Recently in an interview with The Times Cara Delevingne had the courage to speak about sexual harassment in the fashion industry: “I am a bit of a feminist and it makes me feel sick…It’s horrible and it’s disgusting. (We’re talking about) young girls. You start when you are really young and you do, you get subjected to…not great stuff…I think you get that [sexual harassment] in every industry, I don’t think it’s just modelling, although I think it’s worse in modelling. There are male photographers who go into it purely because of the girls.” Very few people have the courage to speak out about sexual harassment due to our shame culture. Many in the modelling world fear the repercussions- if they speak out they fear being dropped by their agency. However we are beginning to see models and those within the industry begin to speak out, especially since the Terry Richardson allegations.
Not to diminish the harassment of women, but it is also important to remember that men also face this sort of abuse within the modelling industry. One anonymous male model spoke out about his experiences of sexual harassment for Dazed and Confused:
“During one shoot for a magazine I was asked – quite unnecessarily – to strip down to my underwear so that the stylist could “look at my body objectively”. Later on that shoot, I was disallowed from wearing underwear under a pair of tight trousers – the stylist then proceeded to put his hand down those trousers to “adjust the fly”… Another time, I travelled out to Paris for Fashion Week and after a long day of castings was told by my agent that I had a shoot that evening. Cool, I thought. The shoot in question was in the photographer’s hotel room. At 11.30 at night. I was asked if I wanted a shower and, after several shots, if I would mind doing some “underwear shots”. Needless to say, I declined both offers – something I’m eternally grateful I did…On other shoots, there would be men present whose role was unclear. They would stand, leering at me and the other male models present when we were being dressed or having our hair and make-up done. At the end of the day, they would seedily ask if we 'would like to come for drinks.' A question which, according to my more seasoned colleagues, translated as “would you like to fuck.”…I’m sure I could have told my agency what was going on and I trust that they would have acted accordingly. However, it’s only with retrospect that I’ve realised that what I experienced wasn’t necessarily appropriate. In what other workplace would a man sticking his hand down your trousers be classed as an acceptable form of behaviour?”
Within the modelling industry it seems that this is almost a common practice, bordering on cliché. In Tim Murphy’s article, one anonymous modelling agent said that “there are variations on the story about the revered photographer who flies a bunch of models to an exotic or remote locale and then sends boys home or retains them, reality-show-style, based on their willingness to accommodate his late-night knocks on their hotel-room doors. Or the photographer who makes his models do breathing exercises and touches them simultaneously to get them ‘in the zone.’ There’s the late legendary designer who made all his male models pose before him, one after another, in the same Speedo. There’s the A-list agent who takes new boys into a private room for measurements and tells them they need to drop their pants.”
One of the reasons why sexual harassment is so prevalent in modelling is because of how young most models start their careers. According to the Model Alliance 54.7% of female models start their careers aged 13 - 16, as a result many are naive and aren’t sure what is acceptable and appropriate behaviour for they are either too young or weren't told. Therefore those within the industry can act with almost impunity and thus this behaviour is normalised. In the highly competitive world of modelling, many models are feel obliged to go along with what they’re told to do, otherwise they would lose their job. This makes people vulnerable. This situation is described by model Dana Drori (who started modelling aged roughly 15) when she explains her experience of sexual harassment:
“[as my career progressed] along with this gradual comfort came a gradual compliance with other people’s behavior. I realize now that the uncomfortable moments never really disappeared; they just evolved into an ever-widening acceptance of what was expected of me on set. I am in my early twenties and I still find it difficult to say ‘no,’ because it’s become quite easy for me to say ‘yes’… But one thing that I am aware of in doing my job is how often I am asked to be the one to remain professional and deal with it. When an important photographer asks to go for a drink, and my agent says that I should do it, I don’t say no. When a photographer makes a really crude remark about my breasts or my butt, I force a nervous laugh and try to pretend it didn’t happen. When a stylist takes it upon himself to rub lotion on my breasts, instead of letting me do it myself, I don’t intervene. When I shoot in public and have to endure a barrage of catcalls and degrading remarks from strangers on the street, I ‘ignore’ them. It’s a lot less trouble…In most other professions, there are very clear parameters determining right and wrong behavior, but looking at my career as a model, I realize that I’ve become the easy-to-work-with, comfortable-with-her-body ideal, and that I’ve broadened my own parameters of comfort to include moments that should make me feel squeamish, but now don’t.”
However the problems and sexual harassment and objectification are endemic to society, but perhaps more prevent in fashion (as stated by Cara earlier and Drori when she says: “I understand that models, by definition, are commodities; we are visual tools used to sell products”). Women, as well as men now, in advertising and fashion campaigns are now a means for sexual gratification. As a result these people are dehumanised and their humanity violently stripped away for they become objects (i.e. objectified) to please us or make us buy products. This almost allows sexual violence to be permissible since there is a fine line between imagining fantasy and enacting that fantasy, and since we see these people as objects we feel that this is their purpose, to fulfil our fantasies. It is also important to remember that when discussing objectification of men and women one must remember the subtle differences between the two. For women, unlike men, are not oppressed in our patriarchal society. This is explained well by Jamie Utt when he states that:
“[when a man leers at a girl] It’s more of an ogle, and it communicates a multitude of messages. It communicates that all bodies are available to me, that as a man, I control all space, and thus, any body that enters that space is mine to leer at and comment upon (verbally and non-verbally). My gaze also communicates that I have the weight of capitalist patriarchy behind me. Behind my stare exists an advertising industry that objectifies women’s bodies for incredible profit. Behind my stare is a political system that seeks to regulate women’s bodies outside of their control. Behind my stare is a pornography and media machine that communicates in nearly every single message that women are endlessly inadequate, weak objects and that men are dominant, in control, and powerful.”
Whereas men don’t have this history of oppression. Some argue that seeing a naked model is sexual empowering rather than objectifying, however there is a fine line between the two. Melissa A. Fabello explains it in the following way: [the difference is] “Inherent in the very words and their respective definitions is a disparity. Sexual empowerment is active. It’s ownership. Autonomous. Self-serving. Objectification, on the other hand, is a passive relenting of control. It’s powerless. Self-sacrificial.” But it is obviously very hard to tell whether just by looking at a photograph whether the model is sexual empowered or objectified, maybe you could tell by body language but again it is all very subjective. It would have to come from the model’s own words. But even then we are unsure whether consent was willing- as I stated before, some models feel forced into posing nude or proactively fearing their careers would be over. It is all about power, whether the model has the choice to do what she wants- think of the contrast between a model choosing to upload a picture of herself on Instagram verses a nude picture of herself for a fashion campaign taken by a photographer.
Not all is lost as some within the industry are trying to improve the current situation. Projects like Stop Objectification started up by designer Norma Kamali are encouraging more people to speak about their experiences of sexual harassment so that we move away from this culture of shame. She encourages women to upload pictures of themselves feeling empowered and proud of their bodies on their own terms. Like with my issues within the fashion industry such as ableism, ageism, sustainability and diversity we are beginning to see change. This change has been spurred on by changes in our society where an increased awareness has put the fashion industry on the spot. However as always we have a long way to go, but I want to congratulate those who have spoken out, whether anonymously or openly, about their experiences and this will hopefully give others the courage to speak out.
Written by George Toon, contributor for Erebus.