Former model discusses why fashion models have remained silent on the subject of sexual harassment.
While Hollywood’s skeletons seem to be trickling out of its walk-in closet almost daily, another side of the entertainment industry remains silent on the subject of sexual harassment. Fashion models have remained tight-lipped on the matter, and I am not surprised. My own stint in the modeling industry in New York City gave me enough “me too” type scenarios to last a lifetime, yet few models ever speak about what goes on at a casting call, photo shoot, or agency meeting.
Is it because our society has accepted the narrative the modeling industry is “just that way” and always has been? If so, it is a dangerous way of thinking and would only open the door for more sexual harassment to occur without any repercussions.
Granted, every now and then an article will attempt to expose the treatment of models at a photo shoot or backstage at fashion week. While these articles often garner a modest amount of attention, they do not rightfully address the layers of underlying issues that many models are fearful to discuss.
While actors can usually continue to evolve and change throughout their career, models are given a relatively short runway to make or break their careers. In short, this means that speaking out against sexual harassment would virtually dissolve any hope of staying in the industry.
While some measures have begun to be put in place to prevent girls as young as fourteen or fifteen from walking the runway at fashion week, the practice still is not uncommon. Making matters more difficult for new models is that they cannot take classes or courses to prepare for the occupation, as the only real tools provided were predetermined by a genetic lottery.
The real issues arise when an aspiring model first arrives at a casting in New York City and quickly realizes that there are thousands of others just like her. Immediately she has come to terms with the fact that she is easily replaceable. Who would have the nerve to speak out in a system like that? Not many.
The modeling and fashion industry together have spent years building and adding to the narrative that the business is “cut-throat” and “not everyone can make it.” This narrative has led to, for lack of a better word, brainwashing, of young vulnerable models to have these insurmountable expectations of the industry, which in the process makes them feel guilty for even considering to speak out against their agency or multi-billion dollar brand.
Based on my own experience and observation, modeling and acting are opposites of one another in most ways.
First, there are no unions to enforce working conditions or compensation. That was one of the first thoughts I had when I was eighteen going from one casting to another during fashion week. Most of my friends who were actors belonged to a union, which provided some form of accountability and sense of community that I always felt that modeling lacked. Often at test-shoots (photo shoots an agency uses to build one’s portfolio), it is just the model and the photographer for hours at a time. If any form of harassment were to occur, most models would not say a word because their agency most likely recommended the photographer. While to an outside observer it appears as though everyone is working together, while in reality young models are left to fend for themselves.
When I first started out in New York City, I was required by my agency to set up test shoots with photographers. I was shocked when I was called on the day of the shoot and told by more than one photographer that I was to not to bring anyone with me to the shoot. The excuse from the photographers was often, “I find multiple people in the space distracting to my creativity” or “You’re eighteen now; it looks silly to bring adults with you.”
I ignored their requests and always brought my mom or multiple family members with me to a shoot. I was not afraid to push back; while I wanted to shoot, I was not willing to take off anything except my shoes or jewelry. I certainly was going to do my part to protect myself to prevent any potentially uncomfortable situations from developing. My boundaries were not up for negotiation.
Maybe that is why I didn’t have as much success in modeling as I could have; I was not willing to do whatever was necessary to “make it.” Overall, modeling was a beneficial learning experience, but I had no problem leaving it behind to pursue other interests. I understand that not everyone can or is willing to walk away from their careers or dreams, however, compromising one’s own values should not be a pre-requisite to achieving success in their occupation, even if that job is modeling.
Those who make up the fashion industry behind the scenes are no more at fault than the models who choose to stay silent on the issue. What they do not realize is that by not speaking out, they are producing images and advertisements that contribute to a societal perception of how young women see themselves.
As a sign of hope, not everyone is silent. In recent years, there have been some established models, designers, and others within the industry who have made attempts to change the current toxic reality. While their efforts represent a small fraction of the work that still needs to be accomplished, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
Bailey Ward is a former model living and working in New York City.