Should You Have to Wait Until 16 to Model?

November 4th 2015

Laura Donovan

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) just introduced the Child Performers Protection Act of 2015, which aims to increase workplace protections for young workers, including models. The piece of legislation calls for salary requirements, concrete hours on the clock, and savings requirements. Models also wouldn't be allowed to receive clothing in lieu of monetary compensation, and the bill calls for private recourse for instances of sexual harassment.

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“Working as a child model or actor can be an incredible opportunity and lead to success for a lifetime,” Meng told the New York Times. “However, the work can come with much risk. Although there are a patchwork of disparate state laws, these regulations offer inconsistent protections. That’s why we need a national standard.”

As noted by The Times, models and child actors are often exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, which created employment criteria for kids in America. New York and California have passed laws meant to further protections for child performers, but this isn't universal. While trade groups such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council have membership guidelines, they're powerless to enforce them.

Young models and exploitation.

This legislation could help avoid child exploitation in the fashion industry and beyond. Sara Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, started modeling at age 14 and detailed some of the seedy aspects of this kind of exploitation in her 2009 documentary "Picture Me." In an interview with Salon last year, Ziff said it's common for young girls in the field to develop eating disorders, get pressured into doing sexual shoots, and be taken advantage of financially. She also said she knows a model who was asked to get liposuction in high school.

"[Young teens are often] cast to model clothing that’s marketed to women," she said. "They haven’t really developed hips or breasts … They’re valued for that sort of androgynous, tall, skinny look. And so they’re often, you know, working in an adult environment, with adult pressures that they don’t have the maturity to handle. And they’re also pressured to maintain that physique, which in most cases is almost impossible."

Ziff, who said she was asked to pose topless as a minor for a modeling gig, added that models are at a disadvantage because they can't sue for sexual harassment as independent contractors.

"[L]ike any other freelancer, you know, we don’t have protection against sexual harassment, minimum wage requirements aren’t applied to us, and so on," she said.

Model Kate Moss began her career as a young teen as well and told Vanity Fair in 2012 that it was emotionally taxing for her to do a nude photo shoot for "The Face" at the age of 16. She recalls experiencing a "nervous breakdown" shortly thereafter.

“I see a 16-year-old now, and to ask[ing] her to take her clothes off would feel really weird," she said. "But they were like, 'if you don’t do it, then we’re not going to book you again.' So I’d lock myself in the toilet and cry and then come out and do it. I never felt very comfortable about it. There’s a lot of boobs. I hated my boobs! Because I was flat-chested. And I had a big mole on one. That picture of me running down the beach—I’ll never forget doing that, because I made the hairdresser, who was the only man on the shoot, turn his back.”

Cara Delevingne, who signed with Storm Models at 17, has also been candid about the dark aspects of modeling, which she's less interested in doing now that she's pursuing her true passion of acting.

“The thing with models is you get used,” Delevingne said during the recent Women in the World Summit, according to the New York Times. “I saw a lot of misuse from photographers, perverse photographers, to young girls … Poor girls who don’t stand up for themselves because they feel like you should be used, because that’s what models do."

Delevingne made similar comments in a recent interview with London's Sunday Times magazine as well.

“I am a bit of a feminist and it makes me feel sick,” she said. “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.”

The Sofia Mechetner controversy.

This comes at a time when the fashion industry has come under fire for parading around young models, some of whom are under 16, and Meng and many others believe this is cause for concern given the exploitation young models can endure. Over the summer, 14-year-old Israeli model Sofia Mechetner was the subject of immense controversy for opening Dior's show at Paris Fashion Week.


A photo posted by @sofi8937 on

Many designers and industry insiders have argued that models should be at least 16, which is the minimum age requirement for London Fashion Week models. Having been a young model herself, Ziff told the Times that Sofia's big break with Dior is exploitative and anything but a dream come true.

“It’s not a fairy tale, it’s a cliché,” she said. “It’s once again using girls to sell clothes to women.”

Michelle Tan, the editor of Seventeen, told the Times that Sofia is being sold as “a role model for the boldness of teens” even though she might have been better off waiting a little longer to pursue modeling.

“Teenagers are really ambitious these days,” Tan said. “You can’t fault Sofia for that, though I maybe wish she had waited a bit. It’s a reflection of the moment.”

Though aware of the fracas, Sofia insists she's old enough to make decisions for herself. Having been raised in a poor household and helping her mother clean houses at an early age to help pay the bills, she said she's beyond prepared for the world of modeling.

"I feel ready and I am not alone, I am being looked after, closely," she said in a recent interview, according to the Daily Mail. "They are treating me really nicely here ... They help me. So the fact that I am 14 years old is not really an issue."

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