Glamorous images of models floating down the runway in tightly fit dresses and this summer’s tiniest bikinis circulate across various social media platforms.
There has been a serious shift in the last few years as ideas of wellness, positive body image, and self-love have begun to transform the ‘ideal body image’ women should have. However, there are still tremendous numbers of models and social media influencers that struggle with debilitating issues like eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse due to the unrealistic body image they are expected to maintain in order to hold onto their careers.
In January of 2017, the International Journal of Eating Disorders published the largest study ever conducted among professional models in regards to eating disorders and body image with the help of Model Alliance, Northeastern University, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Of the 241 professional models the study contacted, 85 provided anonymous responses.
The study revealed that a staggering amount of these young women have experienced negative body image or emotional issues due to industry norms. 64.1% of the models revealed that they have been asked to lose weight by their agency in order to book jobs and 31.2% have battled an eating disorder in their lives. One of the primary concerns is that the designers and agencies working with models continue to hold an unrealistic view of what these women are supposed to look like. Too often, models are pressured to trim inches off their waist or made insecure by comments about their ’round’ figures, ‘bulky’ shape, or minimal weight gain. They are expected to strip down and change in front of designers, agents, tailors, and rooms full of people at a very young age and are criticized for imperfections that are physically uncontrollable in many cases aside from taking drastic measures like fasting, dieting, and excessive exercise.
In 2016, Dream Models conducted a study that analyzed the BMI of more than 3,000 models from 20 leading modeling agencies. The results revealed that 94% of the models had a BMI below 18.5 and were ‘underweight’. Of the models surveyed, 98 were severely underweight, 1016 were moderately underweight, and 1739 were mildly underweight. Only 180 models fell at a healthy, normal body weight for their height and weight. In an every day world, these women would be encouraged to gain weight in order to retain a healthy, average bodyweight by their doctors. However, the culture and norms within the microcosmic world of modeling forces these young women to retain a less than healthy body image in order to stay relevant professionally.
These models go on to take the runway and appear in magazines with excessively thin figures, exposed ribs and collar bones, and thigh gaps. While this body type is natural for some women, most are very strict when it comes to their diet and exercise regimen. They appear in media campaigns that young men and women see on a mass scale that encourage the idea that this is the ‘ideal body’. “Of American elementary school girls who read magazines, 69% say that the pictures influence their concept of the ideal body shape. 47% say the pictures make them want to lose weight.” (The Development of Ideal Body Image Perceptions in the United States by J.B. Martin).
The stigma against weight gain influences body image and how young adults treat their bodies as they age. Young women grow up believing that wearing a size 24 jeans, shopping for size XXS tops, and wearing size 00-0 dresses is the norm. The majority of young people are unaware about the smoke and mirrors behind photo editing or don’t consider how apps that allow “Facetuning” can change the way people look in their photos.
With social media platforms on the rise and the increase of young adults gaining access to these outlets, it’s a major concern that young adults are learning at an earlier age that they do not fit the standards for an ‘ideal body’. In addition, they are exposed to a tremendous amount of input from other users that are commenting on photos. Pages promoting the ‘perfect body’, ‘thinspo’, and ‘diet tips’ push the agenda that their bodies are less than perfect and this follows young adults through their adolescence and into adulthood.
According to Body image development in childhood by L. Smolak, “By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.”
In terms of advocacy and sexual assault on the job, 29.7% of models according to the International Journal of Eating Disorders study share that they have experienced inappropriate touching on the job. 28% have been pressured to have sex with someone while on the job. Only 29.1% of the models who share that they were sexually harassed at work felt that they could share this major issue with their agents. Of that 29.1%, 2/3 of their agents did not see an issue with the sexual harassment.
Women at a very early age are being sexualized and treated inappropriately in a ‘professional’ environment by individuals who are exploiting their bodies and manipulating their mindset when it comes to what is appropriate or ‘normal’ on the job.
The study continued on to reveal that 60.5% of models share that their lack of privacy while changing clothes is a major concern to them on the job. 86.8% have been asked to change nude while on the job or during a casting call without prior notice or warning. 27.5% of that 86.8% posed nude because they felt that they had to in the situation or for their career, even though they felt uncomfortable with posing nude on camera.
In case you or someone you know is being sexually harassed, please know that sexual harassment is something that is important to speak up about. This issue affects women and men nationwide. If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) is a resource that’s there to help. It’s the largest anti-sexual violence network in the United States that helps survivors, educates the public, works to improve public policy, and consults and trains. They also have the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline where you are able to chat online with a trained staff member that can provide confidential crisis support.
The strict measurements models are expected to achieve on top of a degrading and potentially unsafe work environment calls into question the standards of the industry. Women begin their careers at a very early age when it comes to modeling. Famous models like Gemma Ward and Karlie Kloss began their careers at the young ages of 17 and 15.
The question is, are minors being exposed to a professional environment at a very early age that can influence what they believe is appropriate / normal and are they being put into situations that can jeopardize their safety. As Natalia Taylor shared in her video “The photoshoot I regret – Modeling Horror Story”, she felt that she was put into a position at a very early age where she was pressured to take over-sexualized and nude photos for a photographer that manipulated what she was comfortable with on set.
It is crucial that there is greater advocacy for these women in an industry that continues to force them into uncomfortable and unsafe positions. Though changes have been made over the years that edge towards body positivity and safety for women with campaigns like the “Me Too Movement”, we’ve only scratched the surface.