Belaboring Model Labor: Response to Vanessa Friedman
When I first saw the title of Vanessa Friedman’s June 25th piece for the New York Times, “Don’t Ban Photos of Skinny Models,” I wasn’t sure what to think. As the chief fashion critic for the nation’s most culturally influential daily newspaper, Friedman pulls an enormous amount of weight in an industry infamous for the opacity of its business practices. Just a year earlier, she had criticized the industry’s “[jarring] disjunction between reality and image” precisely for using the “distorted” physiques of teen models who “have the bodies of children but the height of an adult” to sell adult fashion. It is disingenuous, in other words, to use girls captured at that brief period in their lives when they are unusually thin as perennial aesthetic ideals for women. So why the volte-face? Why is Friedman now endorsing skinny models with all the cultural authority of the Times?
Friedman offers this simplistic rationale: we should celebrate all body types – skinny bodies included, rather than ban any one type, as the new mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, would have it. Never mind that skinny bodies are vastly overrepresented in the media, and that the particular brand of skinny celebrated by the fashion industry is not even an accurate representation of the models in their adult years. My main objection lies with Friedman’s push to isolate the issue of banning such photos from discussions around the working conditions of models. Working conditions “can and should be legislated,” Friedman argues, but regulating what kinds of bodies are or are not appropriate for public consumption involves a separate set of “subjective, and ultimately, regressive, assumptions about what constitutes a positive female image.”
Should we consider female images apart from the material conditions of their production? In recent years, a combination of media exposes, academic scholarship and labor movements addressing the age and treatment of model workers – from rampant wage theft to sexual harassment of minors – have finally begun to translate into legal action and bring into public awareness the very idea that modeling is a form of labor to begin with. We are beginning to recognize photos of skinny models as not merely images of body types to judge but also products of bodies at work – bodies working under particular demands of questionable legality, bodies that are or are not remunerated for their work, bodies that are performing a specific form of glamorous yet invisible gendered labor.
In their edited volume Fashioning Models: Image, Text and Industry (2012), fashion theorists Joanne Entwistle and Elizabeth Wissinger call this a type of “aesthetic labor” involving around-the-clock physical, emotional and entrepreneurial work in a cutthroat, freelance economy. To judge photos of skinny models is therefore to judge the working conditions of girl models. To ban photos of skinny models is therefore to take a stance against what has been revealed time and again in recent years to be endemic and deeply gendered malpractices in an industry that has gotten away with far too much, I believe, for far too long.
(Thumbnail Image Courtesy CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK/Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0)