Knowledge is the new black.
23 October 2014 01:46 (South Africa)
Opinionista Marelise van der Merwe

Thin models, thinner ice

  • Marelise van der Merwe
Israel recently passed the Weight Limitation in Modelling Industry Act 2012, also known as the ‘Model Act’ or ‘Photoshop Act’, which bans the employment of underweight models and governs the use of Photoshop touch-ups in advertising. But, though it may be a welcome change, it raises some interesting questions – not least, why we are more concerned about the world’s sheeple than the malnourished models themselves.

Let me be clear: I’m no fan of underweight models, and my first instinct when I saw that the hemming and hawing had ended and Israel had decided to pass its law, was to clap and hope other countries would follow suit. 

As an entertainment reporter in the past, I spent way too many years at Fashion Week dropping my jaw at the array of young girls whose shoulder blades stuck out further than their non-existent breasts and who were – literally – grey in the face from not having had a square meal in weeks. (And I mean literally in the actual, Oatmeal-approved sense.) 

Being the only person at the entire event who actually ate had its benefits, to be sure – I remember a particularly joyful moment where there was just me and a Lindt fondue in a room full of gaunt, disapproving Twiggies – but seeing girls who could pass for 14 voluntarily putting themselves in concentration-camp form put me off the whole sorry industry for life.

My concern, however, has always been for the models themselves, who are often under crippling pressure to alter their bodies to that degree. If they do not comply, they lose their livelihood and the approval of their immediate, most influential social network – a pressure which, you have to admit, does not apply to the rest of us. And if it does, then certainly not to the same degree.

In the coverage given to this and related issues – the thousands of daily media debates around body image vs. underweight models or celebrities – the lion’s share of the concern is always pointed at Josephine Public. Can she cope with this influence? Is she being given (with, naturally, an assumed passivity) a poor body image or an eating disorder by being shown such thin women? Are idealised images of models causing the rise in plastic surgery and extreme makeovers?

And certainly, these are legitimate concerns. But there’s a great, gaping gap in the conversation, too. In the ongoing litany of privileged-woman problems and the never-ending recital of possible influences on impressionable young women, there is never any mention of how the models and celebrities themselves are treated – the unethical way in which they are dehumanised, deconstructed and repackaged in a way that can be so deeply damaging to both their physical and psychological health. So here’s a reality check for Josephine Public: you might feel a bit insecure when you see a size zero woman on a magazine cover. But if you do, don’t buy the magazine, and move on. You don’t have such a raw deal. 

Models, on the other hand, are frequently treated like cattle. Not always, no. But according to the feedback I received from many of the models have I met, they are frequently treated as sub-human; a commodity, nothing more. And yet, in the eyes of the public, these girls are somehow to blame for the self-esteem problems of the rest of the world’s women. They are viewed as perpetrators, not as victims of the same system. And there’s something very wrong with that.

I can understand that if you are literally told, day after day, that you are too fat, that your hair is crap, that you are ugly (all of which happens to these poor girls) that you would respond by spending your days dry-heaving over the toilet bowl and hoping for the best. One model told me, when she was about 15, that a photographer had insisted she start using cocaine to get rid of “your big arse”. This girl’s Body Mass Index, we calculated at the time, was 15. (Normal is considered 20 – 25). It did not take her long to become a drug addict. The last I heard of her she was living in a drug den, periodically selling her body for sex because nobody wanted it for advertising anymore. 

Another girl, a few years later, took me along to a casting, where all I heard the agents saying to the models (all of whom were younger than 17) were deeply personal and demeaning insults. Things like: “Jenny, your hair is not working. Catherine, I don’t know why you even bother coming to castings with a backside like that.” These were all beautiful girls – allegedly the most beautiful of our population – but they were constantly broken down in the most publically humiliating ways. Many of them jumped through hoops to be thinner, better, smoother, more employable.

You might ask, then, why they did not leave. Many of them felt it was the best and, ironically, safest way for them to earn money (some of the older ones were paying for tertiary studies, for example). Others felt an extremely powerful sense of community with their co-workers: the groups they got to know became de facto families whose support and approval gradually became essential. The bonds, once made, were powerful and not that easily broken. Moreover, some of the models felt so worthless after some years in the industry that they couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.

So yes, I am as horrified as the next person by the brutality of the modelling industry, and I shout hooray for Israel for introducing some safety standards in a sector that has traditionally raised its girls on dust and Marlboro (if they are lucky). 

But – and here comes the big but – I feel this for the sake of the models. The models, I believe, need a lot more legal and social protection than they have. Many of them are, after all, under-aged girls – children, or little more. In countries all over the world, we have laws and ethics governing the use of human beings as commodities, especially when they are young. We have NGOs, interventions and legal protection systems; we even have these in place where the work is illegal – in the case of sex workers, for example. Globally, we have protective systems surrounding everything from child labour to the production and distribution of CDs and, where we do not have them, there is concern. 

But when it comes to modelling, advertising and entertainment, young girls are sacrificed on the altar of public opinion every day. They are left to try and survive a brutal, abusive system as best they can, all the time being vilified for “setting a bad example” to other women – some of whom are older and should be wiser, many of whom are showing them zero reciprocal sympathy. To all intents and purposes, young female celebrities are pressured, broken, demonised and left out to dry.

And sure, there is that issue of the effect of such media messages on impressionable young girls, but how much worse must it be on the impressionable young girls who are actually in the industry, not just observing its messages from outside?

So yes, I want laws placed all over the world to protect the health and wellbeing of models and other celebrities. But in the meantime the public, I firmly believe, should take a less myopic view of the issue. We should focus our efforts on learning to think for ourselves, and teaching our children and adolescents to do the same. Perhaps – and here’s a wild thought – we could even, instead of complaining that the advertising industry plays on our insecurities, stop supporting it when it does. Crazy idea, I know.

As consumers, we know that advertising has never been known for its searingly honest reflection of the world. (Breaking news there.) We know that the messages models are used to convey to us are usually a load of hogwash put together by cynical people who probably found that art didn’t really pay and realised that if, unlike the models they knew, they actually wanted to eat, they would have to make a move towards the commercial world. We know, therefore, that advertising has never been the the consumer’s friend. It makes its money showing us what we want to see. It plays on every human insecurity and offers completely unrelated instant gratification as the cure. 

But, again, we know this. As an educated and literate person, it is as ludicrous to let yourself be unduly influenced by the images you see of Photoshopped, starving people as it is to assume your R10 canteen burger will look as good as the picture on the menu. (I’m reminded of the time I was on the Shosholoza Meyl with my friend Bienne, who was violently ill after eating a canteen meal. “That’s the last time,” she rasped through whitish lips, “that I ever eat at a place that puts up pictures of its food.” Lesson learnt: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.)

We are shown what we want to see, whether we admit it or not, and the reason we want to see it is precisely because it does not reflect the average. This is a message we should never forget, and one we should constantly drill into our children. We need to take some responsibility, both for our interpretation of what we see, and for our role in creating it.

And we should take the time to recognise that, as spectators, we are luckier than many of the girls in the industry, who – if they work in it full-time – are absorbed into that world completely. The rest of us are surrounded and validated by average people with average bodies, who daily give us a reality check, despite what we may see in the media. Girls in the modelling industry, on the other hand, are immersed in a culture that expects something very different. They are confronted, every working day, with very real pressure to conform to an impossible standard, and if they do not, the validation does not come. If they are unlucky, they are re-socialised, churned up, spat out, and replaced – all to meet the demands of the very society that claims not to want to see them in the first place.

Idealised images of women (and men, for that matter) are not new. From Reubenesque, milky-skinned virgins to the smooth, gently curvaceous models of the pinup era, enhancements have always found their way into our art and entertainment. (By the Victorian era, fasting girls were even starving themselves, or being starved, in order to pass as seraphic beings – the most famous of whom was Sarah Jacob, whose parents took their emaciated child on tour for a small spectator fee.) We have always been shown what we believe to be beautiful. Yet, despite the pervasiveness of these rather questionable idealised images, the human race somehow found a way to maintain its self-esteem and not follow suit. Why has this changed?

Fact: no matter what they claim, people want to look at people they find faster, better, more beautiful than themselves – however those standards are defined in a given era. And both the advertising and entertainment industries will always pander to that. 

But as consumers, we should maybe stop bitching and moaning about having these media play on our insecurities – especially when we aren’t man, or woman, enough to stand up to their influence. If we stopped following the call, the tune would soon have to change. 

And in the meantime, instead of wallowing in self-pity over our inability to think for ourselves in the face of such messages, we should spare a thought for those who are directly in the firing line – those who stand there because we, as consumers, continue to demand it. DM

  • Read more: Why your McDonald's burger doesn't look like the photo in Huffington Post 
  • Marelise van der Merwe
MareliseBW

Marelise van der Merwe writes a lot about gender issues, which has led people to ask whether she is a lesbian or, worse, a feminist (at the very least, a sad spinster with a unibrow). However, everybody knows you can't judge someone's sexual orientation or marital status until you have counted both their cats and their Barbra Streisand DVDs. Duh! By day she is production editor at The Daily Maverick, and by night she is also production editor at The Daily Maverick. This means that if you spot a spelling error on the site, it is her fault. It also means she is up until the wee hours of every morning wrestling with the back-end to bring you each shiny new edition of The Daily Maverick. (You're welcome.) When she’s not obsessing over comma placement, she wires her heart to YouTube, falls asleep at parties (the hours are rough, ok?), or makes a mean butternut soup. She also runs a lot of half-marathons (slowly) and hangs out with her parakeet, Garp.

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