This past Wednesday, the New York State Legislature passed a measure (A7787-2013) that could change this by calling for underage models to be treated as child performers and to be under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor. The result of the legislation (which still must be approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo) could affect nothing less than the look of models in high-profile events such as Fashion Week.
There are indeed some very young models walking the runways as a list of models (via New York Magazine) reveals. According to the New York Times, most models start their careers before they turn 18 and some as early as 13 or 14.
In New York, underage models are currently subject to regulation under the Department of Education, but these rules have not routinely been enforced, meaning that models under 18 in New York — a city that is home to numerous designers, brands and magazines – are working with “no significant workplace protections.”
It has been up to employers to “do the right thing” regarding the treatment of underaged models and some have. Vogue recently announced that it will not use models who are younger than 16 and the Council of Fashion Designers of America has called for its members to set a minimum age of 16 for models; most designers, but not all, have complied.
New York’s Proposed Regulations to Protect Underaged Models
Were underaged models to be considered child performers, they would fall under the Department of Labor’s far more stringent regulations and oversight. Employers would have to apply for permits to hire them and document all the hours they worked; they could be investigated by the Labor Department if they did not comply.
Under the proposed legislation, underaged models would not be allowed to work past midnight on school nights. They could only work eight hours a day during school hours for no more than two days in a row and only with school permission. They would also have to have twelve hours of rest between work days and be allotted study time, tutors and space for instruction. A “responsible person” would have to be designated to monitor the activity and safety of a model aged 16 years and under. 15 percent of a young model’s earnings would have to be be placed in a separate, restricted bank account set up by a parent or guardian.
Huge Pressure on Underaged Models
Girls in high school who work as models are under “tremendous pressure” to put aside their education, as Sara Ziff, a former model (she started when she was 14) and founder of an advocacy group, Model Alliance, says to the New York Times. Ziff worked with politicians on the proposed changes to the law. As she also notes, underaged models may also feel pressured to agree to photo shoots that are inappropriate for their ages; part of Model Alliance’s mission also seeks “redress for issues of sexual harassment” in the interest of creating a “safe and healthy work environment that protects models’ mental and physical wellbeing.”
The fashion council seems open to the new regulations. The real opponent is likely to be modeling agencies which have long been wary of attempts to regulate them, says the New York Times.
Other states have long had such regulations in place. New York adopting such could have a particularly significant impact on the rest of the country and specifically on the fashion industry. As Time magazine comments, the industry has of late sought out models who are not only skinny but who have an androgynous look “and the ideal has become a tall skinny teenager who has yet to flower into full womanhood — no curves whatsoever.” Models with underdeveloped bodies that are not like that of an adult woman’s have been the most sought after to display designer clothes that, as Ziff points out, are marketed to adults. Would it not make more sense to have adult models wearing them?
As Susan Scafidi, academic director or Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute observes, designers and magazines are likely to take the easier route of hiring models 18 years and older. The “biggest” impact of the law could well be that older models get more work which, as she says in Women’s Wear Daily, “wouldn’t be a bad thing” as “model careers are very short.”
Scafidi’s statement about the brevity of a model’s career is troubling in itself as it suggests how (certainly in the fashion industry) youth is equated with beauty. A report that circulated a few weeks ago about models eating tissues to suppress their appetites is about as much evidence as anyone should need for why this industry needs to be reformed, as well as why we’ve a long, long way to go in changing cultural notions about what beauty is.
In view of repeated concerns about models’ health and susceptibility to anorexia and mistreatment, the need for more well-defined and extensive protections for underaged models — and for enforcement of them — in New York is more than overdue. An underaged model in an elaborate designer’s clothes should be seen not as some ideal of beauty but as a child in an elaborate outfit working long hours when she should have been in school.
Photo via Dilia Oviedo/Flickr