Opinion: Why children shouldn't be fashion models

Story highlights

  • Sara Ziff, who works to improve fashion industry working conditions, calls modeling a "grown-up industry with grown-up pressures"
  • She says children shouldn't represent the feminine ideal for women, and adults should model clothes that are marketed to adults
  • Models need workplace protections, they should be paid fairly, and children shouldn't feel rushed to work in the industry, she says

(CNN)Imagine hearing this in your first job interview:

I'm here to make money, I want you to make money. ... So if I don't get you, and you don't get me, then go down the street and just keep trying. But just remember that it is a business, and we're not mean, but the best make the all-star team. 'Cause let's face it: You're all a car accident away from never looking like this again.
Now, imagine you're a 15-year-old aspiring model hearing this message from a top agent who is credited with discovering Tyra Banks.
Not all talent scouts offer such harsh words to their possible clients, says Sara Ziff, a model and director of Model Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to improve working conditions in the fashion industry.
    But the message is clear, she says: The fashion industry is no place for children.
    "It's a grown-up industry with grown-up pressures," says Ziff, who started her modeling career at 14. "While I don't think there's any harm in doing the odd modeling job for a Macy's catalog, too often we see child models who are being catapulted into working as adults. And they don't have the maturity to handle those situations."
    With more and more young models appearing on fashion runways, we asked her to shed some light on how the fashion industry operates and why she thinks it's in dire need of major reform:
    The opinions expressed below are solely those of Sara Ziff.

    If their parents say it's OK, what's the problem with young models?

    Ziff: It's not good for the child and it's not good for the greater public for children to represent the feminine ideal of beauty for women. These clothes are marketed to women, not 13-year-old girls, so why is it (that) a 13-year-old girl is supposed to be the ideal?
    It's not good for the girl, because her body will develop and change, and if she has had success at a very young age and she's valued for her adolescent physique, then she will be pressured to maintain those measurements.
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    I have even seen agency contracts that stipulate that a model can't gain more than 2 centimeters on her hips. Now if you have a child signing that contract, that's obviously highly problematic. You're asking that girl to have an eating disorder.
    We should have adults modeling clothing that's marketed to adults, and if that means embracing a more womanly body type, then great.
    (Also,) anyone can open a modeling agency or say that they're a modeling agent, and there are a lot of scam artists out there. And obviously it's an aspirational business -- there are a lot more young people, especially girls, who aspire to be the next Kate Moss or Gisele than are going to get legitimate modeling work.
    That presents a real problem, because then, you find situations where adults who are in a position of authority and control are maybe not acting in the best interest of these girls who they represent.
    There are good people in our industry, but this isn't about individuals. There's a systemic problem in the modeling industry, and that is models' concerns on the job are unfairly trivialized and dismissed, and they deserve to be paid a fair wage for their work.
    They deserve a workplace that's free of sexual harassment. Modeling is not an inherently bad or dangerous job, but if you don't have basic work protections like people in other industries, then it's not surprising that some people are exploited or abused.

    Sure, but once a model gets hired, he/she is entitled to things like, say, minimum wage, right?

    Ziff: Models are generally treated by the industry as independent contractors, not employees. As independent contractors, models are unable to unionize (that's why we had to start the Model Alliance from scratch), they're not entitled to a minimum wage ... they actually lack protection against sexual harassment in the workplace.
    Models really are uniquely vulnerable, and I think people take for granted that in traditional employment relationships, there is some measure of protection that simply isn't there or at least isn't being recognized or enforced in our industry.
    Since the 1970s, modeling agencies in New York have insisted, "We're not talent agencies, we are management companies and ... we are simply advising the models on their careers. Booking them jobs is just incidental to the work that we do."
    And this is a loophole that is, frankly, totally baseless. On that basis, they have escaped any regulations.
    Talent agencies ... are required to be licensed, there's a 10% cap on commissions. The talent agency has to make sure that when they book a model on a job, that that job won't violate child labor laws or minimum wage requirements, and so on.
    It appears that modeling agencies are acting as unlicensed talent agencies, and they are escaping any regulation.
    These issues are fundamentally labor issues, and until the industry acknowledges that there is an employment relationship and that models are entitled to basic protections in terms of financial transparency, fair pay and protection against sexual harassment, these kinds of problems will persist.

    Hasn't the industry made improvements in recent years, though?

    Ziff: In 2013, (the Model Alliance was) very happy to work with the New York state legislature and the Department of Labor to extend child labor protections to models under 18 who previously had no labor protections, and we really see that as a first step. That law is not perfect. We still want to make sure child models have fair working hours and that there's oversight for that. We want to make sure that children are not sacrificing their education to the demands of the industry.
    We actually think that New York should follow California's lead, (which has strong) protections for child performers.
    There are still many states across the country where children who work as models have no labor protection, so I think there needs to be a national standard, and that's one of the things that the Model Alliance is working to achieve.
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    Regarding underweight models: There have been conversations within the industry about, "Do we need to resize the sample size?" I'm sure you're aware of this new law in Israel where there are minimum BMI (body mass index) standards and this newly introduced French legislation again that's sort of regulating models' body weight. I personally -- and the Model Alliance -- am opposed to that approach.
    I don't think that it's fair to ban healthy models from working just because they have a relatively low BMI. It would make more sense to make sure that models have access to doctors and health screenings.

    Why do haute couture fashion designers prefer rail-thin models? Who decided that look is beautiful?

    Ziff: People (in the fashion industry) will argue that clothes look better on a thin, tall person, and that a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girl is naturally thin like a beanpole in a way that a woman in her 20s, 30s, 40s is not.
    Now, why is that the ideal? Why are women ... aspiring to look like children? I think that's highly problematic, and that's something that I want to see change.
    Why do you not see a model who's on the cover of Maxim on the runway? Because it would be distracting (from the point of view of the fashion industry). The woman and her curves would get more attention and distract from the clothes, and ultimately a model's job is to sell clothing.
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    If you look at, say, a collection ... you'll see the same body type walking down the runway. Every girl is the same size. And, as a designer, I can see why that would be desirable, because then the attention, your eye, goes to the silhouette of the clothing rather than the girl's curves.
    And so I think that's probably why designers would say, "I'm OK with a variety of skin colors, and hair colors, and maybe different ages," but maybe they are less flexible with having models of different sizes in the same show.

    What inspired you to start advocating for better working conditions for models?

    Ziff: I started working as a model when I was 14 years old in New York. I had good experiences and bad experiences, and even though I was very lucky in my career, the bad experiences made me want to make the industry better for the next generation.
    I grew up in downtown New York City, and I was scouted several times just on the street walking home from school, and I never took any of these people up on the offers.
    I was just walking home from school -- I had my big old bulky, dorky backpack on by Union Square -- and a woman who was pushing a stroller came up to me and asked me if I was a model.
    She worked as a photographer (for a modeling agency), and that was the first time I thought maybe this is something worth pursuing, because she was a woman and not threatening.
    I would do jobs here and there, I kind of saw it as something that was better than baby-sitting.
    It was really when I was 18 that I started working full-time, and I was lucky to book campaigns for The Gap and Tommy Hilfiger ... and these big brands.
    So I was one of the lucky ones, but even still, I had trouble getting paid the money I was owed by my agency. I ended up leaving and got a lawyer to write them a letter threatening legal action. Ultimately I was paid, although one client who had declared bankruptcy didn't pay.
    At 14 years old, one of my first castings, I was sent by my agency at the time to see a photographer who told me to take off all my clothes. I assume the agency didn't know that I would be asked to take off my clothes. Like most castings, I went in with very little information about who I was meeting, the nature of the job and what would be expected.
    So those are some examples of negative experiences. They don't characterize my whole experience -- I feel overall that it was a positive experience, but no child should ever be put in that situation.
    And that sort of thing is what made me want to form the Model Alliance and make sure no girl is ever, ever, ever told to do anything like that. It's just not OK.
    And when you're a kid, you're young, you're eager to please, you don't know any better. I didn't realize -- it didn't feel right -- but in that moment, I didn't realize that I even could say no.
    Sara Ziff

    What would you say to a 13-year-old who wants to be a model?

    Ziff: Anyone interested in modeling should hold off until they've finished high school. When you work as a model, you are always on call to your agency, and bookings are made last minute (often just a day in advance), so it's not a job that you can easily juggle with high school.
    Some of the most successful models didn't start working until they were over 18, and they benefited from having a bit more maturity and life experience to handle the pressures of the business.
    Really, there's no rush.
    Don't spend money on headshots or go to modeling school. These things are a complete waste of time and money.
    Modeling careers tend to be very short-lived -- they're not actually even careers, they might just last a few years and then you have the rest of your life. I would say it's important to develop yourself in many ways. Some of the most successful and inspiring models, people like Christy Turlington, have been smart businesswomen, and they haven't sacrificed their education and they've always had a long-term view.
    So often, girls are valued first and foremost for their appearance -- not for what they think or how they act -- and I think that's unfortunate. A lot of models, when they aspire to be models, they don't necessarily want to work in the fashion industry. ... They want that visibility, and they see it as a steppingstone to financial independence.
    And those are all understandable ambitions, but the modeling industry, in most people's cases, is not the way to get there.
    What do you think? Tweet your thoughts to @saraziff @ModelAllianceNY @lisaling and @CNNOriginals during Wednesday's episode of "This is Life with Lisa Ling" at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Wednesday, October 28.